Roadside Science

Exploring science from the roadside and beyond

Lab Culture: A guest post by Jessie Abbate


Jessie graduated from UVA (the first time) in 2003 with a double major in Biology (BS) and Italian (BA). Focusing on infectious disease biology, she managed to serendipitously put her linguistic skills to good use working on a fungal plant pathogen in the Italian Alps, and eventually on the French side, during her graduate career. After earning both her Master’s (2008) and PhD (2012) from the UVA Biology Department, she is continuing her work on ecology and evolution of infectious disease as a post-doctoral researcher at the French National Research Center for Functional Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Montpellier, France.

This post first appeared yesterday on Jessie’s own blog, Lab Culture. It is the first in a series of posts that will explore the adventures of an American scientist working in France. Visit her blog often to read more!

How do you say “science” in French?

Um… “science.” But with an accent.

A typical meal at the French field laboratory SAJF

A typical meal at the French field laboratory SAJF

After graduating from the UVA Biology department a little over a year ago, I landed a post-doc position in Montpellier, France – home to one of the most lively research communities in Europe. Particularly for studying ecology and evolution, this is the place to be. Yes, yes, there is also the wine and the bread, and here in the south, the Mediterranean. But there’s more to changing continents than a new diet, phone number, and weekend destination list. In general, there’s not that much of a difference between working as a scientist in the U.S. and in France if you just consider the actual science work – you do experiments, you collaborate, you vie for grants, you present your work, you write and review papers. But there are subtle differences that either promote or impede this process, and a slue of things that just take a period of adjustment. Many of the unanticipated differences are almost so cliché that it’s hard to call them unanticipated, but some changes were either contrary to my expectations or just never even dawned on me. I hope this post serves to both inform those who are considering the pond jump and foster some reflection on how our own system works.

I think the single most fundamental difference between practicing science in the U.S. and France is the French natural tendency to compartmentalize work from life, and our belief that this division signals a lack of drive and dedication.

If you’re not a scientist, I bet you might imagine that ‘lab culture’ involves a white lab coat and gloves, and endless hours behind a microscope with stacks of petri dishes containing some organic-smelling growth. No social life. Lunch in front of the computer. Couches in the offices and showers on the floor, you know – so we really never have to leave. And sometimes, for labs in the U.S., you might be right.

However, in Europe lab culture is a warm sunny terrace in southern France, packed with people enjoying their 2-hour lunch break as others jog by or wish “bon appétit!” on their way to a lab-sponsored mid-day yoga class. While this scene is one of those clichés I’d expected, it wasn’t until it became my life that I understood why both of the U.S. and French stereotypes are both as true as they are misrepresentations of the whole picture.

The U.S. Science Model

UVA grad students enjoying the end of an afternoon's work.

UVA grad students enjoying the end of an afternoon’s work.

In my experience, entering an ecology or evolution lab in the States is like entering into a family. No matter what level you are at when you arrive, you soon know your lab director’s children, your post-doc’s pets, every grad student’s favorite alcoholic beverage, and the latest gossip about which undergrads believe their mutual crush is a secret. You may all come from different backgrounds, but you all have three things in common: you love what you do, you chose to live a life of constant challenge, and you know it’s wise to keep your collaborators close and your competitors closer. All jesting aside, the harder you work, the harder your peers work, and the more fun you all have when you finally allow for blowing off steam. Work hard, play hard. Together.

You eat in front of your computer because you’re either between teaching sessions or class, squeezing in some quiet journal reading, or more likely catching up on last night’s news satire. We don’t live in a ‘food culture’. Why waste 45 minutes round-trip to get a sandwich (you could have just brought with you) when you could be taking a quick run or swapping you-tube cat videos with your lab-mate?

