My name is Carmen Sucharov, but my friends know me as Kika.
I was born in Niteroi, Brazil, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. My dad, a British immigrant, comes from a family of engineers and physicists, while my mom, a Brazilian native, grew up in a family full of medical doctors. With both sides of my family involved in these disciplines, it doesn?t come as a surprise that I have found myself pursuing a career as a molecular biologist, with the focus on medical sciences.
When telling the story of how I became a scientist in the United States, I find it hard to separate my personal and professional journeys. They have both contributed to getting me where I am today, living in a small town close to Boulder, Colorado, and doing research in Denver. Life here is quite different from where I grew up and has required some adjustment.
Cold winters in Philadelphia
I have lived in the U.S. at two different periods of my life. The first time I was working as a research assistant in 1992 at the University of Pennsylvania. My then-husband was doing the experimental part of his Ph.D. thesis at the same university, funded by a fellowship from the Brazilian funding agency CNPq. At that time I was a master?s student at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Because the Brazilian government rarely provides fellowships for people without a master?s degree, my husband?s PI was able to facilitate finding a lab that would hire me. My lab in Brazil was small, with three students and the PI. My lab in Philadelphia was much bigger and was staffed mostly with postdocs and senior scientists. It was a big cultural shock, but not the culture I was expecting: The majority of the lab had come from India.
I must admit that I didn?t enjoy that period in the U.S. The winters, as well as the people on the East Coast, seemed too cold, which was especially hard for someone used to living in a warm place surrounded by family and close friends. In 1995 my husband and I went back to Brazil where I advanced from graduate student to postdoc, though not before presenting two theses. Due to policies within my department in Brazil, I was pressed to split the work I had done in Philadelphia in two, in order to have enough data to present a master?s thesis and a Ph.D. thesis a year later.
I soon realized that after spending some time out of the country, going back was not that easy either. While living in the U.S., I had turned Brazil into a fantasy place where everything was perfect. Upon moving back to Brazil, I found that reality is more cruel.
In June of that year, my project in Brazil took me back to the U.S. on a research opportunity that would ultimately lead me to Colorado. As part of the work I was doing in Brazil, I went to the Albert Einstein School of Medicine for a couple of months to work in the lab of Richard Kitsis. My experience there was extremely positive and resulted in a collaborative project that took me to the University of Colorado, Boulder, for a couple of months in the beginning of 1998, to work in the laboratory of Leslie Leinwand. A few months later, back in Brazil, I was offered postdoctoral positions at both Albert Einstein and the University of Colorado. I accepted the one in Boulder.
Colorado: high quality of life and a faculty position
At the time my daughter was 3 years old and Boulder was listed as one of the top-10 cities in the U.S. for quality of life. Boulder offered a variety of excellent day care possibilities. In Colorado there are 300 days of sun each year and people seem a lot warmer than on the East Coast. I enjoyed Dr. Leinwand's lab and found the research to be particularly exciting. In June 1998, my daughter and I moved to Colorado. I was divorced by then and moving to the U.S. as a single mother was not easy, but I do not regret it. Life in Colorado has been great. I am now remarried, and with the mountains nearby, we ski every winter and in the summer we go on hikes and rafting trips.
Around the time I moved to Colorado a position as an associate professor became available at the institute I was still connected to in Brazil. When I was pressed to make the choice between staying in the U.S. as a postdoc and going back to Brazil as an associate professor, the decision was easy. By then, I was sure that I wanted to stay.
I worked as a postdoc in Boulder for 4 years before a research collaboration led to an invitation to join Dr. Michael Bristow's lab at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC). The idea was that my position in his lab would lead to a faculty position in the Division of Cardiology. In April 2004, after a little more than a year at UCHSC, I was promoted to assistant professor.
Whichever path you choose, a research career is a long process that takes years of persistence and patience. Young scientists coming here need to keep in mind that there are many more options besides going back to their country or going into industry. I have been able to find my way to a position that I previously didn't know existed. There are many jobs in science; you just have to keep your eyes open and to continue doing the work that you enjoy.
I do miss Brazil (especially at the end of a long North American winter) and I miss my family, although I cannot see myself living in Brazil any longer. I love the fact that here my daughter can ride her bike to school and play with the neighborhood children on the sidewalk in front of our house. If we forget to lock the house at night it's not a big deal. At first I missed the social life I had in Brazil and being surrounded by family and friends, but I can now say that it is possible to have that here too. The transitions one goes through in life are not always easy, but I have found them to be worthwhile.