In this month’s column, Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics and Imaging (CSTI)-Shah lab research trainee Thijs van Schaik describes his thoughts upon arriving at the Brigham and how he eventually became charmed by the hospital, the employees and the research environment. Van Schaik was born in the Netherlands and is an oncology masters student from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam doing an internship in the lab of Khalid Shah, PhD.
Arriving in Boston on New Year’s Day was exciting; the start of a new year and the beginning of a new chapter in my research career. I still remember my excitement as I battled the cold western winds during my expeditions through the city in the first days like it was yesterday. A new city, a new country, so many new people. And all every stranger wants to do is to talk to you, which is the American way of interacting, I guessed. However, besides the excitement, I also had a bit of anxiety. After the weekend, I would start working in a new hospital, far away from my comfortable social bubble and my existing network within Dutch hospitals. The thought of starting in a lab in this Valhalla of science was slightly intimidating.
Will they be using the same techniques as I used in the Netherlands? Will I still know how to use these techniques and perform experiments? Will my English proficiency level be sufficient to communicate properly with my colleagues? Will I ever be able to find my way in the maze that is called the Brigham? All these questions arose the night before my first day of work. Of course, it is always terrifying being a new intern, but diving into this big American adventure made me feel even more insecure.
Luckily, my first few weeks felt more like diving into a warm bath. The diverse and international environment didn’t make me feel like an outsider and all the people I met gave me an extremely warm welcome. This pleasant setting took away my nerves and insecurities, which allowed me to dare to speak English and open up. Although this was the case for general social interactions, I quickly learned that stressful moments could easily trick me into stumbling over my own words.
During one of the first big meetings, I thought I had an answer to one of the questions that was asked by the presenter. Immediately after I started talking, everyone in the room looked at me and I felt my head fill up with blood. The words started hesitantly tripping out of my mouth and most of the eyes around me turned into question marks. Nevertheless, with a bit of help from my colleagues, my somewhat clumsy answer was understood and it felt good that I was able to share my scientific thoughts.
Things were working out in the lab as well. I recognized a lot of protocols and techniques from the years I had spent in different labs in Amsterdam. With some minor adjustments in my handling of DNA, proteins and cells, I was up and running with my new project in no time. This made me realize that science is the most universal language we have. Despite the fact that techniques and standards slightly differ, the goal is the same: increase our knowledge and understanding of the world around us.
And that is one of the beautiful things about where we work; we are all working together for a better cause and communicating with one equivalent dialect no matter where we come from, what we believe, how we look or who we love through the language of science.
Although the pandemic has challenged us to communicate in different ways, from behind a computer screen or from underneath a facemask, I hope science still keeps connecting us all. Because every one of us should feel a part of this big team in which we are fighting the medical challenges of today.