Interview with Dr. Stephan Moratti, 2009

Dear Stephan,
Beginning last spring, the International and Interview sub-committees of the Committee to promote student interest began a bi-annual interview highlighting one SPR student member who has had a great deal of international experience.  SPR is comprised of a plethora of researchers from all different nationalities, and we hope to increase this international awareness and encourage SPR student members to engage in cross cultural collaborations. For the fall newsletter, the committees unanimously decided to the interview you, Stephan. Your extraordinary enthusiasm for helping others take part in international research opportunities brought you to our attention. Furthermore, your broad international experience conducting psychophysiological research gives you a wealth of knowledge on the issue. We wanted to highlight both in this interview. Thank you very much for agreeing to take part.

Stephan, you did your graduate studies and PhD at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and are now a Postdoc at the Politecnical University of Madrid (UPM), Spain. What was your relation to Spain before going there as a Postdoc? How did you go about finding a Postdoc position in Spain?

Before, I didn't have any special relation to Spain. This changed after the Center of Magnetoencephalography (MEG) Madrid contacted our MEG laboratory in Konstanz. The MEG Center in Madrid is oriented quite clinically and they were interested in implementing an emotion design in their laboratory to investigate depressive patients. As the Madrid MEG and the Konstanz MEG are the same systems, collaboration was obvious. I then started to travel many times to the MEG Center Madrid to conduct, guide and analyze the study. During that time I came in contact with Spain and the psychophysiological research there. However, I knew already a lot of Spanish psychophysiologists from SPR meetings.

After having finished by PhD in Germany, I received a German Research Foundation (DFG) grant to investigate outside Germany (Auslandsstipendium) that permitted me to start doing research at the Madrid MEG Center. Actually, the MEG Center Madrid belongs to the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM). It was challenging for me to change from a more basic research oriented project to a more clinical one. After the DFG grant, I found a Postdoc position at the Polytechnical University of Madrid (UPM) that collaborates with the MEG Center Madrid. At the end of this year, I will again join the UCM as an eligible Ramón y Cajal candidate. The Ramón y Cajal program is financed by the Spanish Ministry of Science and is a kind of tenure track program.

When exchanging with your fellow colleagues at UPM, do you speak Spanish, English, or both? Is it right that you also teach in Spanish? Switching back and forth between languages (the interview committee also found out about your German language skills), how do you manage not to get 'lost in translation'?

First, I did not speak any Spanish upon arriving at the Madrid MEG Center. Of course, at the beginning I communicated in English. However, after work I attended language school and soon I switched to Spanish. It is important to be able to speak the language of the country you are living in, although in a laboratory environment you could get around with English. Finally, lab meetings and all kinds of social contacts are in Spanish. Further, people communicate more easily with you in their native language. So it is very important not to create a language barrier. You have to keep in mind that you are in a foreign country and of course you have to adapt yourself. And anyway, outside the laboratory environment you have to organize your daily living and for that you will need the local language. What also helps a lot is to join people for spare time activities like sports, etc. You will be surrounded by people that do not speak English and this forces you to learn.

Yes, I also started teaching in Spanish after I got some higher language level. I taught Psychophysiology and Basic Principles of Neuroscience. It was very hard work for me to prepare the classes in Spanish. By teaching in Spanish, I could improve my work-related vocabulary a lot. As a German, my native language is German of course.

Yes, sometimes switching between languages can be difficult. This often happens to me at international conferences meeting old colleagues from Germany, being surrounded by my new colleagues from Spain and friends from England or the USA.    

Did you face any kinds of bureaucratic (e.g., work visas) and/or cultural (e.g., language, pace of life) obstacles when moving abroad? How did you deal with these?

As Spain is a member of the European Union (EU), there is no work visa required. As an EU citizen you can work and stay as long as you want in a member country. The only thing you need is a valid passport.  Also, the social system issues are quite compatible now. This is important for pension or unemployment issues later. So, if you change to another EU country the years you have contributed to the social security system of your country of origin can be transferred to the new country of residence. The only bureaucratic obstacle I experienced was related to my PhD title. I had to get my PhD title homologated.

