What Europe means to me

Feb ,14 2017

On the morning of the 24th June 2016 the newspapers published the result of the EU referendum held in the UK. The British public had voted in favour of Great Britain leaving the EU. Whilst the result itself and the political consequences can and are being discussed at great length worldwide, I would like to give a personal account of what being European means to me.

In my blog entry from 17th July 2014 I described where I come from and why I decided to do a PhD in Andrew Bowie’s laboratory in Ireland, but my European adventure started well before 2013. After obtaining my leaving certificate and before going to university, I decided to volunteer in a Belgian socio-cultural centre for 6 months, which was part of the “European voluntary service” programme. This is an EU programme aimed at untrained young individuals who wish to immerse themseves in a different culture for up to 12 months. When the programme was finished, I decided to stay in Belgium to obtain a Bachelor and a Masters’ degree. In contrast to my volunteer activity, which was very well organised by my host organisation regarding paperwork, I had to navigate my way through the forest of Belgian and German bureaucracy during my studies. This was not always easy, but I think this is an important exercise in becoming independent, and teaches you a lot about other countries and their values.

The Masters’ programme in which I was enrolled included a laboratory internship of 4 months at another European university of my choosing, as part of the Erasmus program. I was very lucky to spend these 4 months at Imperial College London, which has an excellent virology department. I had to contact the supervisor and organise my stay, and the Erasmus program facilitated this process, as bilateral agreements exist between universities participating in the program. For example, I did not have to enrol as a full-time student at Imperial College London, which meant I did not have to pay tuition fees, and I was granted a temporary visiting student status, allowing me to stay at university accommodation and to access facilities such as the library or sports centre.

This experience had a great influence on my decision to go to Ireland, since it was at Imperial College London that I attended a seminar given by Andrew Bowie, who inspired me to study how viruses evade our immune system. After obtaining my Masters’ degree I started searching for the ideal laboratory to pursue my research interest and I could not have been luckier, since Andrew had just advertised a position in his laboratory. This position was part of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie training network, without which I would have probably not been able to go to Trinity College Dublin. I had a wonderful time in Dublin, met many interesting people inside and outside of academic research, and yet again had to adapt to a different way of living. Without intending it at the start of my journey through Europe (Germany, Belgium, UK, Ireland) the different EU programmes have shaped the last 10 years of my life, and I do not think that I would have had any of these experiences without the opportunities they provided.

What I personally value most about these EU programmes is that they encourage individuals of any skill level to go abroad, to risk the encounter with the unknown, and to truly immerse oneself in a different culture, all by providing a loose framework, in form of bilateral agreements, which help with official documents, as well as financial support, so one does not have to “abandon” family and friends. It is inevitable that at some stage during this process one will encounter difficulties, but I think this provides a very valuable experience, since one will be able to identify aspects of everyday living one appreciates from ones “old home”, and the ones from the “new home”. I wish for the EU to grow closer together, and believe that this can be achieved if people have experienced different ways of organising a community and then ideally choose the best aspects of each country. I can only encourage people to profit from the different EU programs to learn about their neighbours.

Europe, to me personally, meant and means to be able to study and work wherever I think is best for my career and personal life without taking too many risks and encountering too many bureaucratic hurdles such as working permits or visas, whilst retaining basic securities such as access to social and healthcare systems. It also means to be welcome in other cultures and to be able to make a place outside Germany my new home. I think that this is an important achievement of the EU and I was deeply shocked and saddened that a great number of British citizens would give them up so easily. I can only hope that the EU will overcome this crisis and will keep investing into these programs to strengthen the European community.

The outcome of the British referendum also shocked me as an academic researcher in the EU. All the universities I had visited as part of my under- and postgraduate studies had a great number of international staff, who were attracted to these institutes for their excellent research opportunities, and they enriched these institutions with the expertise they were providing. Whilst it is certainly possible to work in your home country as a researcher, very often it is a distinct technique, a certain research question, or discussions with a particular person that inspire us move to a specific research institute. The ease to freely choose your work and living space within Europe certainly facilitates this exchange of expertise. I believe the importance of free movement might become particularly evident in short-term stays, where individuals visit another research group to learn new techniques over the course of a couple of weeks or months, because the time and effort required to overcome bureaucratic hurdles may outweigh the gain. Another important aspect of research is collaboration. Nowadays, complex scientific questions are rarely addressed by a single research group, due to the necessary collection of broad theoretical and technical skill. Instead, countless collaborations (e.g. INBIONET) are being, and have been established to successfully approach these problems. Just as limiting the free movement of people will hamper the exchange of expertise on an individual level, it will reduce the possibilities to form research networks and in the worst case scenario lead to emigration of excellent researchers to institutes with better opportunities. To this end, I do believe that it is crucial that researchers make more efforts to communicate their science, the benefit of their work to society, and the role of the EU and collaborations. The PhD program organised by INBIONET included exercises in science communication such as blog post and videos, however it seems to me that activities such as the “European research night” reach a larger public audience. The importance of public outreach has been neglected for many years, and I think regular direct contact with the general population is necessary to remind the public of the value of scientific research and how important the EU is for our work.