In the United States, researchers like me are hired by universities and given the job title of Assistant, Associate or Full Professor. At major research universities, like the University of Alabama at Birmingham (Go Blazers!), it is expected that in addition to teaching, you will also do research to advance your field and service to advance the community. It is possible to get a research professorship job where the primary responsibility is to conduct research. This was the method used to hire me 10 years ago. Basically that means that although I am employed as a professor (technically an Associate Professor) at UAB, I am required to obtain outside grant funding to cover 95% of my salary. Failure to do so will result in my looking for another job. Yikes, right? But the benefit is I get to do what I love as long as I can write convincingly and demonstrate that the research is worthy of funding.
Most of my funding comes from funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which is the portion of the US federal government that funds medical research. In France, the equivalent of the NIH is INSERM but funding works quite differently. Each year, researchers from across France will go to Paris to compete for limited research positions with INSERM. If they are selected, they are given a permanent job with INSERM and can work in any INSERM laboratory in France. Although my co-workers in Bordeaux work on the campus of the University of Bordeaux, they are employed by INSERM. So it’s quite different than my experience in Birmingham.
This past week I had the pleasure of working in Montpellier, France at the University of Montpellier with a colleague I had not met before coming to France. She is also an INSERM researcher but her research lab is on the University of Montpellier’s campus. I am interested in replicating some of the work one of her doctoral students had done so my colleagues in Bordeaux put me in touch with her.
Often in research and in life too, it can be tough to work with new people if you don’t know them. When you don’t have a face to put with a name, there can be an awkward space that exists between the two of you. Often we prefer to have face to face meetings to discuss the new projects rather than just using email. This was the case in Montpellier. My collaborator invited me down to give an hour long talk about the type of work I do for colleagues in Montpellier that are interested in epidemiology. We then met over the course of a couple of days to discuss the data and how it could be used.
The day before the meetings began, she invited me to come down and have dinner with her and her doctoral student. This too is very common in the United States. Often we invite researchers from other institutions to come give a talk about their work and we take them out to dinner to showcase the culture of our beautiful city. It is a way to have a scholarly exchange of ideas in a fairly informal setting. So I hopped on a train in Bordeaux and roughly 4.5 hours later I was in Montpellier. Have I mentioned my love the French train system yet?
After a 5 minute walk to my hotel, I received a text from my host asking if it would be okay if we had a walk around the city for an hour before dinner to build our appetites. I loved this expression! What a great idea, to walk around and then have a meal. We walked all over the old city of Montpellier. She showed me the Faculté de Medicine which is the second oldest medical school in Europe built in 1220 AD. They had a wall listing all of the Deans since 1220. It was incredibly awe inspiring and humbling at the same time. To think that wall represented 8 centuries of people running the same institution.....incredible. During our walk, as we approached monuments like that wall of names, she would encourage me to stop and have a look at it. We wouldn’t say anything, just pause and look for about 5 minutes. It was amazingly calming and at the same time thought provoking.
The absolute most incredible part of my walk with her was her concept of “open doors”. It is her practice to always walk through an open door if she thinks there may be an object of beauty inside. Beauty for her was so simple. If there was something she hadn’t seen before or perhaps it was something she had seen but it was now in a different color or location, it was beautiful. She could see beauty in the details of any object: a window, a trellis, a plant cluster, a balcony, a building facade, or even a smell. We would walk into people’s parking areas, museum’s courtyards, business’s reception areas, you name it. If she saw an open door, we would walk through it just to look around.
Reading this now, gives me a visceral physical reaction. My breathing gets shallower and I find it uncomfortable to sit on the train hurtling back to Bordeaux. Maybe it is because I am sitting in a chair that is facing backwards so the world is zooming along backwards outside. But I think it is because this concept of walking through a door just because it is open is foreign to me. I didn’t think of it at the time. Being with her, it seemed so natural. She was always kind to anyone we met inside the door and her kindness was met with a welcoming response from all those we encountered. But for me now, writing it evokes a different feeling. I feel uncomfortable at walking through a door just because it is open and I think many other Americans would feel the same way.
As Carrie Bradshaw would say “I couldn’t help but wondering”, why don’t we walk through doors that are open? If the door is open, doesn’t that mean we are welcome to walk through? Why do we prefer the concept of a closed door with an invitation to enter rather than an open door with an implied invitation? If you are a person welcome to meeting new people, why don’t we just leave the door open? Of course I know the answer to all of these questions is fear. Perhaps that fear even keeps us safe but it also obscures new experiences. For now, I am going to try to walk through open doors a bit more during my time here in France. Wish me luck! Bon chance (good luck)!