Moving for Science: the Coming to America Edition

In our ongoing “When I Grow Up” series, my close friend and great scientist Dr. Simon Uribe-Convers writes about the experience of coming to the United States for Science. In additions to his scientific contributions, he was notorious at the University of Idaho for two things: 1) He was a great mentor to other PhD students who were moving to a small town in Idaho from various South American countries and 2) He started the tradition of the PhDerailer (it tastes like angel tears and happiness). Both lasting legacies of his time at Idaho. 

It’s been over eight years since I arrived in the United States from Colombia to start my graduate career. I began with a Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Idaho, followed by a postdoc at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and a second postdoc at the University of Michigan. Not only have I lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a large sprawling city in the Midwest, and a buzzing college town crazy for (American) football, but I have driven from coast to coast, traveled to more than 20 states, and married an American—so you can say I know the country quite well. When asked to write about my experiences in this country as a foreign scientist, I took the opportunity to think introspectively and to reflect about it all. Even though I am writing these words with the US in mind, they can completely be applied to other countries—I lived in Germany and Spain for a year each and the experience of being a foreigner is, as a whole, similar. By the way, I’m not going to mention some very important things to keep in mind because a friend of mine just wrote about them last week!

Do your homework and find a good principal investigator (PI) to work with 

This one is straightforward and also applies to Americans, but it is absolutely essential. You will spend a lot of time with your graduate or postdoctoral advisor—they will guide and influence your research and take decisions that will affect your development as a scientist, so working with a person with whom you have nothing in common is a bad move. As foreigners, we are mostly aware of the big universities (i.e., Ivy League schools) but the US has so much more to offer! Instead of focusing only on the big name schools, focus on the person you want to work with first. A good approach is to think of the scientific papers that you like or that have had an impact on your research, and to pay attention to the author list. You should also do this with a few scientific journals that are relevant to your field. Do you see people that keep popping up? These are the people you should work with! Write them an email—almost everyone is nice about getting questions about working with them—and start a conversation. Be aware that people are busy and that PIs get many (~100) emails a day, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately. Also, and this is key, be sure to send a polite and casual reminder with your first email attached to it if you haven’t heard back in a week or so. Again, people are busy and your email might have gotten lost among the others.

Integrate—you are not in your country.

So you traveled to the US to pursue a Ph.D./Postdoc. That’s great, enjoy it, but don’t forget that life exists outside of school! Now is the time for you to adapt, integrate, and familiarize with the local culture. First off, do you feel comfortable with the language? If not, try to take courses before you arrive or soon after, as this will make the transition to your new life much smoother. Second, learn about the acceptable social norms and abide by them, and be accepting and respectful of the way people operate here. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t like for a foreigner to come to your country and disrespect what makes your country special for you. Don’t be that person. Third, make local friends. We are always drawn to people who are similar to us (e.g., same culture) but if you are, for example, Latino and you only have Latin friends, you will not learn anything new about the local culture. Having American friends will also help you with my first and second points because you will speak English constantly and friends will let you know if you are disrespecting their local culture. Moreover, you will experience things that depending on where you are from, you haven’t been exposed to; such as skiing, sledding, or other winter sports. Bottom line, go make friends; carve pumpkins in Halloween, get invited to a proper thanksgiving dinner, and be open to new experiences within a community.

Share what’s yours

Now that you have American friends, be sure to share your own culture, language, and social norms! Throw a party to celebrate one of your country’s holidays, make some of your country’s food, and show people a part of your heritage. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world and people love experiencing new cultures and cuisines, so share what’s yours and highlight your own culture!

Understand the American system

Each country has its own way of doing things and the United States is not different. Within the first two weeks of arriving you will have to: get a social security card, a phone, a driver’s license or state ID, open a bank account, etc., and each of these transactions will require different documents and forms. It’s not difficult but it can take time to figure out. The good thing is that most universities have a group of people in charge of international students, and who will give you lots of information about all this. Take advantage of the facilities that your university has and make your life easier. One thing I struggled with (as many people from all nationalities including Americans) was understanding the healthcare system. What’s a deductible, what’s a co-pay, what’s covered and what’s not? These are complicated questions and are different in every state and insurance company, so make sure you understand them well and if you don’t, ask for help! Again, universities have people who can help you with this, so do your homework and avoid massive medical bills. Concerned? Don’t even get me started with taxes! Bottom line, find the information and help you need to navigate the system and you’ll be fine.

