With apologies to Danish author Karen Blixen, I could start this essay by saying "I once had a ?lab? in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." In 1978, after receiving my M.D. and Ph.D. (in molecular biology--studying retroviruses) from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and then doing an internal medicine internship at Los Angeles County Harbor General Hospital, I went to Nairobi, Kenya, for a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship. I went to the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD; see box) to work on tropical disease parasites, and I loved it so much that I stayed on as a staff scientist until the end of 1986.
Those 8 years were truly incredible. Among many other things, I learned about the protozoan parasites that cause African trypanosomiasis and East Coast Fever (theileriosis) and about their respective arthropod vectors, tsetse flies and ixodid ticks.
Outside the lab I learned a lot about modern African life and culture. (Too many Americans think the rest of the world is like the United States except that people are poorer. This is so untrue!) I was there, immersed in it! I fell in love with and married a Kenyan woman. And I also discovered that when you learn about others and another culture you can?t help but see more deeply into yourself and your own culture. Working in Kenya was a profound life experience for me--not just a career experience.
But I was tasked with explaining the value to my scientific career of working for some time in the developing world. This isn?t completely easy because, although it was definitely important to my career (which is not the career I thought I was going to have), I realize that the experience is not for everyone. If you have your heart set on becoming a full professor with a large university laboratory, then I should warn you that going to work in a developing country may slow the development of your career. Not all laboratories in developing countries are equipped or supplied well enough (or have reliable enough electricity and water) to do modern science. Even in well-equipped places, it is possible to fall behind the rapidly changing technology of science because there is rarely a critical mass of other scientists applying a range of different techniques to their work that you can constantly learn from. If you aren?t learning new techniques as a postdoc, then you aren?t using the time to advance your career; you run the risk of having people think that you are not serious about science.
Another risk of working out of the mainstream in the developing world is of being forgotten in your field. You will not be making the contacts you will need to get a good career-track job back in the United States when you do return unless you make a conscious effort, especially if (like me) you go abroad to work in a different field from your Ph.D. training. Fortunately it is easier to make and maintain contacts nowadays with the Internet and e-mail. I suggest you also contact different scientists in your field whom you learn of through meetings and journals and offer to give a seminar in their departments when you visit home on annual leave. Few university scientists will turn down a seminar from a foreign visitor when they don?t have to pay for travel expenses!
I returned to the United States in 1987 to be an assistant professor in veterinary pathobiology and continue my research in tropical parasitic diseases. I found that funding was tight in my field, the parasites I was studying were of lower priority in light of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the academic life was not fulfilling for me. So I changed fields by taking a step back becoming postdoc again, this time at the Food and Drug Administration, where I learned about regulatory compliance while doing HIV immunology and molecular virology research.
Next I tried to start my own small company in HIV and influenza vaccine development. (That was another great experience, albeit a total flop, and maybe the subject for another Next Wave essay.) I now work as a medical officer/program officer in the AIDS vaccine program of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. I?m once again enjoying my work--in fact, NIH program officer jobs are in my opinion among the truly golden postlab science jobs--but that, too, is a topic for another essay.
Although going to work in Africa probably contributed to the nonlinear nature of my career, working there has definitely helped me in all of the jobs I have had since returning to the United States. This is especially true of my present position, where having experienced the developing world is essential to the design and oversight of HIV/AIDS vaccine and clinical trials. But it has contributed much more to my life. I know a number of young scientists who went to developing countries just for the 2-year fun experience of living there and already had arranged a second postdoc to return to in the United States to continue their careers. This also can be rewarding; it just wasn?t what I went for. I have always been more concerned about my life experiences than my career. If anything, I see myself using science to "be" in the world--to enjoy life and try to leave the world a bit better place for those who come after me.
Some things you read when you are young sound good, but you don?t understand how very right they are until years later. For me that describes Robert Frost?s words: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."