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Cover Story

September 13, 2010
Volume 88, Number 37
pp. 53 - 54

An Office Across The Ocean

Seizing unique opportunities, u.s. professors set up shop abroad

Bethany Halford

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While her students sleep, Joan S. Valentine is hard at work—writing grant proposals, revising manuscripts, and troubleshooting experimental problems. It’s not insomnia that’s got the chemistry professor working so hard while her pupils slumber; rather it’s a 14-hour time difference.

For four months each year, Valentine leaves her lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, to teach and mentor students at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea. She is one of a handful of chemistry professors whose working lives have come to reflect the global nature of the chemical enterprise. These scientists don’t just have collaborators in foreign countries. They’ve set up shop with labs or research projects based in far-flung locations while maintaining their U.S.-based laboratories.

Those who join this academic chemistry jet-set do so to different degrees. Some take up an adjunct faculty position at a foreign school while others split their time evenly between a university in the U.S. and one abroad. A couple of chemists have even accepted top posts at foreign research institutes: Chi-Huey Wong of the Scripps Research Institute, in La Jolla, Calif., has been president of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica since 2006, and this past spring Jean Fréchet of the University of California, Berkeley, was appointed vice president for research at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology, in Saudi Arabia (C&EN Online Latest News, March 12).

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There are, of course, unique challenges when your offices are separated by an ocean. Some are practical: jet lag, effectively managing all your students, and maintaining a consistent family life. While others are cultural: trying to sidestep the inevitable cultural faux pas. But these globe-trotting chemists tell C&EN that despite the challenges, the experience has been enormously rewarding.

Valentine was wooed into joining the faculty at Ewha by Wonwoo Nam, a professor at the university who was once her student. He encouraged her to participate in South Korea’s World Class University (WCU) program, which brings academics of all stripes to the country. There they spend four months of the year, for three to five years, teaching and doing research.

Valentine is currently doing her second four-month stint at Ewha. “It’s a cool place to be right now for me both scientifically, because I really like the science we’re doing in this laboratory, but also on the level of mentoring young women who are very smart and very excited about science,” she says.

In addition to teaching at Ewha, Valentine has several research projects in collaboration with faculty members there. Some of that work also ties in with projects at her lab back at UCLA. “It essentially extends resources to my research effort,” she explains.

“With modern communication,” managing the research effort back home “is simply not that difficult,” Valentine says. “We instant message a lot, and also of course, e-mail.” She holds video-linked group meetings using Skype. The timing actually works out pretty well. When it’s 9 AM in Seoul, it’s 5 PM in Los Angeles, so Valentine is just starting up her day as her UCLA students are winding down.

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“There’s an advantage to being out of phase with your lab,” she points out. “They can e-mail you stuff at the end of their day, then you’ve got your day to work on it and you get it back to them when they’re starting their next day. It’s actually pretty efficient. We work around the clock, essentially.” But everyone gets a full night’s sleep. In many ways, Valentine confesses, it’s easier to stay on top of her students’ work when she’s away from UCLA than when she’s there because distractions are fewer.

Participation in such programs is generally considered off the beaten path for scientists, says Jonathan L. Sessler, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who is participating in the WCU program at Yonsei University, where he is primarily working with chemistry professor Dungho Kim. Conducting research abroad doesn’t necessarily help one win awards or climb the ladder of professional success.

“This is serious business though,” Sessler says. “The price in terms of my own research group and my own family doesn’t justify it for just a learning experience at this age and this stage in my career.” For example, during his extended stays in South Korea, his wife effectively becomes a single parent.

“This is not good timing personally, but it’s a unique opportunity,” Sessler says. “We’re really trying to blend two different kinds of science”—supramolecular chemistry and ultrafast spectroscopy—at a level that hasn’t been done before, he says. “To push science that’s really new, you need the benefits that come from detailed conversations, from group meetings, and from interactions with students,” Sessler adds; you can’t just send a sample by mail and chat about it.

Both Sessler and Valentine have found working and living in a foreign culture to be challenging but also enormously fun. “You have to come with a certain level of humility and a willingness to learn as well as a sociological appreciation for things being different,” Sessler says.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings simply from coming from different cultural backgrounds,” Valentine says. For example, “Americans are very direct, and in the Korean culture it can be very impolite to be so direct.” But, she adds, “I think that’s one of the things that a program like this can help to address.”

