Cross-cultural Teaming in a Laboratory

This is a guest blog post written by Amy Prunuske and Katie Nemeth. Their biographies follow the text.

lab-1825276The laboratory is a multicultural environment that stimulates innovation but also contributes to misunderstandings. Scientists often have formal training in research techniques, but rarely in communication, and particularly not in cross-cultural communication.

In the University of Wisconsin biochemistry laboratory in which Amy did her research training, there were lab mates from Korea, Germany, Japan, India, and Poland, as well as the USA. This diversity is vital for the development of new ideas, but it can also create communication challenges. Many of the undergraduates in the US Midwest come to the university with minimal exposure to people from different backgrounds, so it is important to help them understand that different cultures have differing verbal and nonverbal rules mediating social interactions.

During Katie’s postdoctoral training, she participated in many active learning and training workshops. While diversity and inclusivity were part of the lesson designs, she wondered if and how students could become actively mindful of the role that culture plays in a group setting. Seeking out ideas, she participated in non-science workshops and discovered Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures. After finding this vital missing link, Katie worked with Amy to add the experiential learning component to various courses and groups in the biology department.

We have found that Ecotonos is an amazing way to expose scientists to the existence of cultural differences and how to use them as assets. As part of the activity, students are divided into three monocultural groups: Delphenius, Zante, and Aquila—each with a unique set of cultural characteristics. Ecotonos comes with ten sets of rule cards, three case studies and three different tasks, so students can play the game repeatedly and each time it’s different. Click any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

In our work with the biology students, we have them practice their new cultural rules by creating a flag that represents the values of their culture (see pictures). The students in the monocultural groups enjoy taking on these new characteristics, with some finding it easy and others finding it challenging to behave in new ways.

After the monocultural work, participants are re-sorted into multicultural groups of different structures: minority-majority, joint venture with balanced populations, and diverse membership with representatives of all three cultures. In their multicultural groups, we have them rank the performance of three hypothetical workers, with the three workers demonstrating characteristics similar to one of the three sets of group rules. This exposes the participants to the ways in which we can be biased toward people with behaviors similar to those of our own culture, and allows students to practice getting beyond their biases.

We have used the program as part of the introduction to the biology laboratory, where they will be expected to work in groups, as well as in programs for undergraduates from groups under-represented in the sciences.

Ecotonos is a great ice breaker activity for the students to get to know their classmates, and students often carry forward some of the behaviors learned during the activity, like snapping in approval, as part of creating a new shared culture for their group. Most students find the activity to be fun, and leave it with a much greater appreciation for the challenges of working across cultures.

Here’s a typical student comment: “It was helpful to understand how difficult it might be interacting with a different culture for the first time.” This is an important lesson for scientists, who often believe their discipline is a meritocracy not subject to the biases that are universally found. We are currently measuring the impact of Ecotonos using the cultural intelligence assessment.

We would like to thank Dr. Shelley Smith for introducing Ecotonos to us.  We are grateful for the time she took to share her expertise in running the activity.

Amy Prunskee is a Faculty Curriculum Program Manager and Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Medical College of Wisconsin — Central Wisconsin.

Katie Nemeth is an Assistant Professor of the teaching faculty in College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, MN.


Culture and Memory are Biological: New Research

Mateo Zareba 1970People raised in some cultures learn that memory transcends generations, that it is passed on to our descendants—carried on a cellular level. I’ve always intuitively felt this was true and wise, even though in the culture in which I was raised (German-American), I was told that such beliefs were charming but fantastical. Then, here comes scientific research showing that yet another “old wives’ tale” is, in fact, true.

Edward T. Hall, author of some of the earliest books on intercultural communication, had a strong interest in ethology (the study of animal behavior in its natural setting, and sometimes with attention to evolution) and Paul Maclean’s theory of our evolutionary, triune brain. In the words of Dr. John C. Condon, who was a friend of Hall for many years and is currently authoring a new book on him titled, It Goes Without Saying, “Ned wrote in unpublished papers about the connection between culture and biology. He gave considerable attention to culture and communication as embodied and involving all of the senses, and thought other anthropologists gave too much attention to the cognitive aspects.” So many recent scientific discoveries indeed seem to be proving Hall correct! One of those is in the field of epigenetics.


