From Kharagpur To Bethesda

by Susan Chacko, Ph.D., NIDDK

It's rare for foreign scientists at NIH to feel the sort of cultural isolation that might be experienced if they had left their homelands for, say, a small town in the Midwest. After all, just walk into the Building 10 cafeteria, and you're almost in the United Nations. You are surrounded by a huge variety of accents and languages, many of which you can vaguely identify only by continent. In the lab, your colleagues are as likely to be Chinese, Indian, or Hungarian as American.

This atmosphere of ethnic diversity extends beyond the Bethesda campus into the Washington metropolitan area where foreign-language videos, music, and literature are readily available. Because there's no better comfort than home food (or some facsimile thereof!) in moments of extreme cultural alienation, it helps to be surrounded by the ethnic restaurants of Bethesda and its neighbors. You can also watch foreign films at the Kennedy Center and attend cultural performances by your countrymen. As in most places in America, news from home is often sparse, but CNN and electronic newsgroups on the Internet are improving things considerably. In addition, competition among the long-distance phone companies keeps on driving down the rates for international calls to the friends and relatives you've left behind.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the foreign-scientist population at NIH has been changing somewhat over time. Thirty years ago, almost all researchers came directly from their home countries to be postdocs or visiting associates at NIH. These days, it seems that more visiting fellows and foreigners with intramural research training awards (IRTAs) are coming, as I did, to NIH postdoc positions from Ph.D. programs in the United States. My move from Kharagpur, India, to Urbana, Ill., was a tremendous cultural shock, but moving from Urbana to Houston to Bethesda proved to be just a minor blip. In contrast, visiting fellows who come directly to NIH from a foreign country may encounter quite a few practical difficulties in their first few weeks.

Given the number of foreign scientists who arrive at NIH each year, it's surprising that the intramural program has no organized system to provide foreigners with some sort of accommodation for the first few days while they recover from jet lag, get all their paperwork processed, and find a place to live. Money can be another problem: many foreign scientists cannot afford to bring in the funds to cover the start-up expenses of rent, deposits, and buying furniture. As newcomers without credit histories, they cannot get short-term loans to tide them over until that first paycheck arrives. Most NIH supervisors are very helpful with practical problems, but it would be nice if new arrivals did not have to be completely dependent on such kindness. It's also surprising that a campus of such ethnic diversity has relatively few associations of foreign scientists compared with college campuses, where every ethnic group seems to have an association to assist newcomers.

Once here, many foreign scientists find themselves in a constant race with the visa clock. Some do want to stay in the United States, but even those who plan to return home are often faced with hard deadlines - and difficult scientific decisions - when their visas run out and bureaucratic red tape stands in the way of the needed renewals or extensions. Even a six-month visa extension could help a postdoc who needs to finish up an experiment or write a paper - a paper that might make a big difference in the job search back home. Federal legislation that would tighten some immigration regulations also makes foreign scientists nervous because they fear that if such initiatives pass, it could be a sign of even more restrictive measures to come [see box, page 10].

Once you become wrapped up in research and start exploring NIH's wealth of scientific opportunities, however, there's little time to worry about anything more than immediate challenges. The seminar listings on each week's "Yellow Sheet" are just one indicator of the high quality of science - and scientists - that are available to foreign researchers at NIH. The NIH Library is a step away, and anything you can't find there is probably two steps away at the National Library of Medicine. Researchers can use on-line databases, journals, reprints, fax machines, and telephones without the incessant funding concerns that preoccupy most labs abroad. There is still some room for improvement, though. Foreign scientists could use more opportunities to make oral presentations, especially because some may not have given many scientific talks in their homelands. Seminars in U.S. labs tend to be more informal and off-the-cuff than in many other nations, and this sort of public speaking takes practice, especially for those unfamiliar with the style.

After a period of adjustment, most scientists settle in at NIH and seem to do quite well in their research careers, whether they remain in the United States or return to their homelands. As for myself, I'm certain that the way my time in Bethesda has helped to polish my research skills - and my squash game - will prove valuable for years to come.

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