Globe-trotting scientist… Now what?

Feb 09 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I am a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience. I am still looking for my true calling, which definitely involves learning about awesome science, data visualization and helping people reach their goals (anyone knows what that is?). And I (almost) overcame impostor syndrome!

The beginning

I was born and raised in a tiny Island in the West Indies (fancy name for the Caribbean) where I spoke French and Creole. Growing up, my parents would take my brother and me on vacation to neighboring islands for 3 to 5 days every other year or so, sparking my love of travel and speaking foreign languages.  To me, the power of being able to communicate with anybody anywhere in the world was close to magical. I was already a bit weird and somewhat frightened by people in general, crazy children and hormonal teenagers in particular. Yet, and probably paradoxically, speaking another language, even in a rudimentary way, gave me the confidence and drive to go and connect with virtually anybody anywhere. It was a bit like an invisible barrier was taken down. Not the same barrier I encountered in my everyday interaction with French speaking people, but it was still somehow liberating. I found that people tend to open-up and are happy to share when you actively try to understand them and level with them. I find this to be true in any aspect of human interaction. If you come to someone with no expectation but the willingness to share a bit of what makes them who they are, they are more likely to let you in and connect with you. As it turns out, people are pretty great, once the first social armor is peeled off. Plus, being all bewildered by new environments, I also shed my “resting pouty face”. I was informed when I was about fifteen years old that my neutral facial expression makes me look like I am thoroughly disgusted by the people in front of me. Turns out my cute serious/pouty baby face had stopped being any of that a while back.

Science? Mmmmh…

I was a very curious child and I demanded to get put in school before I turned 2. I went happily, with my pacifier and blancky in my backpack as a keepsake. I was an above average student, although more a feeler than a thinker and I have always been pretty bad at memorizing stuff. I like going by ear and therefore, literature, philosophy and language were where I shined. Science, not so much. So when science classes got more complex than things I could relate to on a day-to-day basis, my grades went down. I could understand complex principles very quickly, but they escaped my memory pretty much as quickly. When it was time to decide what I wanted to do for a living, the school counselor gave me one of the best advice I have received so far: “Choose your career based on what you want to do, not your grades and what people say you should do”.  People thought I should become a translator, since I was learning three foreign languages and yearning for more. For me, it was just fun. The idea of turning it into work and having to apply hard rules to it just sounded terrible. I was always fascinated by the fact that animals and people can walk, communicate and make decisions. So one day, when I was 7, I decided that I would know everything about the two things that makes animal life possible: the heart and the brain.

Leaving the nest

So here I go, 11 years later, leaving my island for another one and starting engineering prep school. These schools are known for being very intense and I wanted to know how well I could work under constant pressure and in a highly competitive environment before applying to med school. The answer: not a fan. So I finished that year and left for the old continent to study biology. My math teacher had invited a researcher to share with us his career path and I was hooked. Not only is research about answering your own questions instead of waiting on someone to do it for you, a PhD opens the door to any country and you get to travel a lot for conferences…for free. I was going to become a neuroscientist and study how the brain makes people who they are and I would finally understand why people do what they do. I got my Masters degree studying the epigenetic mechanisms of imprinting. Imprinting is what makes a duckling think that the first moving object it sees is its mother and follow it everywhere all its life. My model was a transparent worm: C.elegans. This project did not involve a lot of molecular biology or genetics, which I thought was pretty boring anyway, according to the classes I was taking. Therefore by the time I applied to grad school, I could barely use a pipette and had forgotten how to calculate dilutions. But off I went again, to Italy this time, with some dusty Spanish and Portuguese class memories, a failed attempt to dissect mouse embryos without freaking out, and a slight disgust for genetics in my pocket, to start studying… the genetics a brain development in mouse, in a country about which I knew virtually nothing.

