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.
My 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
Moving to the U.S. for a Postdoc, a Partner’s Tale
Rachel and I met while she was an undergraduate student and I was completing my doctoral degree. We married, and, as I had no desire to move from my hometown, we settled in Brisbane, Australia, and began to develop our careers there. The next 12 years were intellectually stimulating for both of us, but fairly routine; the odd trip overseas, holidays on the coast with my parents or in the country with hers. Then, a most unusual Christmas present for me, a glass name plaque with “Drs. Tertius and Rachel de Kluyver” inscribed on it. Our life together was to become interesting indeed.
Four years later, Rachel, doctoral degree in hand, and I stood in the chill of a January evening outside Washington-Dulles International Airport waiting for our taxi. It was the week of President Obama’s inauguration, and the Australian currency had collapsed against the greenback, 60 cents to the dollar. The taxi fare was a shock and our hotel bill more so.
After a week of hotel living and eating out, we were able to sign a contract for an apartment. This, in itself, was no mean feat as most property managers require social security numbers as part of the vetting process of prospective tenants. We had just arrived and were still sorting out Rachel’s National Institutes of Health contract. SSNs?
Of course, a SSN also was required to establish an account with the NIH financial institution. This caused us some anxiety as we were relying on an NIH advance to stop the hemorrhage out of our Australian account. What were we to do? Cash the check and hide the money under our mattress? This was problematical in itself. Our household goods, which had been packed two months previously, were still on a dock in Australia.
When it comes to driving, we are “lefties” in Australia. I signed up for driving lessons to orient myself on American roads. Once confident that I wouldn’t make an ass of myself during a driving test, I sat for the Maryland driver’s license. More money spent, including the driver’s course, the drug and alcohol education course, hiring of the “test” car, photo and the license application fees.
By the time March came around, we were footsore from carrying our weekly shopping about a mile to our apartment and were ready to buy a car. Our financial institution offered us a good deal on a car loan, but now we came across a new and unexpected twist. Although Rachel is the breadwinner, I had to apply for the car loan because I was the one with an American driver’s license. I then had to open up a separate account from which loan repayments could be made, and Rachel had to sign on as my guarantor.
We knew from our research that I would not be eligible for work immediately. As Rachel’s “dependent,” I was granted a J2 visa, which allowed me to apply for an “Employment Authorization Card,” once I was in the U.S. This process can take up to three months.
The question of work for the noncontracted partner is the biggest consideration for any couple contemplating a move overseas for an extended period of time. I researched the job market extensively before we made the decision to come, as well as in the months leading up to the move itself. As an environmental scientist and manager, I was confident that I would find employment. But then, we were taken by surprise by the speed of the financial collapse and the depth of flow-on effects on employment. Certainly federal jobs were out there, but not for a non-U.S. citizen. In the private sector, I was told by one manager, “we are having problems retaining staff.”
Despite these difficulties, I kept trying, and work did come. I am currently an adjunct professor at Hood College, where I lecture in the graduate environmental science and policy course. My teaching keeps me very busy indeed, and I now have two graduate students starting projects with me.
Moving overseas for any reason is a big step. Rachel and I prepared as well as we could, and we were still caught by surprise in a number of different ways. But then, that is what gaining experience is all about, in both life and work. Are we disappointed with our choices? No! We are leveraging our professional qualifications and experience to follow a dream and experience what the world has to offer and to make new friends and stories that we really can write home about.
Tertius de Kluyver (email@example.com) has undergraduate degrees in biology and biochemistry and studied for his doctorate at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. He has worked as an environmental scientist, academic and manager in the public and private sectors and was a senior environmental manager with the Queensland Government. Tertius came to the U.S. in support of his wife’s postdoctoral position with the National Institutes of Health. He now teaches environmental science and policy at Hood College.