WorldView: A Language Blog

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From the Village to the Lab: an Interview with Christian Graefe

Published: September 16, 2020

The WorldView blog team recently sat down with Christian Graefe, former villager and counselor at Waldsee and Skogfjorden. Christian has gone on from the Villages to the University of Minnesota and Cargill, Inc., and told us about how his CLV experiences have supported his work in both academic and corporate research. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

CLV: Congratulations to you on your recent Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota and a subsequent position as a Materials Scientist at Cargill. Tell us a little bit about your graduate experience and this new position.

Christian: Thanks! My thesis research at the U of M focused on the development of a new way to spatially image the chemical components of a sample at improved spatial resolution. I felt very fortunate to work in the Chemistry Department at the U of M, not only because of the quality of the research I could contribute to, but also for the global team with whom I got to collaborate. I was fortunate to work directly with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from eight different countries just in the research group I joined.

I now work in the materials science lab in the corporate research and development department at Cargill. Our lab works with samples from across the entire company, so we analyze a wide variety of materials. My responsibilities include characterizing new materials, identifying unknown substances, and improving the efficiency of procedures. To accomplish these goals, I use a class of analytical techniques known as spectroscopy. These techniques use light to measure various properties.

Whether analyzing materials or putting on a play, 
clear communication is crucial when a diverse team 
assembles to achieve a common goal. 

CLV: Cargill is an international agricultural business, a multinational company with presence in more than 70 countries. Is your position global, or are you part of a global team?

Christian: Yes, the materials science research team I work with also has scientists in Belgium and I’ve worked with agricultural materials in all stages of production coming from several different continents. Cross-continental coordination of experiments and samples is mostly virtual. This is especially true now due to travel restrictions stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.

CLV: What do you consider to be the most important traits or skills necessary for working successfully within a cross-cultural environment?

Christian:  Clear communication is always vital, especially when language or cultural barriers may exist. Good listening skills go a long way in improving collaboration. Also, an openness to new ideas and approaches make for a more dynamic environment. I think the resulting creativity can be the biggest benefit of a multicultural team.

CLV: You worked as a camp counselor at Concordia Language Villages for two summers. How did this experience contribute to your academic and professional progress and success?

Christian and teenagers in matching 'Chemistry is Everywhere!' t-shirts.
Skills honed as a camp counselor continue to be valuable, 
like here, where Christian helps with an outreach event 
during grad school. 

Christian: As a camp counselor at Skogfjorden, I quickly learned the importance of flexibility and having a backup plan. Activities and projects with villagers rarely play out exactly the way they are planned, so it’s important to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. This is very true of scientific research as well. Being prepared to adjust experiments when the results differ from what may have been expected increases the chance of a breakthrough.

Time management was another useful skill I developed as a counselor. I often planned multiple lessons or activities simultaneously. It was important to set priorities and not spend too much time on a specific task. This was particularly important in my early grad school career when I was taking classes, teaching labs, and conducting research at the same time. I have also had to use these skills at Cargill as I’ve balanced learning about the new job while contributing to multiple projects.

CLV: Tell me about the languages you speak and the role each plays individually and collectively in your life.

Christian: I speak Norwegian and some German. They are both important to my family heritage and help me maintain a global perspective. I try to keep up with news by occasionally reading articles in both languages, and I regularly listen to German and Norwegian music. Additionally, my understanding of German allows me to communicate with relatives who still live in German-speaking areas of Europe. And my family in the U.S. regularly incorporates German words or phrases into our conversations when we’re together.

CLV: What tips would you give students today to help them make the most of their career pursuits?

Christian: I think it’s important to keep yourself open to different possible career paths and not pigeonhole yourself early on. High school and college can offer great opportunities to take classes in a range of subjects that you likely won’t get a chance to explore so deeply again. These classes can help to develop soft skills that will be helpful in defining your career path, even if the course material isn’t directly relevant to your future career. Also, you never know when a new interest or experience might spark a lifelong passion.

About the Author

A headshot of Christian Graefe in front of mountains, wearing a Minneapolis Lakers cap.

Christian Graefe is a second-generation former villager and staff member at Waldsee and Skogfjorden. He currently lives in St. Paul, MN with his wife and their two dogs.

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