Another leap

Armed with a French-Italian pocket dictionary, I went on an apartment hunt, talking to landlords on the phone, taking as many notes as I could, guessing the words, saying yes and then checking up what on earth I had just agreed to. I missed a couple of appointments, but survival instinct mixed with guilt and the very real perspective of having to sleep outside is the most effective recipe to learn a language quickly! One rainy afternoon, I finally found my dream apartment, located, like 95% of anything in that city, above a tiny church. With a roof over my head, I could finally dedicate my body and soul to my PhD degree. My life became full of twelve-hour days with no bathroom break – no time for basic human needs, I am trying to do SCIENCE here! – on a good week and the distinct feeling that my boss had made a reckless decision hiring me for the job. Clearly, I was not smart enough for this! Brutal first encounter with molecular cloning, my nemesis. It took me about a year to finally get the three DNA constructs that would allow me to start one of my projects. Meanwhile, the mice I was supposed to study where still stuck in Germany, but we still had no animal facility anyway. The following years came with a couple of hardships. I crushed a vertebra on my first vacation and was put on bed-rest. People with whom my relationship was limited to a quick “Hi” in the lab corridors started calling and offering to help me by cleaning my house and going grocery shopping for me. They sent me movies and visited. I was shocked and deeply touched and one day I asked one of my Italian friends about it. She looked at me in surprise and said: “We just imagine that if our sister or daughter was alone abroad and in difficulty, we would like her to get all the help she needs”. That is what I think about when I recall my days in Italy. Yes, it was incredibly hard, but I met wonderful people who made this experience feel like family bonding. That and their brutal honesty mixed with a true love of gossip.

And off again

For the first time, I was truly sad to leave, as I felt like I was leaving people that had become as important to me as my direct family. I was realizing that what attracted me to the life of scientific research was something I might not crave anymore. I wanted stability and long lasting relationships. With that spirit, I went on to live and work in the US, country where hard work opens all the doors! I had never even visit the US before. The air smelled like cinnamon and the abundance of trees made me feel like I could call this place home someday. The sun did not really show up for the following two months, but it did not matter to me. Everything was new, big and…cheap!! The Euro was still pretty strong and the abundance of opportunities to spend money was overwhelming. There seemed to be a sale going on every week. Having neglected my health for the last four years, I decided that it was time to take control over my life, starting with my body. I spent my time between the lab, the gym and the mall, while adapting to the way people interact in America. I missed the coffee breaks when half the people on the floor would go together to the coffee machine and chat for 5-10 minutes, newbies and veterans alike. I found that coffee breaks are more of a personal, slightly on the down-low kind of thing in the US. I would have to find another way to make new friends, which I did. And they are absolutely fantastic!

Now what?

I sort of knew that I did not want to be a PI about mid-grad school. But I had no idea what else I could do. I felt like I had no practical knowledge. Quitting was not an option for me, matter of principle or maybe pride. I decided to do a postdoc to “double-check” my feelings and make sure that it was not the grad-school trauma talking. It was not.

I have spent the last 3 years wondering where I would fit, writing and re-writing my resume, probably over 60 times. Wherever I went, the same advice: you need to network. Where I am from, getting a job because you know someone on the inside might be a more or less common practice, but it is not something you brag about! I was very confused and frustrated to hear that all my efforts, being a good little soldier and putting my education first for all these years… was not worth much on the “real life” job market.

I moaned for a while, contemplating going back home. After all, I knew 5 people in the whole country, never really knew how to integrate groups unless I was openly invited to do so and hated the idea of talking to people just because I wanted something from them. Yet I was being told that this was pretty much my best option! I moaned for a while, but then I decided that all this was a game and I had to play or quit. Quitting was still not an option. I read a book about networking for introvert, realized that it is not a numbers game and that it would be a good opportunity to just meet people and work on these interpersonal skills I was seeing on all the job descriptions. I still do not really know where I would fit, but by talking with many people, I am learning about myself, what I can do and what I like to do. Networking exposed me to many different people and every conversation lifts a bit of the fog over my future. I have changed a lot during the past couple of years. Getting out of my comfort zone pushed me toward new experiences and people, and I that is exactly what is needed when one wants a life/career change. Although I have not found my new calling yet, I am confident that the answer is not too far now! I just need to keep working hard on and off the bench, even if it does feel like I have 2 jobs.









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