The ‘Away from home‘ blog series features promising young Indian postdocs working in foreign labs. They recount their experience of working in foreign lands, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences and what they miss about India. They also offer useful tips for other Indian postdocs headed abroad. You can join their online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
Our ‘Away from home’ interactive map features 47 bright Indian postdocs from around the world. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.
Today we feature Fareha Razvi, a postdoc researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), Omaha, Nebraska, USA and a PhD from Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Fareha tells us why choosing the right visa type is so essential for a research career in a foreign land.
Love at first sight
What saw me leave my home country India was my passion for “gene silencing” research. When I was a teenager, my mom wanted me to become a doctor. Sadly I failed in all medical entrance exams. So the only way I could become a doctor was to get a PhD. I did a bachelors in botany and masters in genetics from Delhi University. During masters, I stumbled upon the research area of gene silencing. I was completely fascinated with this mysterious phenomena. At that time, nobody knew how and why it occurs. I decided to do a PhD in this field.
Fortunately, I got a PhD offer from Fraunhofer Institute in Germany in my area of interest. It was a hard decision to leave India and my family, but the passion for this research area and encouragement by the family made the transition possible. After PhD, I felt the need to continue exploring this field and took up a postdoc opportunity in the same field but in a different biological system.
I arrived in the US for a postdoc in gene silencing and the biological system was green alga. I realised that research in gene silencing was making tremendous progress. Scientists around the world had started unraveling this phenomena. In 2006, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a group which discovered the trigger of this process. Based on the understanding of the mechanism of this process, the trigger of silencing “siRNA” has been implicated in therapeutic use by many pharmaceutical companies and it also holds potential use as vaccine for certain diseases.
For a couple of years, I worked on basic gene silencing research but then I moved to a lab that was working on its application. I enjoyed every project during my postdoc. I realised that two things can make a research career bitter or sweet – the research and the mentor. Passion for your research motivates you to excel and a good mentor becomes the backbone of your career goals, scientific temperament and professional skills. Based on my PhD and postdoctoral experience, the advice I have for future postdocs is: no matter which country, lab or field you opt for, it is important that your career goals are clear and each year you work towards them along with your project goals.
Visa choice can tell on career goals
Many of us leave our country excited about the offer from a foreign institute but we fail to weigh the pros and cons of the visa type we are offered. I left India thinking that after my PhD from Germany I will return and take up a teaching position at one of the colleges of Delhi University. But after PhD, I wanted to explore more in my research field. So I went to the US. After a while I realised that my H1B visa was due to expire and I had to leave the country. My career dreams terminated in 2012 not due to lack of funding but because of my visa. This is another advice that I would like to give to new postdocs, apart from making choices for research project and mentor, a right choice of visa type is equally relevant.
After spending a year being jobless in India I returned to the US on a spouse visa. It took me almost 3 years to get back to research because not many places were able to sponsor a working visa (H1B). The situation that I encountered is not very common but it can happen if you don’t take care to choose your visa type in the first few years of stay in the US. Also, as foreigners we look for a job that can give us a working visa.
Fortunately, I was able to restart my career as a postdoc in the pathology and microbiology department of University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), Omaha. It was exciting and challenging at the same time to work with microbes and not plants. The best thing I like about being a microbiologist is that I don’t have to wait for months to prove my hypothesis. Bacteria grow so fast that you can propose multiple hypothesis and work on them in a very short period of time. Currently, I am working to unravel a metabolic pathway which is as fascinating as it was working in gene silencing. I did get an opportunity to teach at the Metropolitan community college at Omaha which was very satisfying.
Tips from a postdoc
- Choose a research area that fascinates you (self-motivation is the key to success)
- Choose a mentor who appreciates a work-life balance and cares for your goals
- Choose the right visa type
- Know your goals so that you work towards them from day one
Indian at heart
The two things I miss most about my home country are the typical Indian wedding — the lavish food and dresses — and live performances – theatre, classical dance, ghazal recitals.