The power of being international

International collaboration and exchange give EPFL School of Life Sciences a competitive edge. But the coronavirus pandemic and a political initiative risk to hinder travel and deprive laboratories of international researchers and the diverse perspectives that they bring.

In 2018, EPFL Tenure Track Assistant Professor Johannes Gräff and his team published an influential study that showed that mice have to re-experience a deep-rooted fear to get rid of it. The study was hailed as “one of the most direct demonstrations” that the practice of getting people to face their phobias in controlled settings can help them to overcome those fears. But Gräff may have never set out to look at how the practice, which is fairly common in cognitive behavioral therapy, played out in the brain if it weren’t for a period of study abroad.

As a neuroscience student at the University of Lausanne, Gräff, who was born and raised in Switzerland, decided to spend a year at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. There, he learned more about psychology and attended lectures that inspired him to study a topic that is still the focus of his lab today—how modifying the “packaging” of the DNA molecule without altering the DNA sequence itself can influence learning and memory. “That was by far the most formative experience I have done,” Gräff says.

Science is a collaborative effort, and international exchange yields immense benefits to research. Severalstudies suggest that international teams publish a higher number of papers and receive more citations per paper than average. Universities and research teams with people from different countries also benefit from the diverse ideas and perspectives that individuals can bring. “Often it is all about finding a novel solution to an existing problem,” says Niko Guirlinger, a French student in Life Sciences Engineering at EPFL. Interdisciplinary, but also international and multi-cultural teams, can help finding those solutions, he says. Being in an international environment also helps researchers to communicate their work more clearly, adds Oksana Sergeeva, a Russian-American cell biologist who is doing her postdoc in the lab of Gisou van der Goot at EPFL School of Life Sciences.

Sergeeva, who is vice president of the EPFL Postdoc association, says that internationality is one of the strengths of Swiss universities. In 2019, 66% of people working at EPFL School of Life Sciences weren’t Swiss. With individuals of 49 different nationalities, the School of Life Sciences is a truly international department: 67% of its professors, 91% of its postdocs, 80% of its PhD students and nearly 60% of its Bachelor and Master students come from countries other than Switzerland.

“For a major university, having people from many countries is really important, because it can bring together diverse and complementary approaches,” says Anne-Florence Bitbol, a Tenure Track Assistant Professor at the School of Life Sciences who combines physics and biology to model the evolution of antibiotic resistance and understand how proteins work. Like Gräff, Bitbol also did several experiences abroad before starting her lab at EPFL. Born in Paris, she studied in France and did a PhD in soft matter, a field of physics that studies the properties of materials including foams, gels, and a number of biological structures such as cell membranes. For her postdoc, Bitbol moved to the United States, where she started working on proteins and evolution within an interdisciplinary biophysics group. This experience, which allowed her to interact with people from all over the world, helped Bitbol develop the questions that she addresses in her own lab. Working in different countries, she says, “has been very important for building my own research topic.”

Going international

Traveling abroad—whether for a conference, a research stay or a study exchange—can help to shape a scientist’s career. EPFL recognizes that, and it offers many opportunities of international exchange to its students. Bachelor’s student Eugénie Chabenat, for example, spent one year taking classes at Polytechnique Montréal in Canada. “Like EPFL, Polytechnique Montreal is a very international university, so I had the opportunity to meet people coming from different countries,” she says. “It was stimulating to work together and learn from each other.”

The experience in Canada also helped Chabenat to define her interests. “I have always been interested in learning more about artificial intelligence and its applications to biomedicine,” she says. For this reason, she used the exchange year as an opportunity to take several classes on artificial intelligence. “I enjoyed those classes so much that I almost shifted my studies to Data Science—this year abroad really helped me pinpoint exactly what I want to study during my Master’s.” In September, Chabenat will return to EPFL to start a master’s degree in Life Sciences Engineering with a minor in Computational Neurosciences.

