Jennifer Petersen and Jill Wentzell
Recently, Neuroscience Graduate Program alums JenniferPetersen and Jill Wentzell got together to take a break from their postdoctoralresearch and catch up with one another for a relaxing weekend. The two womenbecame fast friends as graduate students, and they have maintained theirfriendship by meeting up in a city near their new jobs—in London.
When they were considering a move to Europe for their firstpostdoc, Jennifer Petersen and Jill Wentzell were confronted with two common responses."Some people said, 'Just go,'" whereas others pointed out "all the things thatcould go wrong, and all the things to fear," says Petersen. She decided to takethe plunge because "I wanted to be the type of person who did things instead ofworrying about what could go wrong." Now working in the lab of Daniel Choquet at the Universite de Bordeaux in France, Petersen says she's neversecond-guessed her decision, "and that's a good feeling."
Jill Wentzell crossed the pond to join Alicia Hidalgo's lab at the University of Birmingham, England, which makes up an extremelydiverse group. Among the lab's eight members, no two people hail from the samenation. But Petersen and Wentzell both say the international flavor of theirEuropean labs isn't so different from their labs in the NGP. "OHSU has a veryinternational community," especially considering that Portland isn't a hugecity, says Wentzell. In graduate school, Wentzell worked in the lab of Doris Kretzschmar, who is German. Perhaps partly because she's European, Wentzellsuspects, Kretzschmar was very supportive of working internationally; sheregularly sent lab members to science meetings abroad.
Other faculty members were supportive as well when Petersenand Wentzell were considering the European stint. Petersen says, "I alwaysthought I would live abroad, and particularly in France, but I thought thathope was gone…[after] undergrad." At a thesis committee meeting, NGP faculty memberJohn Adelman encouraged her to consider a postdoc in France. "The faculty are soimportant, because they can influence us in such a powerful way," saysPetersen, citing a common experience. Sometimes a mentor's words ofencouragement can shape a student's life, "and they may not even realize thepositive influence [they] have had."
Of course any new postdoc faces many challenges starting outin the lab, but these can be heightened in a foreign country. (Both researchersagree: reagents don't come quite as quickly and reliably as they did in thestates.) During the first year, as Petersen expected, most of her energy wentinto setting up her project and making the transition. She brought theexpertise in live light-imaging techniques that she had mastered as a studentin Gary Banker's lab. Now, she is expanding on that work by imaging synapses using electronmicroscopy, which has been her long-term research goal. After two years,"things are starting to work, and it's fun. And I get to do that in Bordeaux,France."
For Wentzell, finding the right match with her postdoctoralmentor made the decision easy. Wentzell met Hidalgo at a meeting in 2009, whenthey hit it off immediately. "We had all these ideas together. She mainly worksin development, but she wanted to get into [studying] adult Drosophila. That's my niche, so I broughtthat to the lab." Although the idea of moving to Britain for a new job wasdaunting—particularly because Wentzell's partner is back in Portland—she saw tremendouspotential in working with Hidalgo. "After meting Alicia, I couldn't not go to her lab; I just couldn't walkaway from that opportunity."
Petersen and Wentzell also agree that the experience ofliving as a foreigner has changed their perspective somewhat. "I've developedmore of a cultural awareness," Petersen says. Though they worked with manyforeign researchers back in Portland, "now I have a whole understanding of whatthey're going through, and what might help them" face challenges. ThoughWentzell lives in an English-speaking country, Petersen says even without knowingFrench she can get by pretty easily. "In the lab, everyone speaks English," andshopping presents the biggest hurdle. "But you can get by," she says. A greatdelight of living abroad is to discover new products and foods you wouldn'tnormally experience, they say. Wentzell says when she returns home, she'll missher favorite find, "elderflower and pomegranate presse." Petersen's choicemight be more obvious: "I'll miss the wine." But both agree, they'll always carrythe experience of living abroad.