Doing science, living abroad, and learning how to speak and think in a new language. Not so easy! But like many of you, I enjoy challenges. So, I took up all of these, all at once.
I left Italy 3 years ago to start a postdoc here in Baltimore, Maryland, at the National Institute on Aging. The NIA is an energetic, international environment, as is its parent organization, the National Institutes of Health. Although I am sure many of you left your country to pursue your science career, as I did, every story is different. Here is mine.
Why the United States? Why NIA?
For me, coming to the NIA meant joining an environment where things are state-of-the-art. Equipment is modern and readily available. When it comes to lab resources, there are more here at NIA and in the U.S. than most other places I have seen and heard about. We manage resources carefully at NIA, but my grad school years in Italy prepared me for this. Let’s just say that we made every single penny count. Two or three times, at least!
So at NIA, my struggle is a scientific and a cultural one—against the unknowns in my field and against my own assumptions, not against the day-to-day challenge of working without the best tools available.
The American writer Mark Twain says that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Back when I decided to make an international move to pursue opportunities in science, I didn’t know this quotation, except in my heart.
How is the perception of science and scientists different here?
The U.S. may seem an obvious choice when it comes to going where some of the best science is done. Yet, my choice was determined by the place I was headed to as much as by the place I was leaving.
I felt relieved by not finding here what I was most trying to leave behind: an environment that often frowns upon curiosity and can stagnate the spirit. Although I was lucky to be surrounded by talented, inspiring colleagues and mentors in grad school, I felt in Italy as if I was settling down for a life that could be too predictable.
I could have gone somewhere in Europe, closer to home. The Old World has many excellent laboratories, and I would have had a more gradual transition. But if you’re going to take a risk, it might as well be a big one. I looked west, and crossed the ocean.
My experience getting a U.S. visa for science
Of course, I am not a U.S. citizen, so the first problem hit me even before I left. I needed a working visa, and I had no clue how to get it. And, if you had ever had to deal with bureaucratic issues like this, you would have been as concerned as I was.
Luckily for us foreigners, the NIH is aware of how difficult that is for us. I couldn’t have hoped for a better and clearer walk-through to get my visa. All the documents were sent right to my house, and scheduling an appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Florence only took a couple of phone calls. (I did have to take a personal trip to Florence to get the visa—a great excuse to visit my favorite city again!)
Yes, visa laws are strict and bureaucracy can chew you to the bone, but the NIH helps you every step of the way. Even after you get here, thanks to the NIH Division of International Services office. They provide all sorts of advice and assistance before you arrive, and orientation and support after you make it to NIH.
So, today, I wake up every day to the pleasure (and the challenge) of learning. To inch forward the sum of human knowledge, with passion and determination. The map of my own field, the vast land of memory and neurogenesis in the elderly, still reads Here Be Dragons in so many areas. One day, I will be able to say I have shed light where lights were not before.
So, that is what it’s been like for me to come to the U.S. to do science. Have you had a similar experience? Or, a different one? Get in touch with me by commenting below.