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Facing Life's Challenges as a Foreign Scientist

Chinese professionals, in particular scientists, face new battles after leaving cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu to work in other countries. My personal journey is like those of thousands of others who yearn for knowledge and are determined to be successful in their respective fields of study.

The pipeline opens

When I began college 14 years ago, China had just started allowing people to study abroad without a state-sponsored scholarship. At that time, nobody could afford the living and tuition expense of studying abroad by themselves, so their only hope was to apply for a very competitive graduate scholarship from a foreign university. Because the United States is recognized around the world for its cutting-edge research and for providing scholarships to foreign graduate students, America undoubtedly became the first choice of many young people.

My boyfriend, Wei, was one of these ambitious people. My world would be totally different if I hadn't fallen in love with and married him. A year after we graduated from Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, he received a fellowship to study in the United States. Within a year, I joined him in our newly adopted country and settled in Toledo, Ohio.

Language barriers

Passing my English test (Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL) after my arrival was a bit challenging. I studied hard and, with Wei's help, I received a good score not only on my TOEFL but also on the Graduate Record Examinations. After dealing with this first challenge, I pressed on with my dream of continuing my education in a Ph.D. program.

My intent was to attend the University of Toledo in Ohio as a graduate student. Practicing every night, Wei and I felt that I would do well on my interview. When the day of the interview arrived, I did an excellent introduction, but I didn't completely understand all of the questions.

Fortunately for me, I met someone that day who gave me a chance even though my spoken English skills were poor. Richard Komuniecki accepted me into his lab and allowed me to prove myself in biochemical research. My job was to help a senior graduate student with DNA sequencing, the polymerase chain reaction, and agarose gels. Due to my years of scientific training at Sichuan University, I quickly produced clean gels and reliable results. My hard work and perseverance paid off: A few months later, I was offered a teaching assistantship in the department of biology.

Komuniecki and his wife, Patricia Komuniecki, who was also chair of the department, were great mentors to me. They helped me with my English by requiring me to talk with them at least once a week about my project. In addition, I had to abide by the "no Chinese spoken in the lab" rule and really tried to speak only English at home. Wei and I wanted our children to be bilingual, however, so as a compromise we spoke both languages at home.

All of this practice really helped me to think and converse about my project in English. Now, all of my scientific thinking is in English, with only mathematical calculations still done in Chinese. I owe the Komunieckis my sincere gratitude for all of their help.

Homesick but determined

Adjusting to life in the United States during the first year was hard. We were homesick; the food tasted different, and we did not have many friends. We didn't give up, though. We worked hard and spent most of our time in the lab and library to prove our ability and gain respect.

I really enjoyed my 6 years of graduate study at the University of Toledo. Of course I experienced the ups and downs of research life, but in May 2002, I graduated with my Ph.D. with two first-author papers and one co-author paper.

After completing my doctorate, my family and I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. In a short time, I received a cardiovascular fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, which allowed me to switch fields. As a graduate student, I used molecular biology to study parasites, but now I would use molecular biology and physiology to study mammals. Working with mice was another challenge because I was afraid of them, but watching researchers with more experience quickly taught me how to overcome my fear. I can now handle mice comfortably and am currently looking for a novel therapeutic target in a knock-in (introducing a point mutation into a gene) mouse model that I created.

Helpful hints for foreign scientists

Each person's experience will be different, but I've compiled a few hints that may make the journey a little bit easier.

  • Your English can be improved. Don't stop communicating because your English is not perfect. My first quiz in molecular biology was a disaster. I knew all the answers in Chinese but couldn't think of the right English phrases. After that, I took every opportunity to write and translate my knowledge into English. My written English improved. I got a final score of A- in this course and received straight A's in my other courses. Don't forget that seeking opportunities to speak English are just as important.

  • Ask for help and help others. Never hesitate to ask for help and to help others whenever you can. When you ask for help, you open the window for people to understand you and to know you. I found most Americans are warm and willing to help; when they say, "May I help you?" they mean it. Asking for help will also save you time figuring out something, and you may make friends along the way. I know this works because I've made some good American friends during my years in Toledo. I could ask them anything--how to say a word, how to express a feeling, or how to bake a cake. Those friendships will last a lifetime.

  • Have a strong support system. Work and life were easier to balance when there were only two of us in the family. Wei and I could choose between a home-cooked meal or fast food, spending a Friday night in the lab or at home watching a movie. But after the children were born, it became very hard for me to balance work and life. The key is having strong family support and a good adviser. My husband believes in me as a scientist, and I could do nothing in my career without his strength and support.

  • There are advantages to working in the United States. Having easy access to the latest peer-reviewed journals from around the world is a plus. I sometimes help my friends in China by sending articles to them. Also, the American scientific community stresses attending international conferences, making collaboration with scientists anywhere in the world much easier. Finally, my professional opportunities are greater here. In China, I would have a better chance of finding a professorship, but I probably would not be involved in cutting-edge projects. Research in China is more focused on the application of technology to improve lives.

  • Don't be afraid to face challenges. We came to the United States to learn and to work, seeking a better life. The challenges we faced were not always easy, but they made us stronger and wiser. We have enjoyed every minute of the past 10 years and have no regrets. Don't be afraid to take a challenge. You will have a lot of fun.

Xinyan Huang, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of pharmacology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She may be reached at

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