What’s more, you’re never bored. Despite ‘geek’ apparently being the new ‘cool’, you probably moved in from another state and haven’t yet found your ‘people’. The lab is a perfect place to find out where to get the best late-night take-out, what hikes are close enough for a Saturday afternoon, and “hey, wanna join?” … you’re never at a loss for conversation. Work is not considered work, it’s considered your life and you and your lab-mates just love to talk about it. Sure, you talk about your personal lives and even bring along your kids on lab snowboarding trips, but an evolution reference is never far from being dropped. Everyone knows the best ideas begin on the corner of a bar napkin.

You are used to a string of people coming in and out of the lab all day: undergrads and colleagues asking your advice on a protocol, lab directors asking where we keep materials, friends reminding you there’s an 11am meeting then a 2pm talk, or to ask if your stack of grading has been as much of a nightmare as theirs. “Hey – you wanna see this new hybrid I just found?!” is usually a welcome interruption. After 5pm, when it’s understood that the ‘work day’ is over, the profs come out of their offices to share a lab beer, ask how projects are going, strategize about how to get a particular speaker to come visit, and maybe find out if anyone’s up for a movie that weekend. Collective decisions about who’s heading home and who’s going in on a pizza get made, and then the real science gets done, without interruptions from mentees, teaching, classes, meetings, or talks. Sometimes the show-and-tell still happens, but by then you’re just happy there’s another poor soul still on the hall at midnight. And a 10-minute long spin cycle in the middle of a procedure is just enough time to geek out together on gluten-free pizza recipes.

When we do need some alone time, we can always retreat to our own quiet places. You see, in the States, we have space. Lots of it. Every professor has his or her own office. Most post-docs have at least a proper niche, and even some lucky grad students do too. If you’re too busy for socializing, you simply close your door. If you don’t have an office, headphones usually get the message across. And of course, depending on the people, some labs are less boisterous than others.

The French Science Model

French grad students enjoying an evening game of pétanque

French grad students enjoying an evening game of pétanque

In France, space is a real limitation. Even those held in the highest esteem – at the top of their careers – often share an office with two to four people. And the walls are often very thin. Socializing during working hours is just plain rude. Even discussing work takes a bit of coordination. Whether an innate ability to throw the switch between full-throttle work and whole-hearted pleasure makes the work environment function, or if it’s something more recent that’s been born out of necessity, the French system has a sense of balance to it that ours often lacks.

That is not to say that the French are robots. On the contrary, they have a wicked sense of humor, are spontaneous, physically active, and know how to have a good time. They value their quality of life and are utterly incredulous that we Americans would consider eating lunch in front of a computer, even with friends nearby. For the French, life and work are rarely blurred. Sure, your inner-circle may emerge from those you meet in and around your lab. People who speak your (scientific) language and with whom you share at least that common interest. You may organize to do social things together outside of lab. But aside from that extended daily lunch, the operative word is outside of lab.

In the office, people are focused. They are efficient. They are visibly busy. Questions require advanced notice, preferably by email. While Americans might see the extended lunch period and frequent coffee breaks as a clear example of French malaise, gluttony, or both, they fail to realize the sheer brilliance in how the French earn these breaks.

The French work ethic puts us ‘workaholic’ Americans to shame. I see this efficiency as a result of an innate (or learned cultural) ability to compartmentalize.

Then 5pm comes around. Or 7pm. But generally speaking, by some reasonable evening hour, everyone packs up and goes home. Sure, there may be a panicked few burning the midnight oil, or some experimental people at the whims of their organisms’ needs, but for the most part, people have families. They have plans. Eventually, you get included; warm-weather week-days are often followed by a couple hours of pétanque and barbeque, and for the winter months you can always find a ping pong table (“table tennis”) and willing partner in any research building. People even have tiny little leather [table] tennis bags for their specially-ordered paddles. Lab beers appear, and before you know it, you’re feeling right at home. But you don’t have to rush back to get work done. Plus, you’re beat from a day of focusing and you’ve gotten used to needing a large meal every four hours.

Rest and relaxation is not something you plan to recover in some far-off binge we call a vacation, it’s a part of daily life and it’s taken seriously.

