Posted by: Jill | September 30, 2011

Scientists are friendly, too

We went to Brazil for two reasons. The first was scientific: our team had a long list of research questions to ask about the Abrolhos reefs. The second reason was slightly more nuanced: we wanted to build relationships and create opportunities for science that crosses international boundaries.

It was easy to see that we were doing the science part well. We were collecting samples, recording data, and running successful experiments. But how do you measure collaboration? How can you tell when you have definitively formed a relationship? Here are a couple of good signs:

  • Ronaldo, our Brazilian chief scientist, speaks excellent English. But when he mixes up the word for ‘napkin’ and asks someone at the breakfast table if they would please pass him a kidnap, this quickly becomes the most hilarious joke that anyone can make (“hey, do you need a kidnap?” “we are out of kidnaps!” “there are lot of kidnappers at this table..” etc.)
  • Tali, a San Diego grad student, offers to help collect Christmas Tree Worms for Genie, a Colombian grad student. During one very long dive, Tali successfully digs two worms out of the reef. Afterwards, the American and the Colombian students happily commiserate over how difficult it is to dig a fragile worm out of its solid rock house.
  • I ask how I can identify coral disease underwater, and Brazilian grad student Pedro offers to dive with me. He is collecting samples of diseased corals, and my interest in the algae that grows on sick corals is a nice counterpart.
  • We operate in English because the Americans, predictably, know very little Portuguese. But the entire Brazilian contingent pitches in to ensure that we can each correctly pronounce the critical phrase ‘quero cerveja.” At the end of a long day, Tali delights that she has uttered her first complete sentence in Portuguese!
  • The ultimate cross-cultural norm is that graduate students are fair game. No matter the nationality, it is completely acceptable — and usually expected — that advisors will poke fun at their students. Ronaldo (professor) asks when Gustavo’s (post doc) experiment will be finished, because after that Gustavo is useless and they will probably just chuck him overboard. The ship is too crowded, anyway. Later, I offer to refill Liz’s (professor) coffee only to find that the thermos is empty, and she threatens to not bring me on any more of these wonderful trips. I scramble to bring her a fresh cup! Tali (student) writes down Portuguese phrases to help her navigate the complicated ferry/taxi/bus/train trip back to the airport, and Ronaldo teases that the phrases will actually get her sent to the middle of the Amazon. Or she may be napkined!

By the end of the short trip, the mood was relaxed and friendly. We headed back to our home institutions to process samples and analyze spreadsheets, and in a few weeks we will know whether or not the science was worthwhile. But the part where we tried to become friends? That part was definitely a success.

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  1. […] how one of the goals of my last trip to Brazil was to build collaborations with Brazilian colleagues? Challenge accepted. Tomorrow I return to […]


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