Going Abroad for the Pursuit of Science
Simone Temporal, Ph.D. Tweet @SimoneTemporal
On March 2, 2013, I arrived in the sunny south of France with my life whittled down to two suitcases and feeling full of hope. Eight months earlier, I had accepted a postdoctoral position to join a lab in France. Friends and family were excited about the location. For me, the position was an opportunity to be more competitive in the academic job market with research related to a neurodegenerative disease using a mammalian animal model… which just so happened to be in France. My goal was to have my own lab some day and I knew what I needed to put on my curriculum vitae to get it – publications in top journals. I also arrived with confidence. When I graduated, my fellow labmates told me that they would be lost in lab without me because I managed the lab, made the orders, and trained all the newbies. I felt hopeful, focused, and confident. Several months later, I would feel despondent.
My downward spiral happened gradually. The people in my lab* were cordial. I was invited to join everyone for lunch and the occasional social outings. But everyone at work spoke French. During my interview, my boss assured me that I would not need French for work because everyone in lab speaks English since it’s the international language of science. He meant everyone would speak English with me. Besides lunch and coffee breaks, most seminars, departmental meetings, and even some parts of my group’s** meetings were held in French and the technicians spoke limited English.
At first, I embraced the challenge. I reasoned that I needed to absorb French anyway to adapt to my new resident country and to make friends. I was adamant to not become the stereotypical American, who expected everyone to speak English. I poured myself into the free French lessons through my funding agency and immersed myself by listening and watching only French programs even at home.
After 3 months of this, I lost myself. Listening to other people’s conversations during lunch and coffee breaks without a chance to reciprocate and take part became cruel. I stopped going to work gatherings. I thought, “Why should I go if I I’m not going to be actively involved?” My position in France was an extreme change. I was a significant part of my previous lab and felt like a ghost in my current one. I developed the habit of crying nightly but dismissed my feelings as homesickness.
I tried to regain my confidence by engrossing myself into the one thing I loved – science. I took advantage of not being able to sleep by getting to work by 6 am. I developed two successful protocols and generated data ahead of schedule. When my boss saw my progress, he told me my work had the potential for a Nature publication! I continued to cry at night and sleep very little but the prospect of a Nature paper made it ok…for another month.
After a month of generating another data set for the possible Nature paper, the analysis showed that the experiment didn’t work. I unraveled. I handed in my resignation and instead of accepting it my boss gave me a week off. When I returned, he convinced me to stay for the sake of my career, which would advance with the high-impact publication.
I stayed for another 8 months. Despite making a few friends, going out, and taking yoga, during this time I not only continued to cry at night but also developed a paralysis about going to work. There were days that I would be dressed, ready for work and couldn’t walk out the door. This experience depleted my confidence. I took pride in my work but found myself unable to even make the little effort to go.
In May 2014, I decided to make a pit stop at my old lab during a visit to the U.S. to finalize data for my second first-author publication in person. The halls to my lab had changed but just walking back reminded me of a time I loved going to work. I felt a bounce in my step.
I also saw three friends during my visit. The friends whom I stayed with prepared tacos and a special breakfast just for my visit and we played board games. Another friend and I watched Frozen, ate pizza, and played video games. The time reminded me of happiness. When I returned to my friend’s place that night, I emailed my resignation letter and didn’t waiver when my boss reminded me of the Nature paper when I returned to France and spoke to him face-to-face.
At the end of May, I returned to the U.S. with the same two suitcases but with new insights included. I had discovered what I truly needed, and to my surprise it wasn’t career advancement by way of Nature. I honestly thought that my work achievements got me out the door in the morning and that the people (my labmates and mentor) were just the cherry on top. I ignored my emotions for months for the sake of my ambitions and didn’t credit the true aspects of my life that gave me a sense of fulfillment, like tacos, board games, and movies with friends. Lastly, my experience taught me the simple human desire to belong. After my experience, I realized that it’s not enough to be tolerant but inclusive as well. It’s a nice gesture to invite someone along for lunch, but it’s a more rewarding experience for everyone if they’re included in the discussions.
The silver lining of such extreme situations is that they shake you to the core, and at the end you’re grasping what it is that you really hold dear.
*In France, a “lab” refers to those who share the same department head
**In France, members of a “group” shares the same primary investigator