It might sound funny that one important cultural obstacle I was facing were the eating hours in Spain. In Germany we have lunch at 12:00 o'clock and dinner is around 18:00 to 19:00. In Spain lunch time starts at 14:00 or 15:00 o'clock and dinner can be as late as 22:00 to 23:00 (at least in Madrid). However, if you start working at a new place and are learning a new language, your stomach feels empty some hours before eating time; this can really affect you at work. But these kinds of obstacles vanish with time.

The pace of life is also a little bit different between Germany and Spain. As dinner is quite late and as it is quite usual to go for a drink after dinner, you won't go to bed before 1:00 o'clock or later. Still, people start working between 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. So I guess, my average sleeping hours reduced about 2 hours a day. At the beginning this was quite stressful, as I was always tired and I had to manage my new work environment in a foreign language. However, with time you get used to it. But maybe this is not only a cultural difference but also reflects the change from a small town (Konstanz has 80.000 habitants) to a capital (Madrid has 5.000.000 habitants).

However, the Spanish people are very tolerant and friendly. So it is quite easy to get used to the new cultural environment. All in all, I did not face any real obstacles when moving to Spain. I guess moving within Europe is quite easy today.

Both Spain and Germany have a strong tradition of psychophysiological research, as is evidenced in the impressive membership record of German and Spanish researchers in SPR. What would you say are the ups and downs of doing psychophysiological research in these two countries? Are there differences in the way research in general is done?

As you have correctly mentioned, Spain has a strong psychophysiological research tradition, as reflected in the SPR membership record. I think the general approach in psychophysiological research is quite similar in Spain and Germany. Probably, the common representation of both countries in SPR is one reason for that. This is also reflected in the meeting of the Spanish Society for Psychophysiological Research that is held every two years. This meeting is really a high quality meeting that I always consider as a little SPR meeting. It is absolutely worthy to visit this meeting from outside Spain. There are always visitors from outside Spain present (USA, Germany, etc.).

One "up" doing psychophysiological research in Germany is that there is simply more funding available. With the "Forschergruppe" (Research group) and "Sonderforschungsbereich" (SFB, Special Research Area) funds of the German Research Foundation (DFG) it is possible to fund big groups for many years. In Spain, the grants are smaller and it is more difficult to get money for long term projects. However, the Spanish government has made big efforts to improve this situation (for example "Consolider", "Programa Ramón y Cajal","I3", etc.). One "up" with regard to financing research in Spain is that there is more private financing from insurances, banks, etc.

One "down" in Spain is that the groups at the universities are more closed and there is less exchange between the different universities with respect to positions. The advantage of this is that it is more easy stay at one location once you are in (for example, if you have family). However, if you want to change to another university it can be more difficult than in Germany. In Germany, it is somewhat the other way round. It is extremely difficult to stay at one place (really a "down" if you have family), but more easy to change the research group (it is somehow desired that people move a lot in Germany).

The research approach itself is quite similar between the two countries. Maybe because of that there is quite a lot of collaboration between Spanish and German psychophysiological laboratories.

How was your experience in the international transition from PhD student to Postdoc? Were there difficulties or unexpected benefits of doing a Postdoc in Spain?

No. I think requests and tasks that are expected from a Postdoc in Spain and in Germany are quite similar. After having done your PhD you are expected to conduct research independently and to supervise PhD students. Further, it is expected that you publish. Recently, the Spanish government replaced the Habilitation by an accreditation system (ANECA). To get the accreditation, international publications are quite important. But you also need a minimum of teaching hours.

What advice can you give on how to continue or start a new program of research at the Postdoc location? For example, how did you go about establishing collaborations at your new institution? Would you say your program of research was temporarily hindered whenever you moved to a different country? 

