American Tales in India

Credit: Pallava Bagla

When Michael Scahill graduated from Boston College 2 years ago, he knew that medical school was in his future. But he yearned to see the world and hoped along the way to get some scientific experience in an international context. A connection made through his adviser and a Fulbright fellowship gave him his wish. “I really had no idea what to expect. I knew though that it was going to be a rather unique adventure,” he says. A few months later, he was working at the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICEGB) in Delhi, studying malaria vaccines. “I chose India because I got the sense that it was a place that encourages science growth and has special research opportunities,” he says.

Scahill is one of a small, adventurous band of American researchers looking toward Asia. Not many Americans are working in India long-term, says Altaf Lal, the Health Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, who also represents the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in South Asia. But short-term opportunities are abundant, and longer gigs are likely to become more common in the next few years, our sources say.

Michael Scahill

Expanding academic and industrial research opportunities

India’s technology-based economy has been growing rapidly of late, and many multinational corporations have set up shop in India. Lal expects Indian companies to reciprocate soon. “In my view, Indian pharmaceutical and bio-pharmaceutical sectors will actively recruit American scientists and experts experienced in R&D in the near future," he says. "The world of science and technology is getting flatter, and we are witnessing an important transition.”

American universities also are expanding into India. Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, for example, has announced plans to establish a laboratory at the ICGEB in New Delhi, staffed by scientists from its Atlanta campus. And an increasing number of Indian universities are seeking partnerships with foreign labs. Lal points to a project involving the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which are joining forces with their Indian counterparts to develop a vaccine for Rotavirus, which causes nearly half a million deaths every year in India and elsewhere. Another partner, Bharat biotech, based in the city of Hyderabad, is developing the vaccine.

The advantage of these exchanges for India's economy are obvious, but--says C.S. Prakash, a professor of microbiology at Tuskegee University in Alabama and an Indian expatriate who travels often between the two countries--the advantages work both ways. American researchers who work in India, Prakash says, can leverage the experience and reap benefits when they return home. “Because scientific research and development is getting so globalized, someone who has worked in India and has met the many challenges is definitely going to be seen more positively by any employer,” he says. Scahill believes his experience in India has opened doors already. Medical schools, he says, have shown more interest in him because of his unique work experiences abroad. He has been admitted to several medical schools including Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Infrastructure challenges

For anyone used to an American lifestyle, India's sights and sounds can be unnerving. “As soon as [they] land, everyone has a characteristic look of shock and awe, just in the ride from the airport to the hotel,” Scahill says. “The roads are incredibly chaotic and choked with people and cows.” Apartment hunting was an ordeal for Scahill, but eventually a Hindi-speaking Fulbrighter helped him communicate with landlords and he found a place to live.

“It’s not really for fast trackers,” says Ann Russell, another Fulbright fellow. “But if you really want to do it, the important thing is that you have to play by the rules.” And sometimes that takes time. A terrestrial-ecosystem biologist at Iowa State University in Ames, Russell visited India in 1996 and again in 2005, spending more than 2 years altogether in the rural state of Kerala with her husband and two daughters. “For both of my visits, it took a year to obtain the research visa, and I felt extremely lucky that it came that quickly,” Russell says. “I know of other scientists who have been unable to obtain their visa or other permits, preventing them from conducting their research.”

But the challenges most commonly cited by American visitors are related to India's infrastructure. India’s electrical service is unreliable, Western visitors say, and research materials take a long time to arrive. “If there is something specific you need and you run out, it can become a serious problem and set you back days or weeks,” Scahill says. His solution was to stockpile materials and make sure he had backup batteries to run his PCR machine.

Fulbrighter Paula Mitchell, an agricultural entomologist from Winthrop University in South Carolina, lived in Delhi for a year in 2001. She remembers babysitting the water distillation system to prevent it from exploding when the water supply shut down. She also battled ceiling fans above her workspace while trying to grind dried plant material. “Even when there’s air conditioning, there are ceiling fans everywhere in Indian labs," Mitchell says. “I invariably forgot to turn off the ceiling fans, and it would take everything I was preparing and just blow it everywhere.”

Researcher Ann Russell with her family and local villagers in Kerala province, India

Enriched by the experience

Despite the annoyances, all the Americans say they reaped benefits, both tangible and intangible. Immersion in a radically different country and culture, they say, leaves a lasting impression and shapes character. Mitchell went to India for the science, she says, and it paid off: She got promoted by her university on the strength of work she did there. But it's the people and the culture she remembers most. “While there are so many difficulties in living in India, I just love being there because the country and people are just so alive.” She says. “I would go back there to live if I could.”

Living in the midst of one of the world's most ancient agricultural systems, and one of the richest, changed Russell's outlook on how Americans live and opened her eyes to some alternatives. Indian gardens, which "are rich in biodiversity, are truly a sight for sore eyes when one is coming from the vast monocultures of the midwestern U.S.,” she says. “It also provides a stark contrast to American consumerism and wastefulness. Although I sink back into the American lifestyle upon return to the U.S., it will never feel normal again.”

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Science Careers and may be reached at

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700060

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers