In May, graduate student Saskia Klink and faculty member Johanna Pausch, both from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, visited the Phillips Lab in the Indiana University Biology Department to collaborate on a project with me. In our increasingly interconnected and globalized world, such international collaborations in scientific research are becoming more and more common. As Saskia and Johanna are working on innovative methods to measure plant root and soil microbial effects on soil carbon and nutrient cycling, our collaborations offered opportunities to share technical expertise. Just as importantly, international collaborations are exciting and challenging exercises in cross-cultural communication and science diplomacy. Here, Saskia and I talk about our experiences collaborating together as German and American graduate students.
Adrienne: Saskia, as you know, I’m working on a field research project here in Indiana looking at how trees affect soil carbon by producing roots and releasing simple sugars into the soil to acquire nutrients (blog post). Can you briefly explain the project you are carrying out in our collaboration?
Saskia: I research fungi that associate with tree roots and trade nutrients and water for the tree’s energy. I look at how different groups of fungi affect the way that energy (carbon) and nutrients move within the forest. These fungi have a big impact on the nutrition of the trees.
Adrienne: Besides getting to share delicious Bloomington food and drinks with me, what is the advantage to coming halfway across the world to do this work? Why not carry out this field project closer to your home?
Saskia: You’re right, the food and drinks are great! Apart from these benefits, I think collaboration and sharing expertise is essential in science. It helps shed new light on research questions. A big advantage for my project is the IU Research and Teaching Preserve, where I can do most any experiment I am interested in! I am looking for forests dominated by specific groups of fungi and it is hard to find an appropriate forest in Germany.
Adrienne: What were the biggest differences you observed between your lab and departmental culture at the University of Bayreuth and the Phillips Lab here at IU?
Saskia: To me, the departmental culture in the Phillips lab and in Bayreuth are quite comparable. If you need specific equipment for measurements you can borrow it from other departments. One thing I am impressed by is how you do your field work. There are a lot of materials to carry through the forest along slopes and creeks to the sampling sites, but you are well organized so that everything works perfectly.
Adrienne: Thanks – I love getting out into the forest with a big backpack, running up and down the slopes. In addition to your time working with me in Bloomington, I know your department receives a number of visiting international scientists. Through these experiences, what (if any) notable cultural differences have you observed in both how scientists are trained and how they develop research programs?
Saskia: We have graduate students from China or India. Some of these students have the problem that their academic degree is not fully accepted in Germany. They must take classes or carry out a scientific project to validate their degree.
For visiting scientists, it depends on the country they come from. To me, scientists from China often have a huge human-power in their research projects. For example, my Chinese colleagues recently covered a huge forest area with a dark foil to analyze how the reduction of sunlight influences the forest – the scale of this project was impressive to me!
Adrienne: I’m looking forward to having you come back in Fall 2018 to continue our collaborative project! The beautiful autumn colors should be on display for you then. Anything else you’d like to share in the meantime?
Saskia: I’m already excited to come back in autumn. I want to thank you all for welcoming Johanna and me so heartily and making us feel like home. As you know collaboration and exchange is a key tool in science you are greatly invited to come to Bayreuth for scientific and cultural cooperation. Looking forward to seeing you soon!
As I write, we are analyzing data collected in the forest during Saskia’s visit and preliminary results suggest our method is working! We are trying to assess how fungi and tree roots contribute to soil carbon storage, and we have been able to detect changes in the isotopic signature of soil carbon due plant and fungal carbon inputs over time. Scientists are eager to improve such estimations of soil carbon dynamics to better understand how forests regulate carbon cycling and climate change. To learn more about Saskia’s research, check out her webpage here.