In the Minority: Three Scientists Describe Working Outside Their Native Lands

The University of Oxford has a strong international reputation and attracts scientists from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. More than half of the university’s graduate students are from outside the U.K., with students coming from more than 130 countries, and 20% of its academic staff is from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hannah Devlin spoke to three young scientists about what brought them to Oxford and their experiences as ethnic minorities working in science.

From Morocco to France to the U.K.

Jbabdi left his native Morocco for France in 1999 to study applied mathematics at the École Centrale de Paris. Culturally, the move to France was not a huge leap, Jbabdi says, given France’s influence on Moroccan culture. The close-knit community of Moroccan and Tunisian students at the école also made the transition easier. “I did have some French friends, but I was living on campus, and at weekends all the French [students] went home, and all the foreigners used to hang out together,” he says. “After a couple of years, though, I had less and less North African and more and more European friends.”

Early in his studies, Jbabdi became interested in aviation and was considering research in this area as a career option. But his French tutor told him that he would have difficulty getting a job in the aviation industry in France. “Even if you work on nonmilitary planes, there are always military applications. The companies want French people–or at least Europeans,” he says he was told.

After that, Jbabdi avoided other areas of science such as nuclear energy that could present such obstacles. “That might sound like it limited my perspective, but I don’t see it like that because I really like what I’m doing” now, Jbabdi says. He stayed at École Centrale de Paris to do a Ph.D. in neuroimaging and later moved to Oxford to take a postdoc position, funded by the Dr Hadwen Trust for humane research, at the Centre for Functional Magnetic Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB). “I do feel lucky because I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing in my part of the world.” He says there is very little scientific research in Morocco and no labs dedicated to brain-imaging research.

Looking to the future, Jbabdi anticipates having to work harder than British colleagues to find a fellowship because, as a non-European, he is not eligible for about half of those he might have applied for. Jbabdi would like to return to Morocco but believes that at present it would be impossible to do so and advance his career as a scientist. “The big difference I feel between myself and people from European countries is that they have the option to go back to their own country to work, but I can’t do that. I can either stay here and do research, or go home and do something else,” he says.

At a time when international travel is a key component in a scientific career, for some nationalities obtaining travel visas is complicated and still more so when not living in their country of origin.Jbabdi describes the frustration of being offered an internship at a Canadian company during his time at the École Centrale de Paris, but being unable to go after his visa application was turned down. “My tutor was really angry and wanted to take the embassy official to court over it, but in the end that didn’t happen, and I didn’t do an internship that year,” he says.

On a more personal level, Jbabdi says his experiences at university and working in labs in both France and the U.K. have been very positive. “I’ve never encountered any problems with people working in science. I have the feeling in science [that] people are very nice to foreigners, maybe because there are so many of us,” he says.

New Field, New Country

After working in an investment bank in Tokyo for several years, Maki Koyama decided to return to university, choosing to go to Durham University in the U.K. “I specifically targeted researchers that I wanted to work with,” she says. She also knew family friends living near Durham, which she says gave her confidence just in case she had any problems in her first year at the university. Plus, it reassured her family in Japan.

She found the U.K. education system demanding–in some ways, more so than in Japan. “A concrete example is the number of essays you get each year–here it’s much more than in Japan, and that was quite a challenge when I was getting used to the language.” She was also surprised by the lack of language support given to foreign students at Durham. “Overseas students pay more but they don’t get any extra support. The university seemed really keen not to treat foreign students any differently or give them any concessions.”

Koyama says that there wasn’t a lot of formal support for ethnic minorities at the university either but that she received much informal support from the Japanese friends she made there. Being able to speak Japanese was particularly important to her. She also had a personal tutor in the psychology department with whom she had regular contact and who was keen to help her adjust to the system.

On several occasions, Koyama was made conscious of being an ethnic minority by fellow students. She describes an incident in her final year where she won an award for her master’s dissertation. “There was an announcement on the notice board saying ‘Maki Koyama–top mark in the year.’ The next day someone had crossed it out and written ‘must have been bought with yen.’ ” According to Koyama, the department didn’t take any action. “I didn’t have a great experience in that respect in Durham. I’ve never had that kind of problem in Oxford. Perhaps it’s because it’s more international.” She says that the experience made her work harder and strengthened her determination to succeed.

