Guest post by Mehrnaz Afkani and Parinaz Khalilzadeh.
In July 2021, as part of the Genetics Society of America’s Multilingual Seminar Series, scientists fluent in Farsi came together with a goal of connecting with each other and providing a platform for speaking about science in Farsi. This included discussing some of the issues and barriers facing Farsi-speaking scientists. With the continuous global domination of English as the “language of science” after 1967, scientific resources in English currently have the highest impact and are recognized as the most trustworthy.
Having one dominant language in science has offered the chance to exchange knowledge and share research ideas among scientists worldwide. However, it has limitations for non-native English speakers, such as difficulties with writing grant applications and research manuscripts as well as oral presentations in English. These limitations often lead to gaps in knowledge exchanges between communities. During the seminar, two themes emerged: the difficulty of accessing scientific resources and essential employability skills in genetics.
Access to scientific resources
During the seminar, the topic of being able to access English resources in genetics came up. Given that access is often dependent on which country you are living in, this makes it difficult for geneticists in some non-native English-speaking countries to stay up to date with the recent developments.
As Dr. Narjes Yousefi, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and one of the Farsi seminar panelists shared, one potentially fast solution is to email the authors of books or journal articles to request a copy. This solution has the added benefit of sometimes leading to collaboration. “In my master’s study, I found out that most of the articles that I was reading were from one person who did similar studies to mine on a larger scale,” Yousefi said. “So, I contacted him by email and told him that I am doing a similar study in northern Iran. I asked for some of his papers because, at that time, they were not accessible in Iran. Then, I asked him to become my committee member, and he accepted. He helped me tremendously through my work.”
Essential employability skills in genetics
The majority of participants in the Farsi seminar were students who were eager to continue their education at the graduate level, but were concerned their skills and knowledge were not good enough, which would limit their chance to obtain a graduate position. When a student interested in genetics pursues a bachelor’s or graduate degree, they learn a general knowledge of heredity. Students also have the opportunity to enhance soft skills and gain field, laboratory, and analytical skills. However, universities’ resources in the field act like a mirror, reflecting the education quality, unique curriculum, and well-equipped laboratories, which all raise the opportunity of getting a well-paid job.
Most of the highly equipped universities are in native English-speaking countries. Although these universities and their biology/genetics faculties are open to international students, competition is high, especially at the graduate level. This means that the difference between educational systems of developed and less-developed countries, the dominance of English language in these universities, and the availability of limited graduate-level spots can discourage some candidates. In some cases, the original country’s economic condition limits their chance in learning the most recent changes of essential skills in the genetics world.
Our panelists, Dr. Mohammad Reza Akbari, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, and Dr. Mojgan Padash, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Oklahoma, both shared what their expectations were for students who wanted to pursue a graduate degree in their research group. Neither expect their incoming graduate students to know specific skills and methods. “Graduate students spend the first few months of graduate school learning essential methods for their projects. However, there are some basic things that everyone interested in genetics should know about, like DNA extraction and PCR (polymerase chain reaction),” Akbari said. Dr. Padash agreed and added that pipetting is also another fundamental skill that the student is expected to know. Every panelist agreed that at the personality level, having the right attitude toward problem solving and the drive to learn is essential.
Dr. Ahmad Reza Katouzian, who is a professional biologist of the Alberta Society of Professional Biologists (ASPB), added that it is important to be familiar with sampling methods. “If you do fieldwork, one of your hurdles will be getting your samples to the laboratory. You will need to keep this in mind for designing your project,” Katouzian said. As for analytical skills in a graduate genetic project, Dr. Narjes Yousefi suggested that it is a good idea to learn the basics of command line and programming languages such as R or Python. “Just like for learning the English language, put a specific time aside to learn bioinformatics,” Yousefi said.
Seminar attendees were also interested in the job market. In general, in the field of genetics, there are more job opportunities outside academia than there are within. With their experience in laboratory work, genetics students will have the opportunity to join companies that do laboratory-based work after graduation. Having bioinformatics skills enhances the chance of being hired in different biological companies.
Existing bias in the scientific community leads to lesser engagement of non-native English-speaking geneticists. Two critical concerns for participants in the Farsi seminar were accessibility to genetics resources and limitations in learning fundamental skills. After the event, we had requests from participants to continue holding seminars and workshops on different topics such as how to write a scientific paper in English, available funds for international students, recent sequencing techniques as well as teaching programming languages such as R and Python. This is evidence that the drive to learn about genetics as a career path is strong and programs like the multilingual seminar series help people, especially incoming students, connect people with the same native language, so they can learn how to navigate scientific resources and skills.
Special thanks to Rachel Fairbank for helping review this piece and to Jessica Velez for initiating the multilingual seminar series.
About the authors:
Mehrnaz Afkani is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma whose research focuses on evolution and neurogenetics. Her research uses the Drosophila melanogaster species complex to look at the female response toward the novel trait in the males called the posterior lobe. She got her master’s degree in Biosystematics from University of Tehran working on intertidal crabs. Her student group at OU, STEM Inclusion Council (SIC!), co-hosts a free coding workshop with a group of graduate students at the Miami University of Ohio.
Parinaz Khalilzadeh is a conservation geneticist. She is doing her second master’s at Laurentian University, Canada. Her research focuses on genetic monitoring of wild and reintroduced northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) populations: optimization of a slow recovery. Khalilzadeh completed her first master’s degree in biodiversity and habitats at Gorgan University, Iran, where she studied the genetic diversity of the Iranian wild boar Sus Scrofa.