If someone had asked me three years ago, shortly before I left for New York, how long I intended to stay, I would probably have replied “Forever!” with full conviction. Ever since I embarked on my doctoral studies I was completely clear about wanting to continue my scientific career in the USA. To my mind, the USA was the best, if not the only, place to engage in “genuine research”. Time flies and three years have passed very quickly – although I have to admit that some weeks when not a single day was spent outside the lab felt pretty endless (but that’s life as a scientist, it’s the same in the USA and in Austria) – and I am looking forward to returning to Austria with my new-found conviction that “genuine research” is not linked to any one particular country.
Place of Research
“Shoot for the moon, if you miss it, you will still land among the stars” – that was my motto when I applied for a postdoc position with the best laboratories in my discipline. And this is how I actually ended up with Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. My life and work here have helped me understand that good research starts by asking the right questions and that you can make a small but significant contribution to science by simply using analytical thinking and a few basic technical skills. And these are prerequisites you always carry with you, no matter where you decide to live and do research. My own understanding of where I wanted to live was strongly marked by what I experienced in New York – it was here that I felt I was really a European for the first time.
And yet, the US is a great country! Unencumbered by stiff European protocol (“Don’t call me Professor, everyone calls me Eric.”) people here get right down to what matters without further ado. In the multinational melting pot of a cutting-edge research lab you get the unique opportunity to meet and learn to appreciate people from very different cultural backgrounds. It was also here that I met my husband Francisco who was born in Colombia and carries a Spanish passport. If we had not both chosen to go to Columbia University in New York due to our passion for science, our paths would likely never have crossed and we would very probably not be getting ready to embark on our future together in Austria right now …
At the outset of my scientific career I was quite worried that everything might already be researched and didn’t know where I should find the ideas for the rest of my life as a scientist. Through my interactions with the “big shots” here I have learned that we are still at the very beginning of understanding even the basics of most biological processes. The fundamental scientific insights we have gained are fragments that only provide the prerequisites for us to ask the right questions. The great thing about science is that you simply have to develop a model and appropriate experiments and then you’re set to prove to yourself and the rest of the world whether your ideas are closer to “science” or to “fiction”.
Just the opportunity to live in another country and get to know another culture is of inestimable value for one’s professional and personal development. If I were asked to quote one thing that has been particularly impressive or defining for me, it was the opportunity to see the first Afro-American president move into the White House! And so I return to Austria with new perspectives, a different way of seeing myself, my future, Austria – the USA, the concept of nationality and science in general and in specific terms. This – and the wonderful scientific publications I have been able to achieve here – will stay with me forever.