Enjoy your time in the United States!

I have traveled throughout the country, camped in breathtaking national parks, visited cities that blew my mind, and most importantly, created long-lasting friendships along the way. This country has been very good to me and I hope that it is as good, or better, to you. Now, go explore it!

Do you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for someone coming to the US? Leave them in the comments below, I would love to hear what others have to say about their experience!

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LGBTQ+ issues in STEM diversity: Diverse science = better science

Why does this matter? Because, to stay competitive in the world economy, America needs more scientists and engineers—and evidence shows that diversity may lead to better science.

Evidence suggests that diverse teams encourage more innovation and creativity, and may lead to better science. A 2014 article in Scientific American on “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” notes that “simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”

And yet, the lack of data on LGBTQ+ careers in science leads to a silence that is discouraging from those same groups we are trying to incorporate.

Read about it hereLGBT1.jpg

As a woman in science, I need to conceal my femininity to be taken seriously

Over at Vox, Eve Forster, a female neuroscience PhD student, conducted an experiment. For one week on Twitter, she changed her avatar to a male avatar to determine if she would be treated differently as a man. She kept everything else the same, and is very hesitant with her preliminary results (as a good scientist, she recognizes that this is largely anecdotal) but her experience is none-the-less fascinating.

Read about it here.

And tell me about a terrible mansplaining experience you’ve had (a student explaining to you what’s on the test you’ve written…)

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Big Lab or Small? What’s right for you?

Similar to my advice about picking a PhD advisor, a new article in Nature asks the same question… about postdoc labs.

I particularly like the story of an advisor needing to rend 3 buses to get everyone to the end of summer party (I can’t even imagine a lab that big)(no seriously).

Read it here!

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Ann Miller (centre) carefully selects postdocs to ensure that they are a good fit in her small lab.

Science first, scientists later

In the biological sciences, authorship of scientific, peer-reviewed articles is perhaps the single biggest determinant of career success, recognition and grant funding. However, merely being one author out of, say 5, on an article is not enough, where you are on that list matters too.

Steven Burgess has proposed a radical idea on how to do away with this problem:

Want to know how? Read about it here!

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Thanks Dynamic Ecology!

Saving me the time of having to write a “how to pick a great postdoc” Dynamic Ecology has already written a great post about how to pick a postdoctoral advisor.

I agree with almost everything they wrote. So if you are finishing up and want to know where to go next, start here.

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Me and my postdoc advisor Robert Paxton doing field work in Scotland. Very good advisor!

 

Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough

Double whammy this week about diversity in science and how to change your lab/department/field. I’m not complaining, bring on the diversity!

And in an interesting twist, both of the posts this week (this one too) are peer-reviewed papers, rather than blog posts. Which is awesome.

Abstract below, paper here. And let’s keep talking about this/doing something to contribute.

Summary

Diversity among scientists can foster better science (12), yet engaging and retaining a diversity of students and researchers in science has been difficult (3). Actions that promote diversity are well defined (4), organizations are increasingly focused on diversity (5), and many institutions are developing initiatives to recruit and enroll students from underrepresented minority (URM) groups (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual identity, or persons with disabilities). Yet representation of URM groups in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields lag behind demographics in society at large (35), and many URM students feel unwelcome in academic departments and in scientific fields. Why is progress so limited (67)? We see a widespread and under-acknowledged disconnect between initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in academic and professional institutions and the experience of URM students (including many of us authors) (67). We argue that failure to grasp foundations of this disconnect is the crux of why diversity initiatives fail to reach the students that they were made to recruit. We believe that addressing this will resonate with other individuals and groups and help advance discussion in the scientific community.

Citation:

Chandler Puritty, Lynette R. Strickland, Eanas Alia, Benjamin Blonder, Emily Klein, Michel T. Kohl, Earyn McGee, Maclovia Quintana, Robyn E. Ridley, Beth Tellman, and Leah R. Gerber. Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough. 2017. Science Vol. 357, Issue 6356, pp. 1101-1102. DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9054