The fairly new field of behavioral epigenetics offers some interesting advanced insights into what makes us who we are. Epigenetic research shows that tendencies such as preferred smells or tastes, fears and abilities, strengths and resiliencies, weaknesses and deficits—turn out to be not only socially acquired, but also potentially biologically inherited. This means that “culture” and cultural tendencies may be not just communal, but also biological.

The field of epigenetics began, in part, with a simple question in the mind of Michael Meaney: “I’ve always been interested in what makes people different from each other. The way we act, the way we behave—some people are optimistic, some are pessimistic. What produces that variation? Evolution selects the variance that is most successful, but what produces the grist for the mill?”

Decades of research led to the finding that both positive and negative experiences—trauma, love and support—in our own or our recent ancestors’ pasts, leave molecular scars on epigenetic matter that is attached to our DNA. Without a mutation to the DNA code itself, the attached methyl groups cause long-term, heritable change in gene function.


Meaney and Szyf had proved something incredible. Call it postnatal inheritance: With no changes to their genetic code, the baby rats nonetheless gained genetic attachments due solely to their upbringing.”
—Dan Hurley, Discover

Such findings give credence to those who say they still experience the pain of genocide or slavery generations later. It also shows us why grandchildren may inherit their grandmother’s sunny disposition. And, it provides us as interculturalists yet another reason to heal ourselves and our communities: if we can foster understanding, respect, justice, and collaboration, perhaps we can prevent these heritable negatives, and, rather, pass stronger, more positive traits down through the generations.

Research is showing that epigenetic changes to genes active in certain regions of the brain underlie our emotional and intellectual intelligence—our tendency to be calm or fearful, our ability to learn or to forget. It would follow then that if we can truly develop intercultural competence in our communities, we can pass on the epigenetic inheritance that will create communities of emotionally resilient people with the intelligence to solve problems such as hunger and homelessness.

A fuller explanation of the science behind this is explained in this three-page paper in Discover magazine. One thing is for sure, this field of study has a long way to go. What started with rats has slowly moved into the study of human behavior. The full benefits of this incredible research may not be seen in my lifetime, but feel confident that generations that follow will be the true benefactors.

Interdisciplinary Teamwork

Of further interest to me as an interculturalist is the fact that this groundbreaking research came about as the result of specialists working in an interdisciplinary team—specialists who had to overcome significant bias and elitism in order to truly hear one another.

A colleague thought that the work of Michael Meaney, a neurobiologist, might significantly dovetail with the work of Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist. Even though both gentlemen worked at McGill University, they only met each other after traveling to Madrid in 1992.

To those of us who aren’t scientists, these two men seem to work in similar fields; they are both biologists, right? Should be easy enough to collaborate? No, their two disciplines are apparently two very different cultures! As Szyf reported to Dan Hurley in an interview for Discover magazine: “[Meaney’s work] sounded like voodoo at first. For a molecular biologist, anything that didn’t have a clear molecular pathway was not serious science.”

The two scientists overcame their biases and stereotypes, and twelve years later they published a landmark paper, “Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior,” in the June 2004 edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience. God bless the nameless colleague who saw the connection between their work!

Official Cultural Detective Animal

We already have a Cultural Detective theme song (La Boca de Cultura) thanks to our multicultural, multi-talented friends Kotolán. I now suggest that, as do many nations of our world, we name an official Cultural Detective animal. And my nomination is the thaumoctopus mimicus.

While many animals change shape or color, the Mimic Octopus studies others and then mimics their movements and their looks — instantly! And this octopus’ repertoire includes at least 15 different species!

Come on, polyglots, global nomads, TCKs, and other blended culture people, can you top that? It changes its behavior to suit its environment, and its behavior is contextually effective. Sound like anyone you know? Wonder who teaches, trains or coaches these octopi?

The thaumoctopus mimicus, or Culturoctopus Detecticus, would definitely seem to be one ethnorelatively developed, or, ahem, shall I say, “marizo-relatively” developed animal. Below you can view a short video of my nomination in action.

Let me know if you have other nominations, or thoughts on this one!