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Vol. LVIII, No. 3
February 10, 2006

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A Bow or a Handshake?
Foreign Researchers Make Transition to Life at NIH

On the front page...

Imagine leaving the warmth of family and friends to move to a country where you know few people, little of the language and even less of its customs — all in the name of scientific research. Currently, some 2,800 NIH scientists from nearly 100 countries face that challenge.


Dr. Esteban Fridman, a former visiting fellow from Argentina, knows what it's like. When he first arrived on campus, it took time to get used to "the rhythm of NIH," an environment where "something is always happening somewhere." Once he achieved that, he took pleasure in beginning work at 6 a.m. and meeting with other enthusiastic fellows and his lab chief. "The atmosphere was a wealth of learning," he recalled. "Every Monday morning, the entire section had a meeting where all the events at NIH were presented so that one could schedule his or her week accordingly. Lab meeting discussions varied throughout the week from sharing experiment results with our peers to journal meetings where relevant research topics were reviewed."

Fridman returned to his native country after studying at NINDS. When he left NIH in 1992, he was awarded a Global Health Research Initiative Program Grant for New Foreign Investigators, which helps NIH-trained researchers make a smooth transition back to their country. Today he is head of the neurorehabilitation section at the Institute for Neurological Research in Argentina.

  Members of the Division of International Services include (front row, from l) Candelario Zapata, director; Radames Mendoza, Brian Daly, Michelle DeNamur, Vivian Weaver. At rear are (from l) Amy Powers, Filiz Wallace, Michelle Mejia, Linda Kiefer, Melba Rojas and Stephanie Hartsock.

A Bow or a Handshake?

Candelario Zapata, director of the Division of International Services, ORS, and his colleagues help visiting scientists adapt to life in the United States. Every foreign researcher on campus passes through the division to obtain clearance to work at NIH. The division provides scientists with information on basic necessities such as housing, driving, opening a bank account — no easy chore since their ability to speak and comprehend English is often rudimentary. The division offers a range of information to help newcomers and their family members adjust to life in a foreign land. For instance, in order to show an awareness of cultural sensitivity, "we allow the newcomer to show us if a bow or a handshake is appropriate," says Zapata.

His office finds few idle moments since NIH currently has 2,774 foreign scientists from 99 countries. The largest foreign contingent — more than 400 investigators — hails from the People's Republic of China, followed by Japan with more than 300 researchers. On the other side of the spectrum are more than two dozen countries represented by only 1 scientist, including Algeria, Iceland, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe.
Top 10 Countries of Origin for Visiting Scientists
(as of Jan. 5, 2006)
People's Republic of China 423
Japan 342
Korea 283
India 259
Italy 142
Canada 121
France 120
Germany 109
Russia 103
United Kingdom 97
Top Five Institutes Employing Foreign Scientists
(as of Jan. 5, 2006)
NCI 714

While the National Cancer Institute employs most foreign scientists, with more than 700 active researchers alone, visitors from abroad are currently working in 23 other institutes and centers. From the day they arrive on campus, their mission is to produce and publish quality research so that when they return to their native countries, they can share their accumulated knowledge with colleagues. In some cases, however, these scientists have a dual purpose — they are also working to obtain U.S. permanent residence (i.e., get their "green cards"). "They put every ounce of energy into learning the language and publishing, so they can become U.S. citizens, if so desired," says Zapata.

Getting to Know You: Life in the Lab

In Hye Lee of the molecular biology section, Cardiovascular Branch, NHLBI, arrived from Seoul, Korea, last fall. Prior to her employment, she attended meetings in the U.S. to learn state-of-the-art procedures in her field. While at a conference in Tucson in 2002, she met Dr. Sue Goo Rhee, who arranged for her to work in his lab for 1 months, studying phospholipase C using automated magnetic cell sorting. Fortunately, this led Lee to her current appointment under the supervision of Dr. Toren Finkel, where she studies reactive oxygen species and aging.

Lee's day begins early with experiments in her Bldg. 10 laboratory before she heads over to the Fitness Center in Bldg. 31 to work out. Her average work week consists of approximately 60 hours — including the time she spends in the lab during the weekend. Meanwhile, her interest in other languages and cultures, socializing with American, Korean or other foreign colleagues and visiting local relatives has helped mitigate the absence of her immediate family. She is adjusting well and taking advantage of opportunities afforded at NIH. Lee would like to remain in the U.S. and widen her professional opportunities. "While at the NIH, I very much enjoy working on new and interesting projects and talking to others about their scientific results."

For most foreign scientists, the challenge of being a stranger in a strange land is daunting, but ultimately rewarding. According to Fridman, "The NIH experience opened my career. I can summarize my time at the NIH as the most important experience in my career."

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