No, my research line was not hindered by moving to Spain. On the contrary, I could focus more on it. But this is the product of how you organize the change to a new lab in a new country. I changed to the Madrid MEG center because we have collaborated before and we wanted to establish my research line there. So my recommendation would be to collaborate with places before that are interested in your research line. Then, it is easier moving there. However, if you want to change your research line by going to another lab, than it is a different story, of course.

With respect to new collaborations in a new country, I strongly recommend to regularly visit the national conferences. Then, you simply can contact researchers from other laboratories that are nearby (the same city or nearby universities, etc.). Finally, trying to write new grants with other groups also strengthens new collaboration networks. Finally, you have to learn the language as it is always easier to socialize in the local language. New collaborations are better sealed with a cool beer at some bar and this goes easier with the local language.

"Out of sight" in research collaborations most often does not mean "out of mind". How do you manage your network of contacts? For example, do you still maintain collaborations with places you have previously worked at? How well can you integrate such projects within your current work?

This is probably the most difficult part. I still have strong contacts with the Konstanz University in Germany (my old place) and with the University of Georgia in the USA. However, when you start at a new place, you will be flooded by new work, projects, new expectations from your new environment, etc. This makes it difficult to maintain old collaborations. For example, I still have data sets from my UGA visit in the year 2005 that have to be fully analyzed (sorry Brett!). This year, I published an article with data collected in Konstanz in 2005. These examples illustrate how difficult it can be to perpetuate old collaborations when changing to a new place.

You have a long-standing active involvement in SPR, among other things you have worked on the International Students Subcommittee of the Committee to Promote Student Interests, where you have set up a webpage for international lab exchange. Can you give some advice to students interested in international study, such as how to find out about opportunities to study abroad, how they should go about making contact and getting funding for doing research abroad (e.g., Forum to Facilitate International Lab Exchange and Collaboration)? How would you suggest students and Postdocs should decide what location would be the best fit for them?

It is difficult to give a general advice as the individual situations can be quite different. Further, each country has its own funding structure. For example the DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) in Germany has special funding to finance foreign researchers. Generally, it is always more easy if you bring your own money. So in Germany, you can ask for a DFG grant that permits you to do research in another country as a Postdoc. In Spain, there are predoctoral grants that permit to do various stays in different countries. So, if you are interested to do an exchange you should check out the funding possibilities for such an exchange within your own country but also in the other country.

With respect to establish contacts, you can always check out what contacts already exist between your current lab/ university and foreign labs/ universities. Then, contacting should be easy as probably there have been exchanges between the two places before. Another possibility is to initiate new contacts at conferences. Further, by presenting your work (as a poster, for example) at conferences, the people you are trying to contact for a stay can familiarize themselves with your work.

Then, to choose the right place depends on why you are going to a different lab in a different country. If you want to learn new techniques and methods that are not available in your own lab, then you should make sure that these techniques and methods are available and accessible at the new place (recording times in fMRI, MEG, EEG, etc.). You should also make sure that there will be a person responsible for you. There is always the danger that you arrive at a new place to learn new methods, but everybody is so busy there, that nobody really teaches you.

If you want to implement your own research line at a new place for what reasons ever, you should make sure that the new place has all the resources for doing so. For example, if newly arrived at a new place normally you don't have a lot of grant money for paying recordings, subjects, etc. So make sure that you can have this for free. When you bring your own money (that finances you), this should be easier to achieve, as the deal is that the new place does not have to pay a salary, although it gets a new researcher. I would recommend clarifying all these points before you leave to a new lab outside your country.

Although there are a number of students who would be thrilled to travel to other countries, often the decision to study abroad should come down to whether it is beneficial to your career goals. Would you encourage other SPR students to take part in international research and why? 

Absolutely! It is not only about learning new methods, techniques, etc., but also to see how people of different cultures handle research in general and a laboratory in specific.

In an ideal world with abundant research funds, in which other countries would you wish yet to do research?


Stephan, thank you so much for doing this interview and good luck with the continuation of your research!