By Karin Pekarchik
Joe Stevens is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. He recently returned from France, where he spent nine months as a researcher thanks to a Chauteaubriand Fellowship. We visited with Joe to hear what it's like to do high-level research in another country, what places he visited and whether he enjoyed French cuisine.
Where are you in your graduate program, and how is UK preparing you for your career?
I am in my fourth and final year of my Ph.D. program at UK. I’ve really developed a passion for research during the last few years at UK. I’m hoping to get a job working in a national lab once I graduate. They are great places to do research; very collaborative environments but very challenging research. I feel as though the last few years have prepared me for this exact kind of workplace.
You received a Chauteaubriand Fellowship. Tell us about your nine months conducting research in France.
I lived with a host family, the Bergoniers, in the south of France for nine months this year while working at the Toulouse Biotechnology Institute (TBI). I did really neat research for my dissertation, I traveled a whole lot, I met up with old friends, made some new friends, and I ate a lot of really good food.
Who did you work with? Was it similar to working in a lab here?
I primarily worked with Dr. Claire Dumon, who was the head of the Lignocellulase group at TBI, but I had a lot of help from other students and researchers in her group. Dr. Cédric Montanier, Dr. Régis Faure, Thomas Enjalbert, and Jiao Zhao were all hugely helpful. The last three months I also worked closely with the Modeling and Simulations group headed by Dr. Isabelle André. Dr. Jérémy Esque spent a lot of time helping me with protein modeling, docking, and molecular dynamics simulations. Everyone was very patient and very kind while working with me. I asked a lot of everyone there and they spent so much time helping me, I’m very lucky. It was basically the same as working in a lab here, but everyone was speaking French!
What was your favorite part of studying in France?
I was able to do research that I would not have been able to do here at UK. That’s not to say that the research environment here is terrible, quite the opposite. It just so happens that my personal research interests have developed in such a way that I had to look outside of UK to do the work I wanted for my dissertation.
What was your least favorite part of it?
Starting from scratch. There’s an analogy I’ve been using when describing what it was like when I first started working there: I had just started to run at UK before I left for France, but when I got to France they told me I hadn’t even learned how to crawl correctly. I learned that a lot of the work I had done the past year at UK was not done in such a manner that could be published, which was certainly frustrating. Having redone that work, however, I feel much more confident about publishing and presenting the work.
While you were in Toulouse, what was a typical day or week like?
Not too different from a typical day in the U.S. I woke up, exercised or did yoga, had coffee and breakfast, then went to work. It took about an hour to get to work, between walking and taking the metro. That gave me plenty of time to listen to music and plan my work for the day. On the way home I would stop at the grocery store (and sometimes the boulangerie ) to get ingredients for dinner. Then I’d go home and cook dinner, talk to my host family if I saw them, then go to bed. Between working and commuting I didn’t have a lot of free time during the day. Weekends were spent traveling, walking around the old part of Toulouse, and cooking with my host family for Sunday lunches.
What were some of the cultural similarities or differences?
I think the biggest difference is how slow they take everything. While everyone likes to eat, drink, and be merry in the U.S., in France they like to eat…drink…be merry…eat some more…drink some more…be merry some more…and drink some more. It’s the same thing, just on a different time scale.
What were some of the academic similarities or differences?
In France they have an academic system called trois-cinq-huit (3-5-8). It takes three years to get a bachelor’s degree, five years to get a master’s degree, and eight years to get a Ph.D. They also require students to take study-abroad trips during college, which is only mandatory at some colleges in the U.S. Otherwise, it is pretty much the same.
Did French food live up to your expectations?
The food was very good! There was a lot of foie gras , good wine, and good seafood. The access to good bread was just insane, every corner had its own little bakery selling fresh baguettes or croissants for 1€, which was amazing. There was a huge market in the middle of Toulouse, the Marché Victor Hugo, which sold all kinds of produce and meats and fish and breads. Above the market there were restaurants that cooked the food from the market below. Absolutely great food for dirt cheap.
Did you travel? Where to? What was your favorite place?
I think I ended up traveling every other weekend I was there. Here’s a list of all of the places I traveled: Milan (Italy), Madrid (Spain), Copenhagen (Denmark), London (England), Paris (France), Albi (France), Bayonne (France), Biarritz (France), Lourdes (France), Soldeu (Andorra), Vigo (Spain), Santiago (Spain), Brussels (Belgium). I cooled it on the traveling my last couple of months there so I could focus on research. Vigo was probably my favorite. We have family friends who live there, and I stayed with the abuela, or grandmother, of this family. She lived in a house close to the beach and had fruit trees in her backyard. It was really relaxing, and the family gave me a tour of all of these little fishing villages up and down the coast of Vigo. I also speak a lot of Spanish, so it was nice to have conversations with people in their native language and not in English.
What impacts did this fellowship have on you, professionally and/or personally?
Before this experience, I was really debating whether or not I wanted to spend my life doing research. I’ve enjoyed graduate school and the research, but I like doing so many other things outside of research. I enjoy cooking, traveling, and all things coffee and I really wasn’t sure if I was willing to sacrifice those things for research. It wasn’t until I had two weeks left in France that I realized that the only reason I’ve been able to cook, travel, and drink coffee all across Europe is because of research! If anything, this experience has reassured me that my life is on a good path.
Do you have any advice for students who want to study abroad?
Do it! It sounds clichéd but traveling and living in a foreign country has really opened my eyes to the world. It’s also made me so much more confident. I never would have thought myself capable of doing everything I did this past year.
Do you hope to go back to France?
Certainly! I made a lot of great friends in Toulouse that I mean to visit in the future. I’m also not limiting myself to working in the U.S. anymore. There are a lot of great work opportunities in Europe.
What advice would you give to current and future students?
Three quotes that I’ve found incredibly useful the last few years:
“Keep your head up in failure and your head down in success.” – Jerry Seinfeld
“True confidence is living in uncertainty.” –Advice given to and shared by Jonah Hill
“It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day – that’s the hard part. But it does get easier.” – The Jogging Baboon from BoJack Horseman
What are your plans for the near and distant future?
Keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing in graduate school: traveling, researching, eating food, and drinking coffee. I plan on defending in the summer and getting a job out west, hopefully in Colorado. In the distant future, who knows? Maybe I’ll own a coffee roasting company. Some towns I visited in Europe could use a good coffee shop, but I haven’t thought about that too much.