As a student, being far from friends and family, and having to tackle complex scientific topics can be a daunting experience, but it often pays off. Take Bioengineering student Francesco Terenzi, who in December 2019 moved to New York City to work on an ambitious project that aims to use computer algorithms to uncover the evolution of prostate cancer. “I really liked this experience, but it was not easy for me because I had to work on a completely new project—I had to start almost everything from scratch,” Terenzi says. But the challenge helped him improve his technical skills and became more independent, he says.

In March, as Terenzi worked hard to combine different algorithms to infer tumor evolution in people with prostate cancer, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Terenzi, who was supposed to stay in New York for six months, decided to go back to Switzerland before governments worldwide started to impose travel restrictions. Back home, he found that the lack of in-person interaction made it hard for him to receive help from his lab-mates. “The most difficult thing was to discuss with them informally and get advice about the choices I was taking,” he says.

Others didn’t interrupt their stay abroad during the pandemic, but the lockdown made it impossible to attend conferences and meetings. For instance, Bioengineering student Manon Reist was unable to leave her home for most of the six months she spent at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. For her Master’s thesis, Reist developed a virtual reality (VR) tool to help students put into practice the knowledge acquired during a parasitology course, and she was set to present it at a conference organized by the Australian Society of Parasitology. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the conference was moved online. “With a VR module, the important thing is the user experience, which is not really possible online.” Reist decided to participate anyway, and she submitted a poster and a video of her VR tool. “I tried to make it as fun and interactive as possible, but the main part of the VR experience was lost.” Reist still had the opportunity to interact with other researchers during the online event. But, she says, “it's not the same as a good old poster session where people stop by and you can explain your work.”

Others agree. “As scientists, one of our missions is to communicate our research, either by publishing or through conferences, where we can reach out to other researchers easily,” says Rita Sarkis, a PhD student in the lab of Olaia Naveiras at EPFL. For PhD students who are about to finish their thesis, conferences are ideal places to find groups that they could join for their postdoctoral studies, Sarkis says. During virtual conferences, the interaction with other scientists is very limited, she says, and this could reduce the chances not only to find job opportunities but also to receive feedback about research projects. “What I enjoy the most in in-person conferences are the informal sessions, where you talk about your project and you get to see it from a perspective that you may not have thought of,” she says.

Restricting movement

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically limited travel and collaboration in science, with sometimes detrimental consequences, but even as governments ease restrictions, some in Switzerland worry about the future of research in the country. On 27 September, Swiss citizens will vote on an initiative that proposes to end the free movement of people with the European Union (EU). If approved, the initiative would restrict the mobility of academic staff and students and affect the participation of Switzerland in EU funding programs such as Horizon 2020.

“It would be a catastrophe if the initiative goes through,” Gräff says. “First of all, we could no longer hire easily European students,” he says. “Not many Swiss students may want to do a postdoc, so having a larger base from which we can recruit is important, in particular for some fields,” adds Bitbol.

Not being able to benefit from EU funding would be another drawback for Swiss research, Bitbol says. “If I had not been able to take my European grant with me to Switzerland, it would have been much more difficult for me to consider moving here,” she says. Gräff echoes this concern. “I was lucky enough to have a European Research Council starting grant, so the initiative would also have a big impact on my research money-wise,” he says. For EPFL and other Swiss universities, being left out of the European funding scheme would be “terrible”, Gräff says.

If the initiative is approved, access to Swiss universities would be restricted for many talents from abroad, and Swiss researchers and students would have problems developing their careers in other European countries, Sergeeva says. “Being able to take in people from other places and educate them helps to move scientific fields forward,” she says. “Restricting that would obviously be a detriment.”

Gräff notes that Swiss physicist Jacques Dubochet, who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2017, invented the technology that earned him the Nobel Prize in Germany, and then he brought it back to Switzerland. “Just think about it: if this travel hadn't been possible, maybe he would have never invented the technology,” Gräff says.

Accepting the initiative could also affect the competitiveness and prosperity of Switzerland, Gräff says. “Several big companies are located here, and if we lose them because we cannot hire internationally anymore, the economy is going to suffer,” he says. “That will impact everyone.”