What I learned by leaving my comfort zone


I never thought I would venture far from home. I was a mediocre high school student from a working-class family, and I didn’t think traveling the world was in the cards for me. For my undergrad degree, I only applied to universities within an hour of my hometown in the United Kingdom. When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I stayed at the same university. I still wasn’t convinced I was a great student (even though I was near the top of my class), and staying seemed like the safe option. It allowed me to remain close to friends, and I was familiar with the department, which put me in a good position to pick my supervisor wisely. A few years later, as I was considering a postdoc, I was tempted to once again stay close to home, in the comfort of my Ph.D. lab. My experience there had been very positive, and previous doctoral students had stayed on, so why shouldn’t I? It would have been so easy. But I hope to run my own lab one day, and I knew that seeing a different approach to science would be valuable.

I heard about a fellowship program in Japan that sounded like a good fit. I had always been interested in Japan, and the flexibility of the program appealed to me. I could choose the institution where I would work, the research I would conduct, and how long I would be there—from as little as a month to as much as a year.

I decided that, if I were accepted, I would stay for 3 months—long enough to experience a new place, learn, and get some research done, but short enough to make the prospect less intimidating. I thought of it almost as a holiday, somewhat like going to a conference in an interesting far-off place.

But when I was accepted, the head of the group I was going to join wanted me to stay for the full year. I hesitated. I was excited about the research and the opportunity to learn and experience a new environment. But the thought of being so far from home for so long made me anxious. I didn’t speak any Japanese. I wouldn’t know anyone. Would I be miserable?

After much deliberation, I worked up my courage and signed on for the year—knowing that, if things went badly, I could come home earlier.

Almost everything was different from what I was used to. Even commuting to lab and shopping for groceries were so unfamiliar that I found myself constantly taking out my phone to snap pictures, like a tourist. In the lab, too, the practices and culture were new to me. The expected working hours were different. Lab technicians did much of the work that I was accustomed to doing myself. In group meetings, questions were restricted to the end, as opposed to the more open structure of my old lab. Many of my new colleagues were not native English speakers and came to me for language help, which was a new experience for me.

I knew that seeing a different approach to science would be valuable.

But getting used to these differences was easier than I had expected. One of my favorite new routines was going out to lunch with my labmates. Back in the United Kingdom, going out was too expensive, so I usually packed my lunch and ate it in my office. In Japan, on the other hand, eating out is common and offers a great bonding opportunity.

My new co-workers came from all over the world, primarily across Asia. My previous lab had also been international, but most of my colleagues there were from Europe and China. Talking with my new colleagues about their experiences conducting research and garnering funding in other countries and scientific cultures helped open my eyes to new ways of doing things.

After my fellowship, I thought I would leave Japan to do a postdoc elsewhere. But when my fellowship adviser offered me a longer-term position in his lab, I couldn’t say no. This time, though, it wasn’t because I was afraid to go somewhere new. It was because I wanted to take advantage of an exciting opportunity. After the leap I took with my fellowship, I now feel I can do anything.

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