May 2010

Coming to America

It’s fairly common for international scientists to come to the United States for training. In fact, most labs are very multicultural, with their members representing several countries. Below, Carole Sourbier and Tertius de Kluyver tell their stories about coming to America.

Coming-to-America,-SourbierMy Brain Is Not American


Most people I speak to react very positively when they learn that I am originally from France. But, they usually have very little understanding as to why I came to the United States or why I wish to stay.

I came here to work, not to escape an unfriendly country or to follow the American dream. I had no expectations about the U.S. or any thoughts about a potential immigration. I had a great opportunity to work in a great lab, so I came. Filling out administrative papers to get a visa was not complicated, and, within a few months, I was able to move here.

From the beginning, on a work-related side, I have been totally fulfilled. I love doing research in the U.S. I thought that the research environment would be superior to that in France, and it is even better than I expected. I have had no trouble acclimating to my new lab, and my integration has gone smoothly. After all, Western blotting is the same in France as it is in the U.S. The main difference, for me, is the variety of opportunities to communicate science, meet outstanding researchers and set up collaborations. These opportunities have created a very stimulating environment, and I have learned a lot— from general science to very specific topics. I also have the impression that I am part of the “big picture” in my field of research. I guess that it is what a postdoctoral position is supposed to teach, and I am getting the best of it.

Although I came to the U.S. for work-related reasons, my move obviously has had an impact on my personal life. I came by myself, without family or friends, with only two bags and very poor English skills. I was not prepared at all to move to a foreign country, so you can imagine that, at the beginning, every day was difficult to get through. For the first month, my main concerns were about practical things, such as where to find a bed (sleeping on the floor was not a long term solution) or where to open a bank account.

But, after sorting these problems out, I was settled and ready to communicate with people around me. My inadequate English was never an issue for work-related matters; the lab was international enough to be “accent-friendly.” However, it turned out to be a problem for everything else. Fortunately, my colleagues were very helpful for practical things, such as making phone calls for me and giving me rides when I needed them. But, I felt that the conversations I had were very superficial, and I was not able to express what I meant. One of the worst things was feeling like an idiot because I could not understand what was happening in social situations. Most of the jokes were like big black holes, and I was unable to make any jokes myself.

It was a very frustrating period. So, I worked on my English skills. After a couple of months, my grasp of the English language improved, and I started being able to communicate with people. During that time, I noticed that the way people interact in the U.S. is different than in France. Not bad, just different. French culture may not differ from American culture as much as other cultures, but I still had to learn American etiquette and other “do’s and don’ts.”

I also had an unsettling feeling of not being myself when I was speaking. At first, I thought this was due to my lack of vocabulary and cultural references. But, now that my English is no longer a limiting factor, I sometimes still have this odd feeling. I think that it is because some words and expressions cannot be translated adequately. But, I’ve realized that they are part of me and my culture.

Someone told me that the way your brain works is influenced by the language you grew up with. I think this is true. My brain is not American. While this does sometimes make things more difficult for me, I consider it one of my strengths. The U.S. is a melting pot of people with multiple backgrounds and multiple ways of seeing and approaching the world. This is what makes the United States an attractive and enriching country for me. And, isn’t that what research is all about? Giving a new vision of sciences and of the world?

Carole Sourbier ( received her master degree in pharmacology in 2004 and her doctorate in pharmacology in 2007 from Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France. Her dissertation focused on the development of new targeted therapies for kidney cancers. In 2007, she joined the urologic oncology branch at the National Cancer Institute as a postdoctoral fellow to conduct translation research targeting hereditary forms of kidney cancers.

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