Exploring the Genetic Capital of the World: Paris

1005766_10201856102464064_2133699754_nPamela Wax
Major: Biological Sciences I Minor: Global Health I HPME
Spring 2014

Tell us about your project.  What inspired your work?

Since I began taking French in seventh grade I have said that one day I would do genetic research in Paris, what I had heard was the genetic capitol of the world. This dream inspired me to seek out opportunities to do so this summer and I found this lab position through a series of connections. I additionally was very interested in observing the way another country viewed healthcare and scientific practices. I hoped that by immersing myself in another country’s research culture and by learning about the health care system’s flaws and triumphs, I would gain an understanding about a health care system I did not know that much about. Additionally, as a future physician I think that it is important to understand how other counties are handling all of the problems that come with health care so that we can develop our own system that best fits the public. By learning about other countries’ successes and failures and working together to weigh them all in, it may be possible to create a health care system that benefits all.

How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?

From a research perspective, I had expected this experience to be unlike any other I had had before, but in fact despite some cultural differences in the workplace, the similarities stood out against everything else. While struggling to express myself in French, I learned that most scientific words are cognates to the ones I know in English. I was using the same protocols and the same equipment I was familiar with from working in genetic labs in the US. Furthermore, all of the articles that I read to understand the lab’s work and goals were all in English and were published in American science journals. This realization taught me that the scientific community really has to work together. It is important to listen to and learn from each other despite what country we call ourselves citizens of since we are all deeply similar and may have great ideas or already implemented projects that pertain to our own country that may also really help out other countries. Collaboration is the key to success.

What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?

2013 Paméla et Nancy (13)-1My most meaningful experience this summer was shadowing in a major urban hospital in Paris. This experience was more hands-on than any other shadowing experience I have had in the United States and also in a field I had not been exposed to at all. I not only opened myself up to a field of medicine that I thought would not interest me (thoracic surgery), but this experience also challenged my thoughts and beliefs of the way a healthcare system should be developed and run. I had previously believed that a successful healthcare system should look a certain way and reach out to a certain public, and while this summer didn’t make me change my views, it showed me that there are flaws in every system and that every country’s physicians are envious of the way a different country handles medicine. This experience taught me, personally, that any field of medicine can be made into a very personal one and this has sparked my interest in surgery. This experience also taught me that every single country is experiencing problems in their health care system whether it is problems with legislation, not enough physicians, or the lack of communication between the administration and the physicians.

What was your most challenging moment, and how did you cope?

2013 Paméla et Nancy (9)-2My most challenging moment was definitely overcoming the language barrier especially while in the lab and hospital. I was not prepared to solely speak French in a scientific setting and had to learn how to ask scientific questions in a way that was understandable. I also had to learn the lingo of this lab (and laboratories in general – It took me a really long time to figure out what ‘scroll down’ was in French). I coped by learning to speak very specifically and by using hand gestures and expressions. “Je ne comprends pas” became my favorite expression, and I learned that it was okay! It is okay to ask questions and need clarification! Most of the time I understood the science but didn’t know how to convey that or to ask appropriately as a question but with a lot of practice and repetition I became a more confident French scientist.

Did you encounter any cultural differences that required getting used to?

484655_10201191781059662_1645904959_nThere were many cultural differences that took me a while to get used to. Some were simple ones, such as how medical teams would all eat lunch together no matter what position one held. I was so surprised that the head thoracic surgeon sat down next to me at lunch and asked about American Universities and then a minute later turned to her partner to ask about the status of a patient she had just removed a lung from. Other more complicated differences were social (it took me a while to get used to the two kisses when saying hello) or explaining uniquely American systems such as that of healthcare or education. The French didn’t understand the concept of being in university. French students interested in health care go straight into medical school, potential lawyers go into law school, and engineers go to an engineering college. Higher education is very specialized and there are not really any universities where there are many different kinds of majors. Working in an international hospital was also a great experience as there were physicians present from all over the world. One ‘intern’ was doing his residency in Paris but was from Rome and taught himself French in a matter of weeks upon arriving for his residency. In Europe there seems to be a collaboration between medicine and physicians and the language barrier does not seem to be a restraining factor for anyone.

Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern?

This summer has further sparked my interest in health care policy in addition to opening my eyes to a medical field that I had never considered before. As a graduating student headed off to medical school next year, this summer has further reinstated my drive to practice medicine and has made me excited to begin the long journey that will allow me to do so. I now know to look at everything holistically and remember that there may be another group solving the same problem a different way across the world, and that it may be helpful to collaborate with them and ask for their advice. I know to keep an open mind about different fields of medicine and that anything may spark my interest.

Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location? 

969900_10201270810955360_770581494_n-1I would advise students looking to do similar projects to immerse themselves in the culture they are surrounded in since this is what makes the experience unique and memorable. Speak the language as much as you can, ask the locals where they like to go, and don’t be afraid to just walk and figure out where you are going along the way. Explore, travel and document your adventures to look back on in the years to come!

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