Staff and Distaff

by Rebecca Kolberg

It's one thing to move halfway around the world to pursue your own career goals, but it's quite another to pull up stakes and leave your homeland for another person's aspirations. Yet, that is exactly what thousands of spouses and children have done over the years to help foreign scientists realize their dreams of training or working at one of the top biomedical research institutions in the world, NIH.

"It's the wives who make the most sacrifices," says Hiroshi Ohno of NICHD. "The husband wants to come here to study and do research. The kids usually find it easy to adapt and learn English. But sometimes the wives are not good at English and they have to go out [to U.S. stores, schools, doctors' offices] the most."

Such altruism is no longer the exclusive domain of women. Husbands of female foreign scientists also uproot themselves from jobs and familiar surroundings to help advance their wives' research careers. For example, Mariusz Redowicz is an engineer who stepped down as vice president of a small company in Poland to enable his wife to take a postdoc position in NHLBI's Laboratory of Cell Biology. "He did make a sacrifice for me," says Jolanta Redowicz, who followed the Fogarty International Center's suggestion that foreign scientists arrive at NIH several weeks before their families so they can find a place to live and settle into the lab without family pressures.

Even when their husbands come along, the major responsibility for figuring out how to run a household in America generally falls to female scientists, says Redowicz, who has 2-year-old and 6-year-old sons. "It was a hard struggle," she says, but she takes pride in her domestic accomplishments, such as getting the family's first credit card and renting a car for a vacation trip to Florida.

Easing such burdens - for both foreign wives and female scientists - is a major goal of the International Women's Group, one of the liveliest, and most practical, support groups for foreigners at NIH. "This group helped me survive my first month here," says Mona Albandar, who left her native Norway a year ago so her husband Jasim Albandar could work at NIDR. "I was feeling very lonely being so far away from my family. It was very nice to meet with other women who are all in the same situation." Jane Smith, a recent arrival from England along with her researcher husband Roger Smith, agrees; "This is the best thing to happen to me since I've been here. I look forward to it all week." Although one might think the transition from England to the United States would be a breeze given the common language, Smith finds that many Americans stare at her with a "blank expression" because they can't understand her accent.

At one of the group's weekly coffee hours at St. Luke's Episcopal Church just north of the Bethesda campus, women from Japan, Germany, Algeria, France, England, Sweden, Norway, France, Scotland, and the United States exchanged news while their children checked out the cookies and toys. "Morning coffee is a place where I have to speak English, and that's good for me," says Sophie Normant, who left her teaching job in France just a couple weeks earlier to join her husband Emmanuel Normant, a postdoc at NICHD. Her sentiments are seconded by Miya Ohtsuki, who came to the United States a year ago with her husband Toshiho Ohtsuki of NINDS: "I want a chance to speak English and a chance to meet persons from many different countries."

The gathering also gives women a chance to air their pet peeves about American life. "Driving! That's the hardest," says Ohtsuki, while Barbara Wichtroup-Otteken, whose husband Ahlent works at NIAID, could do without Maryland's hot, sticky summers and the inconvenient sprawl of American suburbs.

Some of the women who've put their professional lives on hold to come with their spouses to NIH are using the break in their careers to have a child. Catriona Yeudall, a dentist whose dentist husband Andrew Yeudall came to NIDR two years ago for a postdoc, says she's enjoyed having the time with the couple's 13-month-old son, Scott, and hopes to resume her career when she returns to Scotland. Others, once they get settled in, apply for green cards and start looking for work. Marie-Christine Fournier, who came to Bethesda 1 1/2 years ago from Quebec with her husband NICHD postdoc Stephen Lee, says her involvement in the International Women's Group was a driving force in her decision to go out and get a job as a lab technician at NICHD. "This group really helped me gain self-confidence in an English-speaking environment," she says.

International Women's Group

Purpose: To provide support, information, and entertainment to the group's 160 members, who include wives of foreign scientists and female foreign scientists.

Meetings: First Thursday of the month, 8 p.m. Coffee hour, every Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. - noon. Events held at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, on Grosvenor Lane off Old Georgetown Road.

Resources: Publishes a monthly newsletter and maintains a phone list to keep members in touch with each other. Activities include an international cooking club, a baby-sitting co-op, field trips to famous sites in the Washington area, and meetings to learn about international customs such as the Japanese tea ceremony. Provides individual assistance to members who are sick or in need of other help.

Contacts: Mirelle Lapeyre, phone: 301 424-2539; Marie-Christine Fournier, phone: 301 493-6249.

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