Since I last posted, I have experienced two more wonderful things about living in Israel:
- For the most part, the entire country celebrates Jewish holidays.
- For the most part, scientific research is a universal language.
Learning a new wet lab protocol and celebrating Purim (Jewish Halloween) by dressing up in costumes and drinking way too much because that is what the Megillah tells us to do probably don’t seem at all related… but I think there is more to the connection than just alliteration. Stay with me here.
Purim fell on a Sunday this year (which is the first day of the week in Israel) so the university was closed that day. Of course the festivities started as early as Thursday night, which left room for at least 4 days and 4 nights of parties, costume changes, and back-to-back hangovers. Coming from New York City, I thought that I had a pretty good handle on partying… but Israelis take it to a whole new level. My housemates and I entered the holiday weekend quite strong, with group costumes and dancing until the morning hours. But I only lasted 2 of the 4 nights. Even so, I was pretty proud of my stamina given my pathetically long hiatus from fun as a result of applying and interviewing for graduate school.
Because the university would be closed on Sunday, I decided to work remotely from my favorite cafe and catch up on reading since I am essentially teaching myself the immunology component of psychoneuroimmunology. As I was reading a dissertation from a former lab member, my PI sent me a text on Whatsapp (how most Israeli’s text) to let me know that if I wanted to come to the lab to do work he would be there and could let me in. I messaged him to let him know that I would be spending the day working remotely at home, to which he replied with a string of emojis (including various alcoholic drinks) and pictures from his Purim weekend. I think it’s pretty obvious to say that this type of casual and friendly exchange is not typical in the States. But in Israel, professionalism takes on a casual style that is pretty foreign and difficult to get used to. Luckily, the project manager that I work with for the healthcare startup company happens to live in my neighborhood and he was working next to me at the cafe so I was able to ask for his help in responding. He was like obviously just send him a picture from your Purim party…
I have always said that I don’t have a professional version of myself. In most situations I am the same person when talking to my friends, family, coworkers, study subjects, and bosses. My casual and authentic tendencies are translating very well in Israel and I am finding that this is having an impact on my work (here is where the protocol comes in!). I have wound up working mostly with a current PhD student in the lab who, like me, began her academic career in psychology and is now doing her doctoral work in physiological psychology. This is a huge perk because when she is explaining experiments and methods to me, she understands my background and is able to translate biochemistry-heavy concepts into explanations that make sense. Not only is she a great teacher, she is also letting me tag along with her to audit her classes (which happen to be in English!) in genomics and bioinformatics. And on top of all of that, she’s really fun to hang out with all day and lets me pick her brain about growing up in Israel.
Because the work culture in Israel is more casual than in America, I feel more comfortable asking questions and giving my opinion. This has allowed me to say yes to opportunities that otherwise would be extremely intimidating. Auditing courses in genomics and bioinformatics is one thing, but saying yes to running a wet lab experiment by myself without any prior formal bench-work training is an entirely different level of confidence. Admittedly I am a pretty confident person (otherwise I wouldn’t have moved to Israel), but I know when I don’t know something and running an ELISA is something I definitely do NOT know how to do. Sure, following a protocol is like following a recipe. You just go step by step, adding and removing various ingredients to a plate. But what if the recipe is in Hebrew…?
I know, I know. I have been taking Hebrew lessons. But conversational Hebrew typically doesn’t cover words like “pipette” and “reagent diluent.” So I did the only thing I could think of, I made my own protocol. I watched the 2 day process once and spent this past weekend writing up my own English protocol, including schematics of the experiment (I can’t help myself, I love a good figure — see below) and concentration calculations of reagents from this particular ELISA kit in order to know exactly what I need to do and how much of each reagent I will need to run one plate.
Sure, while it would have been easier to follow a protocol written in English, I am actually grateful for the experience of having to write my own. Writing a protocol from scratch tests your knowledge of an experiment and ensures that you actually know what you are doing and why you are doing it. One funny aspect of this though is that because I am learning these techniques for the first time in Israel, I am learning the names of equipment that I am unfamiliar with in Hebrew. So even though my protocol is mainly written in English, some terms are still written in the Hebrew language, for example, קלקר (“cal car”) is the word Israelis use to describe the Styrofoam egg-crate looking tube holder. Cal means “light” and car means “cold,” so I actually learned 3 new Hebrew words from writing an ELISA protocol!
I think the experience of celebrating Purim and learning a new experimental protocol within the same week is representative of Israeli culture. People here work extremely hard and efficiently, but also know how to live. They allow for a blending of personal and professional interaction, which I think ultimately enhances their work. I am looking forward to integrating this type of work culture, and my newfound scientific Hebrew vocabulary, into my doctoral training this Fall!