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Fitting into a foreign culture wasn’t an issue, however, for University of Chicago chemical biology professor Chuan He when he took on the role of adjunct professor at China’s Peking University 18 months ago. In fact, He grew up in China and his parents still live there.

Native-born Chinese with faculty positions in the U.S. often have some affiliation with a university back in China, He notes. These positions, however, tend to be informal. The professor will visit, give a talk, and then head back to the U.S. “It’s almost impossible for people like me to not have any attachment to a university in China,” he says.

But He’s role at Peking University is more involved than such drop-in professorships, he says. “I wanted to be able to contribute and do something useful.” He visits several times a year, cosupervises students with faculty there, and has a hand in helping the burgeoning chemical biology department grow. “Whenever I am there, we have joint meetings discussing collaborations and I talk to students about their problems,” he explains.

He believes the appointment also gives the University of Chicago an inroad into China. “I’m like a bridge, helping to bring in the next generation of faculty, to foster collaborations, and to open up new research areas,” he says. “It’s a rewarding experience.”

“With modern communication,” managing the research effort back home “is simply not that difficult.”

Rewarding is the same word Chi-Huey Wong uses to describe his experience as president of Academia Sinica. “When I was at Scripps I focused more on my own interests,” he says. Taking the position in Taiwan gave him the chance to collaborate with several groups and tackle bigger problems. “I also have the opportunity to see a lot of important figures in the world because they come to visit Academia Sinica, so I have a better understanding about many important issues—such as energy and global warming—not just those related to my field.”

Wong was elected to the position by Taiwan’s national academy of sciences in 2006, and he spent several months considering the job. “It’s a very challenging position,” he says. As president of Academia Sinica, he oversees the school’s 8,000 research members, including 900 principal investigators, and he manages an annual budget of $450 million. He also advises the Taiwanese government on scientific issues.

“I wondered if I would have time to continue my research, which is my major interest,” Wong says. Slowly, he shifted his research operations to Taiwan. Now, unlike Valentine, Sessler, and He, Wong primarily works outside the U.S. He estimates that less than 20% of his time is spent at Scripps, where he still has a lab of five researchers. His lab at Academia Sinica, on the other hand, has more than 50 scientists.

“If I had to manage two labs equally, I think I would have problems,” Wong says. “It would be very difficult to do that.”

When you do manage two labs equally, “all the effort doubles,” says Josef Michl. This year Michl began splitting his time evenly between two schools, running one research group of about a dozen people at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and another of similar size at the Institute of Organic Chemistry & Biochemistry, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, in Prague.

“I have had contacts in Prague for a long time,” Michl says. “I was born there and lived there until the Russian invasion in 1968. After the regime change I started collaborations with quite a few groups in the country.” Eventually, Michl said, colleagues in Prague asked whether he had any interest in an appointment there.

Michl says the motivation for taking the post in Prague was both scientific and emotional. “Scientifically, it looked like a very nice opportunity with excellent research support. Emotionally, it was a way to recognize what I got from people in that country when I was a pupil. If there is a small way I can pay back the advantages and the nice treatment I received when I was a student in Prague, it pleases me.”

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Rather than spend six months in the U.S. and six months in Europe, Michl travels across the Atlantic Ocean about eight times per year. “I am jet-lagged almost all the time,” he jokes. “It’s not as bad as you might think. When I come back from Prague I may be waking up at 3 AM for a week or two, but I can tell you that between 3 AM and 7 AM you can get an awful lot done—much more than you can between noon and 4 PM.”

Michl keeps on top of his students’ research by requiring them to submit a short but detailed research report each week. He then discusses the work with each student, offering suggestions and new directions, either in person or via e-mail. “People are expected to do a lot on their own and become independent,” Michl adds. “I’m not the type of person who goes into the lab twice a day asking, ‘What have you done lately?’ ”

Because many of the projects in both labs are related, Michl often sends students from Boulder to Prague or vice versa. “This is, I believe, particularly today in the age of globalization, a very valuable experience. I think there are some distinct advantages to an arrangement that allows you to do this easily,” he says.

“It is an extremely valuable experience to go and work in another culture,” Michl continues. “There is only one science all over the world, but the way it is approached is not the same everywhere. If a student wants to become aware of what the rest of the world looks like, it terrific to be able to spend some time abroad.”

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