To supplement this month’s SoNYC discussion, on Of Schemes and Memes we have been delving into the world of minority scientists. Our first installment from Jeanne Garbarino, a Postdoc at Rockefeller University, considered some of the underrepresented groups within science. In our second instalment, Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer discussed her role as the vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit, grassroots organization that promotes science, research and scientific literacy in Puerto Rico. Our third post was from Subhra Priyadarshini, editor of Nature Publishing Group’s India portal who talked about life for scientists in India. In our latest post we will hear from Satoshi Uchiyama, a Japanese researcher working abroad, as he details his career to date.
Working away from your homeland as a scientific researcher means you may face many barriers such as culture changes, language barriers, and visa issues. Satoshi Uchiyama, originally from Japan, is a researcher in the field of microbiology, now working at the University of Zurich. In his guest post he details his career story including the move from Japan to the other side of the world, all in the name of science.
I finished my medical school and my residency as a paediatrician in Japan. After this, I worked for 3 more years in general paediatrics and neonatology. At this point, I decided that I wanted to focus my efforts on infectious disease and live in the United States. I obtained funding from a Japanese foundation and moved over to San Diego to start my carrier as a researcher at the University of California, San Diego. At this point I had no idea what I wanted to do in the future: research or clinical medicine? I came to the conclusion that I liked the excitement of working as a scientist more and that I didn’t want to go back to my original position working as a physician.
Looking back, I was fortunate that everything worked out well for me. Changing jobs and location causes a lot of stress for people, especially when you relocate to a different country. When I relocated to the US, I moved with my wife and thankfully she had experienced living in other countries before, which made the move much easier for us. However, one of the best things about my change was my new lab PI. He was a great researcher and a thoughtful person; he cared about me and my family. With this emotional support network, I could concentrate on my scientific research without any obstacles.
Now onto my visa situation, something a lot of foreign researchers struggle with. (Please keep in mind that I am not a visa specialist and this information is for Japanese citizens.) I had a J Visa to work as a science researcher in the US. For Japanese people the J visa can be extended up to 5 years and cannot be extended after that time. If you want to continue working in US, for instance, the choice will be to find a lab that supports an H visa, or alternatively to get a green card. If you want to apply for another J visa, you have to live outside the US for 2 more years before you can reapply. (I am not explaining about the “2 years rules” but you can read more about it here.)
I came to the conclusion that at the end of my 4th year in US, it was a good time to think about my future. My J Visa was only good for another year and I finally passed my PhD degree from my university in Japan. I had a difficult decision to make, decisions most foreign researchers have to face at some point in their career. My options: should I continue my career as a researcher, or should I go back to my original job as a paediatrician? Should I find a lab or a company in the US that would support the H visa? Or should I go back to Japan?
For me the decision was easy and things worked out well. It transpired that one of my Swiss co-workers at UCSD got an independent position back at the University of Zurich. I asked her if they required any researchers there and she offered me a postdoc position. So I decided to move to Switzerland.
Switzerland was far from Japan and San Diego, but despite this and the culture shock the move was relatively stress free. The only concern I had was the language barrier, an issue foreign scientists sometimes face. Zurich is a German speaking part of Switzerland, and I don’t speak German. It turned out that most people in Zurich speak English and in my new lab they work in English. To date, my family, including my daughter, who was born in US, have settled down nicely and we are all happy, very happy. Zurich is an expensive city to live in, but life as a postdoc here is great – my income is almost twice what a postdoc gets in US.
Visas (working permissions) are not as complicated here in Switzerland as they are in the US – they are just harder to get for non-EU citizens. However, if you have strong support from your lab, they can be obtained relatively easily and extended for as long as the lab keeps on supporting you.
So what does my future hold? I have decided that I will continue working as a researcher for as long as I can. I would love to stay in Switzerland or in Europe, if I get the chance to, or I may even consider going back to US or Japan. All I know is that despite the hurdles I have faced with visas, language barriers and culture changes, I will continue to work hard for my lab, enjoying every day as a research scientist.