Away from Home

By Parisa Hosseinzadeh

Science is majestic, beautiful, and inspiring. Yet, being a scientist has its hard moments: long hours of working in the lab, failed experiments, emotional distress, self-doubt, and many other difficult situations that scientists deal with, and have been dealing with, throughout history. Another difficulty remains hidden. It creeps into the lives of some scientists, cripples them at moments, depresses them at times, hits them hard … and that is “being away from home”. And you won’t know how hard it is unless you feel it in your bones.

I am an international researcher. I have been away from my homeland, Iran, since 2010 when I left for graduate school in the United States. I clearly remember the day I left. I was young, ambitious, and full of self-confidence. I thought to myself “well, I have been away from my family during college. This is almost the same.” It clearly wasn’t, and I knew it the moment the plane took off. I felt I lost something,something really dear to me, something irreplaceable. I cried the whole flight, the 14 loneliest hours of my life.

The first semester was hard. Coping with all the courses, getting used to lab work, going through rotations. It was hard for everyone, especially for international students trying to fit in. I was trying hard to “fit in”. I really wanted to be able to befriend people. In fact, now that I look back, I even went out of my way in order to belong. I was trying to work very hard, but sometimes, just out of the blue, when I was sitting down in the lab pipetting or setting crystal trays, I would surrender, tears would run down my eyes. I tried hard to hide it from others.

Eventually I managed to pull myself together and get out of that depressing mode. Things got better after a while. Partly because I got used to being an international researcher, partly because I started to belong, partly because of the amazing friends, colleagues, and classmates that I had. I want to thank them all here for making me feel wanted and accepted. I appreciate them. I appreciate their acceptance of me and their effort to understand me.

I have been an international researcher for eight years now, and I will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. It’s mostly fine. I think I mostly figured it out. Yet, there are still times that I feel pressured, stressed, lonely. There are times when I go out with my friends just to realize I don’t understand any of their jokes or references; times that I stand in front of a large audience to give an important talk, and I realize that the one word I knew to eloquently explain my slide has slipped me, and I need to find a good way to replace it with a whole sentence in the blink of an eye; times that I am denied access to a national resource because of my nationality; times that I miss speaking in my mother tongue; times that I wish someone would call my name the same way that my parents did, they way it should sound; times … .

Being an international researcher is hard. It adds so much pressure, so much stress. And what’s worse is that it’s hard to fight these feelings. It’s hard to accept kindness and appreciation if you feel you’re on the receiving end only because you’re from another country. It’s hard to constantly feel that you represent all scientists from your country; that if you make a little mistake, all scientists of your country will be blamed for it forever. It’s hard to be the general face of all the things that is going on in your country. It sucks to feel homesick. It sucks to not belong to anywhere anymore.

Yet, despite all these hurdles, I move on. The charm of science and the allure of discovery have captivated me–and other international scholars–for centuries. We left our home in pursuit of knowledge, and we found ourselves a new place. It may not be home, but it is a nice sanctuary. We survive and through us science thrives.