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Developing science in a far country: the paradoxes of life …

Posted by , on 16 June 2010

I am from Chile, a country located along the extreme southwestern coast of South America, a beautiful land of happy and courageous people, with an admirable geography however from time to time, some naturally events remind us how small is  our human scale compared with the Mother Earth that gave us life, (“we are children of rigor” as well-said JM, a famous Chilean reporter).

I tell this because my scientific visit in Germany coincided, for better or for worse, with the huge earthquake that hit my country last February, I came to Germany only two days before this catastrophe !, thus my first actions in this new country were trying to get news of my family, friends and colleagues. Meanwile, one of the major casualties of the earthquake was Science. Specifically, the laboratory of the Dr. Miguel Allende (CGC, Universidad de Chile) where I am making my PhD thesis, lost nearly all equipment and suffered substantial damages to the structure of the building. More serously, irreplaceable reagents, stocks, samples and experiments were lost. For me, it is very hard as a Chilean scientist to see my colleagues and friends, who are helpless in all of this, forced to star from square again,… it was very sad for me.

As you may suspect, the beginning of my stay was full of worry and anguish, but at the same time, with the fascination of being in a country like Germany, where the lifestyle and the organization of things is quite different from those known to me in Chile and other South American countries. My first internship was in the laboratory of Dr. Clemens Grabher, at the Institute of Toxicology and Genetics (ITG), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology ( ), where I had an excellent welcome. Moreover, I had the opportunity to collaborate with other groups such as the the laboratory of Dr. Urban Liebel ( ), where I used “first-class” equipment for my experiments, being a major contribution to my scientific experience. Finished in Karlsruhe, a stay was generated in the laboratory of Dra. Virginie Lecaudey, in the University of Freiburg (, a beautiful city from which I was delighted to come. The welcome here has been spectacular, coinciding with the celebration of my birthday for first time in Europe; and also, allowing me to continue with important experiments for my thesis. Next in my scientific journey through Germany,  I`m now in the laboratory of Dr. Joachim Wittbrodt at the University of Heidelberg (, where I will be able to make relevant experiments for my work in a great zebrafish lab, living in other beautiful German city and enjoying the FIFA World Cup, where I hope that Chile (and my host country Germany) have a good participation !.

For me, making these visits is an unforgettable experience in both the professional and personal sense. First, I could test and compare “in situ” and “in vivo” how the science is in developed countries, and get to know the availability of the resources and the high level of organization that these laboratories have. However, this experience also made me notice the large differences in sciences between countries like Chile and Germany, in the level of resources, the proper use of them and the full support of the scientific career. Personally, this has been a culture and scientific learning experience, even being out of my country in difficult times.  But over time I realized increasingly the importance of my stay here, because I understood how much I can learn and then apply it in my country, by helping in the education and development of it.

Finally, I want to thank all the institutions that helped me, either to fund my trip, as well as the research and their laboratories, who hosted me and gave me the opportunity to live this experience, and do things that in my country I could not have done.

I would like to finish this story, with greetings to my lab partners and my tutor Miguel Allende in Chile (my full support) and give them the strength and encouragement in the rebuilding of our lab !…for them and the chilean people, an extract of Pablo Neruda`s Poem “Hymn and return”:

…y mirando tu ilustre y solitaria espuma
un ramo litoral tejeré a tu belleza.

Patria, mi patria
toda rodeada de agua combatiente
y nieve combatida,
en ti se junta el águila al azufre,
y en tu antártica mano de armiño y de zafiro
una gota de pura luz humana
brilla encendiendo el enemigo cielo.

Guarda tu luz, oh patria!,
tu dura espiga de esperanza
en medio
del ciego aire temible.
En tu remota tierra ha caído toda esta luz difícil,
este destino de los hombres
que te hace defender una flor misteriosa
sola, en la inmensidad de América dormida

…and looking your illustrious and lonely foam
a coastal bouquet I`ll knit to your beauty.

Homeland, my homeland
all sorrounded by combatant water
and fought snow,
in your eagle and sulfur combines,
and in your Antartic hand of mink and  sapphire
a drop of pure human light
shine lighting the enemy sky.

Save your light, oh homeland!
keep your hard spike of hope
in the midst of the fearsome blind air.
In your remote land all this difficult light has dropped,
this fate of men
that make you defend a mysterious flower
alone, in the vastness of America asleep.

Cristian A. Undurraga S.
A curious man by nature…and
PhD student in Molecular/Celular Biology and Neurosciences
Center for Genomics of the Cell
Laboratorio de Biología del Desarrollo
Facultad de Ciencias
Universidad de Chile
Twitter: @cundurraga

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8 thoughts on “Developing science in a far country: the paradoxes of life …”

  1. Agreed with the difference between Chile and europe/USA in terms of scientific resources. Simple things such as ordering antibodies: In Chile takes one month since is ordered until you have it on your bench…whereas in europe/USA takes 24 hours. That’s why it is important for Chileans scientist to collaborate and send students abroad, something that Miguel Allende (my mentor as well) has pretty clear.
    Very touching the description of the earthquake…it was difficult to be abroad during those days
    Wish you the best in Germany!

  2. ”For me, making these visits is an unforgettable experience in both the professional and personal sense.”
    Cristian – this is exactly what the Development Travelling Fellowship program is all about. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  3. Is nice to hear that Chilean scientist like Cristian have the opportunity to do sciences in developed countries like Germany and to collaborate with many excellents laboratories. Undoubtedly this will be a great opportunity that will help you to bring back good ideas.
    Good Luck!!

  4. I’m agree with the differences…but it sounds obvious, don’t it?. Europe has much more resources than south american countries, and cutting edge equipment. There is no doubt about it.
    You have to take advantage of it, Cristian. You have to work as you never did it…that’s the idea when you go to a better place than you are coming from. I can see you have been working in different places…good for you!, but remember that it’s better to spend much more time in one place and getting good results than to be in different places doing few things.
    Well, Cristian…I hope you have a good stay in europe…how much time are you planning to stay?.

    Good luck with your experiments!

    1. you’re right, Joerg. There is obvious differences between both places.

      Good luck in your stay, Christian!!!

  5. Thanks Joerg and Tom by your good wishes !
    The difference between both country (and areas) are there, and will be kept for a long time…I think that the people who have had the opportunity to visit labs in developed countries, must somehow, try to improve the science in their countries and show how to do science in a “serious way” with the few resources that we have, and obviously, also trying to change the public policies of the governmental entities that deal with science (ambitious, but necessary).
    I trying to extend my stay here, as Joerg said, it`s better to spend more time in one place !, good point for future applicants!.

  6. Hi, Cristian!
    It’s nice to hear about you. I absolutely agree with you. Being scientists in a far country do make things a little bit hard, specially regarding equipment, fellowships, travelling to other countries, and so on. But we are fortunate to have a good number of fellows to discuss and share help and experience, which makes to our country a nice home.
    I hope that your lab can get better from the earthquake. We were fortunate here and we did not have serious damages to our lab, but, as you know, I have many friends back in our dear Faculty of Sciences, and I am sad. I hope we can get full support from our authorities to get backand recovered.

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