Sydney Hope

Sydney Hope, a PhD student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, returned to Virginia Tech this fall semester after spending 7 months overseas conducting avian research at the Centre d’Etudes Biologique de Chizé (CEBC) in Villiers-en-Bois, France.  Sydney’s research abroad was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide program and the Chateaubriand Fellowship program of the Office for Science & Technology of the Embassy of France in the United States.

In collaboration with Dr. Frédéric Angelier, Sydney set out to investigate how environmental changes influence the way bird parents care for their babies. One crucial aspect of parental care for birds is incubation – parents must keep their eggs at a warm temperature so that the chicks will develop correctly.  Small changes in temperature can lead to negative consequences for the offspring.

While in France, Sydney specifically studied how urbanization influences parental behavior and incubation temperature in great tits (Parus major).  You can learn more about Sydney’s project from her “Postcard from the Field”, here.

Rest assured, Sydney’s trip was much more than just conducting research.  She was able to start an international collaboration, made great international connections and wonderful friends, and was able to view science and higher education through the lens of a different culture.  Here is what she has to say about her experience:

“I think it really has been one of my best decisions yet to pursue research abroad in France!  When I first arrived, I was definitely out of my comfort zone.  Before this, I had never lived outside of the US, and I spent most of my life in New Jersey.  I could barely speak any French (mostly, just “bonjour”).  The research center that I worked at was in the middle of the forest, with the closest grocery store 10 minutes away by car, and I had no car.  These were by no means harsh living conditions!  But, there was definitely a bit of a transition period for me.

Pretty quickly, I met some of the best people to work and live with!  They were students from all over France and parts of Europe.  Some spoke English very well, and some were not quite as confident in their speaking skills (I specify ‘speaking’ because every student seeking a higher degree in the sciences is required to read in English, because scientific papers are for the most part only in English!).  I am still completely amazed and humbled that my friends there, as well as international students in the US, are not only able to conduct amazing scientific research, but also read and write scientific papers in their second—or even third —language.

One thing that struck me almost immediately was the importance of language.  In the US, we are rarely confronted with any situation where language is an issue.  And, as a native English speaker, even when I had travelled to other countries, I never had a problem communicating because, as most tourists, I travelled to major cities where many people speak English.  But at the CEBC, my privilege as a native English speaker was staring me right in the face.  Only a native English speaker would set off to go conduct research in the middle of the French countryside without thinking twice about whether she’d be able to get by just in English!  While it was true that I could definitely conduct all of my research without knowing a word of French, it was incredibly apparent right from the beginning that knowing French was so important if I wanted to make friends, or understand 9 out of every 10 conversations.

I was lucky to meet a great friend who, since she was not too confident in her English but wanted to practice, and I wanted to learn French, spoke to me in English and then was incredibly patient as I slowly (very slowly) progressed in French.  I spent a lot of time listening to conversations that I could not understand, trying to learn on my own through podcasts and online materials, asking my friends so many questions about how to say different words and phrases, and of course making many, many mistakes.  Now, I am pretty confident in my conversational skills!  Even though I studied Spanish throughout elementary and high school, this is the first time I feel somewhat confident speaking another language.  It’s so amazing to discover how crucial a language is to understanding a culture.  There are so many things that just can’t be translated fully.

It was really enlightening to learn so much about a different culture!  Like many Americans, I imagined all of France to be like Paris.  After living with people from all over France, I learned all of the differences in culture, accents, stereotypes, architecture, jargon, and landscapes of the many different regions of France.  And I learned about all of the songs, movies, comics, and of course, food, that everyone in France loves.  Additionally, I was able to share my culture with everyone there!  It was so interesting to find out what everyone thought about Americans.  The funniest of these moments was when two of my friends asked me a whole list of questions about the US, including: “Did you really ride to school in a yellow school bus? Did you have a lemonade stand when you were little? Do you microwave water?”.  And they were completely astonished when I said yes to all of them.

  • It was also interesting to learn about the differences between the US and France in higher education.  In France, instead of departments, researchers at each institution are organized into teams that have specific themes.  The team that I was a part of was “Ecophy”, which focuses on how environmental changes influence the physiology of animals at all stages of life.  I found this way of organization interesting because it could be a better way to facilitate interdisciplinary research since the research questions, which can require a diverse set of researchers, are the basis for the composition of the teams.

Another interesting difference for me was that, in France, PhD programs are strictly 3 years, and there are very few opportunities for French PhD students to conduct research abroad, unless it is solely for conducting field work.  For me, I had my own office, conducted two different laboratory analyses, participated in lab meetings and seminars, and also developed and carried out an entire field project.  So, it was pretty difficult for everyone to understand exactly what I was doing there, and especially how I was a PhD student in her 4th year!

As fun and interesting as it was to compare and contrast the differences between our cultures, it was also great to realize how similar we really are.  I felt at home incredibly quickly, and discussions about cultural differences were definitely not the most frequent topic of conversation.  Honestly, many of my conversations were very similar to the ones I have at Virginia Tech.  Because we were all graduate students studying ecology, we talked a lot about how human-induced environmental changes are affecting wildlife.  And, as early-career scientists, we discussed what could be the best way to make an impact and a difference.  We discussed many of the same topics that we do in our IGC seminar!  What are the fundamental reasons for why we should conserve species, and how do we explain this to different groups of people?  (This was one of the conversations where I could understand enough French to follow it, but not yet enough to contribute to it.)  It was interesting, however, to discover some cultural differences in how people viewed different species.  For example, my friends were surprised when I told them that people in the US generally did not love house sparrows (they’re invasive in the US), since everyone in France (where they’re native) loves them!

I am so incredibly happy that I was able to spend this time conducting research and living in France.  As a Jersey girl, it has really opened my eyes to how amazing it is to explore a different culture, and makes me hopeful that I will have more opportunities in the future to continue to discover and explore other cultures through my scientific research.”

  •  Written by Sydney Hope.