It was a cold winter night at the University of Calgary that February 1997. I was nearing the end of my Ph.D. and needed to decide where to do a postdoc. At one level, the answer was obvious--somewhere warm.
As well as seeking a change in climate, I had decided to change kingdoms--from animal development, the focus of my graduate work, to plant development. Plants were my first love, but I had strayed. Now Arabidopsis was really coming into its own as a model system, so I could apply the same molecular genetics approaches to plants that I had used with C. elegans during my Ph.D.
My third criterion for a postdoc lab was that it had to be doing really excellent work. A postdoc can be an opportunity to learn from the best scientists before settling into one's own lab. My search for an outstanding Arabidopsis lab in a pleasant climate was concluded when I was invited to join Joanne Chory's lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies near San Diego, California, to study light regulation of plant development.
Once I had found a postdoc position, I began the sobering exercise of finding a fellowship. I quickly realized that working in plants disqualified me from most medical funding and that the majority of U.S. funding requires U.S. citizenship. The Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) is unique in that it encourages, in fact requires, that the applicant change countries to do postdoctoral work. I met this qualification, so I applied for, and was lucky enough to be awarded, an HFSP fellowship. The active promotion of international and interdisciplinary collaboration by the HFSP is refreshing in an age of narrowly defined funding programs.
Having a HFSP fellowship has been great. More financial freedom gives rise to more scientific freedom: I can take more risks, support my project with my research allowance, and attend meetings thanks to the travel allowance--a feature no longer standard in many fellowships. The ability to travel to even one meeting a year has been extremely beneficial, allowing me to put my work into perspective with the field in general and helping me generate new ideas. Networking at meetings is also an essential and rewarding part of science. It is easy to become chained to the bench and so immersed in technical and experimental detail that one loses touch with the big scientific picture. Although a lot of information can be gleaned from journals and the internet, nothing compares with meeting in person to exchange ideas and information. In Canada, I realized how geographical isolation can easily lead to intellectual isolation, unless actively counteracted with meetings and visiting speakers.
San Diego is an excellent place to do science. The concentration of scientific talent and resources contained within the Salk Institute; University of California, San Diego; and the Scripps Research Institute is most impressive. During my graduate work in Calgary, there were times when funding was tight, when even people who lived and breathed science were struggling to get by, and a feeling of defeatism lingered over the whole community. San Diego has illustrated to me the importance of a critical mass. San Diego's scientific community thrives on first-rate research, good publications, and solid funding, and it consequently has no trouble attracting good people. The fact that it is a very livable city probably doesn't hurt either. And it's also kind of cool to be at the same Christmas party as the Salk Institute's Francis Crick.
Although moving to the U.S. was a pretty mild change in terms of living abroad, I did experience some culture shock. This was based primarily around things I took for granted in Canada, such as the way we honor diversity and attend to all levels of society, reflected in more inclusive public policy.
Dealing with immigration, insurance, banking, and taxes can be a pain, but people at the Salk Institute, both those in human resources and colleagues within the department, have been excellent sources of information and have lots of experience with settling international postdocs. Both the Salk Institute and the University of Calgary have active postdoc associations.
Although there are benefits to working in the U.S. in terms of the sheer number and scale of opportunities, I would prefer to return to Canada to fulfill my long-term plans, both personal and professional. I do, however, have some concerns about returning to my homeland, and foremost among these is funding. A quick perusal of operating grants awarded to Arabidopsis researchers by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in Canada and by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S. shows Canadian grants to be five- to 10-fold smaller than those in the U.S. It's tough to be competitive with this kind of handicap. I don't see myself with a gigantic lab, but I do want to be in a position to pursue questions in basic plant biology that I find interesting. I want to be able to enjoy science, not spend all my time worrying about where the next loonie is coming from.
My impression is that the overall funding situation in Canada has improved in the past few years but that plant biology is still lagging behind its animal counterpart, particularly in the area of basic research. Model systems are so powerful (another example of critical mass) that it would be a shame not to invest in them now. Many recent advances in our understanding of human development and disease stem from discoveries originally made in Drosophila and C. elegans. How can we hope to improve crop plants without first understanding the basic biology of plants in general, best approached in a tractable model organism such as Arabidopsis?
That said, I still believe Canada has the potential to be a fun place to do science. I hope things work out so that I can return. It's home, after all, and--much to my surprise--I miss winter.