I once had a French colleague almost scoff at my suggestion we discuss a project over dinner. He just laughed and said, “We can talk now, but after 6pm, we will go out and enjoy the evening. Work talk will no longer be allowed.” There are of course some who are more “like us” – especially those who have worked in the states or England – who have caught what I now see is almost an hysteria of work-driven excitement, and we do end up discussing science during designated R&R activities. But it’s clear that this is not the norm. It’s clear that if you can’t relax, something is wrong with you. You are out of balance. And such an American. I’m not saying the French don’t work on off-hours. You’re just not likely to find them doing so in the lab or over a beer on a regular basis.

An American Abroad

As an American, the French lifestyle has required some adjustment. On the other side of this “The French Have Work and Life Balance Down to a Science” coin, it can be more difficult to get to know your peers and superiors. My best guess is that the two-hour lunch break is the place where the majority of lab-mate bonds are forged. Be it personal or professional, this is the chance you have to talk without disturbing 8 people and learn about unscheduled mutual interests. While the full two hours is not always exploited, people make a daily effort to eat with their ‘team’. Slowly, you piece together the details of each others’ personal lives, start to catch the inside jokes, figure out the location of that ping-pong table, and eventually you find your people.

Also, either through habit or by nature, by 3pm, my brain need a rest. A distraction. For me, it’s because I know I’m about to put in another 6 hours, give or take two hours to get home and make dinner. Not to mention I’ve usually just recovered from an hour of trying to get work done through the post-gargantuan-two-hour-three-course-lunch sugar crash. My North American friends and I quickly became aware of how low we had to keep our mid-day giggles. The solution: an afternoon coffee break, usually outside no matter the weather, where other groups could be found whole-heartedly discussing politics or… gasp… science!

The French may find it sad that we eat sandwiches in front of our computers for lunch, and we may be critical and jealous of their mid-day standards, but in the end I can’t tell you that one strategy is better than the other.

While I have found it hard to completely throw the switch, I have come to learn the benefits of work/life compartmentalization. I’ve found people who enjoy getting together outside of the lab to work on projects, and I’ve rewarded myself by joining the crowd for R&R on days where I’ve managed to achieve a desired level of sustained productive focus. It’s a new rhythm, a hybrid lifestyle. And I consider myself very lucky to have this rare perspective. More people should give it a try.

Obviously, the difference between French and American lab culture is not the only thing that impacts life and work when making the jump. There are language barriers, differences in training strategies, administrative nightmares that could justify Tea Party Republican paranoia, and holidays – Oh! the holidays! But the subtle differences you didn’t expect are often the ones that make the biggest impressions.

5 thoughts on “Lab Culture: A guest post by Jessie Abbate

  1. I read this while eating lunch in front of my computer at work. The French culture sounds particularly nice at the moment. I wonder if French lawyers work less hours than their American counterparts.

  2. Really liked the post – I’ve recently started my postdoc in Lyon, and I can really empathize with many of the things. Since I don’t speak French (yet, hopefully 😉 the 1-hour lab lunches are not quite as enjoyable as they could/should be and I’m often tempted to just eat my sandwich in front of the computer. Also, mingling with colleagues after work does not come easily (a problem I’ve never had before), because they really separate work and family…

    • Thanks for the positive feedback! I’ve had lots of my colleagues here chime in with their agreement too. I hope this at least helped you see that it’s not personal! : ) Also, if you’ve just arrived from the states (or Canada), I’m posting (as fast as I can) resources for administrative purposes – ie, when to be concerned about the carte vitale, driver’s license conversion, etc., on my website. The information is out there of course, but sometimes next to impossible to find – especially if you don’t speak/read French. Good luck getting integrated!

      • Thanks! I am actually from Europe, so by and large, the admin is manageable, although I have the impression admin staff are just not very efficient, and often don’t know the rules at all. I now go well prepared to every meeting, with printouts of the regulations, because otherwise they try to send me from the mairie to the prefecture or make me have my (English language) birth certificate translated etc. For researchers I have found the Euraxess site really informative with lots of useful info, and at least here in Lyon they offer free French classes as well.

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