Relocating Internationally to Further Your Career – A Neuroscientist’s Perspective
Are you willing to relocate internationally to further your career? It can be a difficult decision with much to consider including language, cultural and industry differences. In addition, personal challenges involving your family and finances can play a part in making your choice. BioSpace recently interviewed Dr. Heike Blockus, Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University. Blockus explained how she boldly made the decision to “follow where the science took me.” Understanding the perspective of a passionate neuroscientist just might help you in your own decision making process!
- Tell me about your background growing up in Germany.
I had a great upbringing with versatile interests, such as horse riding, handball and playing piano and the trumpet. In fact, I almost became a musician, like my sister, and did an internship with a one of its kind institution in Hannover called the “Institute for Music Physiology and Musician Medicine” to combine my interests. I decided to become a scientist, fueled by my deep drive to understand molecular mechanisms of disease after losing my mother to cancer when I was a teenager. At that point, it became almost a calling – seeing the doctors being at the limits of what they could do due to a lack of targeted therapeutics and molecular understanding of the disease just made me want to contribute to eradicating diseases driven by basic science and fundamental understanding.
- What made you decide to pursue your Ph.D. in France? Were you concerned about leaving your home country?
I kept following my scientific interests as well as my motto to pursue objectives that uniquely challenge me. French was one of my worst subjects in high school and my teacher would probably be quite surprised to know I spent four years living in France! During my time in France, I learned to speak French almost fluently, and it was an amazing experience to see how language was key in being integrated and interacting with my colleagues, since English is not as prevalent in France. Seeing the evolution of my interactions as a direct correlation of my improvements in managing the French language was very rewarding. But besides the cultural enrichment, I also specifically contacted my Ph.D. advisor since I was interested in applying my expertise in chemical biology and biochemistry from my MSc to his studies of axon guidance receptors during brain development. My advisor recommended I apply to the “Ecole des Neurosciences” in Paris, an international grad school designed to help top international applicants pursue their Ph.D. in Paris. I ultimately got the fellowship, which also included rotations in different labs across the Paris region, all of which are ranked as excellent by an external evaluation. I was not concerned about leaving Germany, I had always loved to travel and experience new cultures. In fact, I had already completed an internship at New York University and another one in France prior to choosing my Ph.D. lab, both of which were amazing experiences. It also helped that Paris is actually just a three-hour (highspeed) train-ride away from my hometown in Germany, so I could easily visit my family over the weekend. I would say though that settling in in Paris was not the easiest at first (finding an apartment as a foreigner, getting your life set up without speaking French), but I had great colleagues at the lab who functioned as my surrogate family!
- Did you notice any major differences while studying in France as opposed to Germany?
Since I already had a master’s degree, I did not have to take many courses as part of my Ph.D. curriculum in France. However, the few I had to take were mostly in French only, which was a fun challenge, but definitely not easy. In Germany, a lot of my courses during the MSc period were already held in English, which at the beginning also was a challenge, but certainly paid off in the long-run. Furthermore, it appeared to me that undergraduate studies at French universities still were very structured more like in a school-setting, whereas in Germany a lot of independence of thought was required from the get-go. This made the transition from high school to university in Germany pretty tough (since as a high schooler one is used to consuming material that is prepared), and I failed a couple of exams early on, but, wow, in the long-term this was such a valuable learning experience in helping me grow as a young scientist. Think critically, question what you don’t understand, but rely on what you know and apply that knowledge.
- Why did you decide to make a career move to the United States?
Again, my scientific interest drove me to pursue the position I currently hold at Columbia University in New York. I had already collaborated with my current advisor during my Ph.D. on a side project and decided it would be a great opportunity to further pursue this question in my Post-Ph.D. career. I did have some reservations about moving (back) to New York (I was maybe looking to move to a quieter place after very stressful years in Paris with the terror attacks of 2015) and applied to several positions in Europe and the U.S. However, after interviewing for my current position there was no doubt in my mind that it was an excellent scientific fit. It is relatively common for European Ph.D. graduates to pursue their post-Ph.D. career in the United States, given the research budget often outcompetes that of European higher education institutions. However, in my case, I followed where the science took me, and it just so happened to be New York. And I certainly have no regrets, the time at Columbia University has been amazing – the university recently inaugurated the Zuckerman Instititute, that I am part of, a true Neuroscience powerhouse. It feels like an innovative scientific playground, where the sky is the limit with easy access to cutting edge technologies.
- Do you think your career goals or career path would've been different if you stayed in Germany?
Germany is without a doubt a great country for science. Science is well funded, respected and many globally renowned scientific institutions call Germany their home. I assume that had I stayed in Germany, I may not have become a neuroscientist, but instead stayed closer to my background in chemical biology and followed a more traditional German academic career. The double challenge about moving into neuroscience in a foreign country was what ultimately drove me to leave. It is relatively common for scientific leaders in Germany to have pursued their postdoctoral studies in the U.S. and later returned. I believe that such international experience is well-valued in recruiting for leadership positions in academic settings in Germany, so it does not only enrich culturally and personally, but also enhances the chances for success, if the goal is to build a career in Germany in the long-run.
- What has been the best part about traveling internationally to further your career?
Oh my, where to even start? I can’t say enough about the amazing people I have had the privilege to work and interact with from so many different cultural backgrounds. It has tremendously opened my mind to different ways of thinking and going about life, all with the common goal to advance science, which is always the common denominator in the work setting. I have come to enjoy the disorienting feeling that comes with being thrown into a new country and a new culture; while everything may be overwhelming at first, it is extremely gratifying to realize once you are at the point when you “get things” and start to understand how things work in your new environment. You will be in a position where you can mix and match and take the best from all the different experiences you have had. Such diversity in experience, perspective and thought is also important for scientific progress and responsible leadership. As I am sure many expats will confirm, leaving your home turf to go abroad comes with a rather fluid identity, where I am a foreigner in the U.S., but also do not feel entirely German when I return. I tend to embrace this mosaic identity and see having an outsider or fresh perspective on both ends as something that carries a lot of value.
Porschia Parker is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. (https://www.fly-highcoaching.com) She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.
Dr. Heike Blockus is an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University in New York City, where she studies the fundamental principles of brain development. She obtained her PhD in Neurodevelopment from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France, and her MSc in Molecular Biomedicine from the University of Bonn, Germany.