Koyama won an Oxford Kobe Scholarship, which are given to students from Japan for postgraduate study, and so moved to Oxford to investigate the way the brain processes written Japanese. “I was quite lucky to get funding from Oxford University itself because I couldn’t apply to a lot of studentships. … If I hadn’t got it, I wouldn’t be in Oxford. I’d probably have gone to the [United] States instead.”

Koyama would like to continue her research in North America and is currently waiting for confirmation of funding for a postdoc position at Yale University working on developmental disorders. Eventually, she would like to return to Japan but wants to establish her scientific career first, citing the hierarchical system as one of the reasons she would prefer to work abroad initially. “I want to contribute to young Japanese scientists in the future, but at the moment I’m just one of them,” she says.

Her advice to prospective Japanese students is to be proactive. “When I moved to Europe, I had to become a different person. I had to learn fast to become more assertive and critical. … For example, questioning someone’s conclusions at the end of a talk is normal here, but in Japan that would actually be seen as quite aggressive,” she says.

“In Japan, your teacher is your master. Japanese students expect their supervisor to provide a framework for them, and that isn’t really the way it is here. You need a very clear idea about what you want to do.”

Moving to the West

Moving abroad wasn’t the original plan for Nurfliza Ahmat. She had intended to do her undergraduate studies at a local university in Malaysia, and the twinning programme with the University of Arizona was her last choice. “I did really well in my A-levels and the twinning scheme”–a partnership scheme between the Malaysian government and the Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities–“was given first choice of candidates, so it scooped up all the best people,” Ahmat says. “If I’d turned down my place on the programme, I would’ve had to wait a year and then reapply to the local universities, so I went along with it. In the end I was glad I went, though.”

Switching to the American system was a challenge, says Ahmat. The American style of studying was more open, more interactive, and involved lots of teamwork, which was a change from the exam-based, structured approach she had been used to in Malaysia. “Obviously, there were huge cultural differences, too,” she says. Being part of a twinning scheme made the move easier. “There were 11 other people on the same scheme, and we formed a good group support for each other,” Ahmat says. However, she says that spending a lot of time together meant she and the other Malaysian students didn’t fully integrate into university life.

After graduating from the University of Arizona, Ahmat returned to Malaysia to do a master’s but found the experience of studying in her home country disappointing. It took her 5 years to finish her master’s–which Ahmat says isn’t unusual. “There was too much power in the hands of the supervisor. I saw cases where the supervisor kept piling on the work and exerted their influence to keep students from finishing. … I had the same problem as most people who go to a first-world country and then return to a third-world country. Once you’ve been away, you have very high expectations and get disappointed easily.”

The dean of the faculty where she was studying suggested that she apply for a Ph.D. in the U.K. “The idea was that I’d come to the U.K. for 3 years and then go back and work at the faculty. I applied to [Oxford and Cambridge] because that way it was a lot easier to get a scholarship from the Malaysian government,” she says. Ahmat was accepted to do a Ph.D. at the Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford and got funding from the Malaysian Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation.

Ahmat says she found it easy to settle in the U.K. and suggests its shared colonial history as a possible reason. “I found the U.K. to be a lot friendlier than the States,” she says. “People here knew about Malaysia and about my religion. In Arizona, I would sometimes feel like people were thinking, ’Why are you wearing that headscarf?’ Here, I felt really at home.”

But although the social side of the move to Oxford went well, living on the small allowance provided by her funding was hard. It was only 6 months before the end of her Ph.D. when she learned that other students’ had their studentships subsidized by the department. “In the end, I had the courage to ask the Dunn School about getting more money. That’s definitely something I’d recommend to students who aren’t being paid enough–there’s no harm in asking.”

After completing her doctorate, Ahmat stayed on at Oxford as a postdoc. “Applying for postdocs here, I don’t think I faced any more of a challenge than a British person,” she says. However, she also briefly considered going into scientific publishing, but she said she thinks that her nationality became an obstacle outside research. “I applied for a few jobs but didn’t get anywhere. They’d see that you didn’t have a work permit and automatically think it’s not worth the hassle,” she says. “Luckily, in the end, I decided to stay in science.”

Experiences of Ethnic Minorities in Science: Resources

Bouncing Back in a New Country