Robert Neubecker

Moving internationally was tough—but I ended up finding my inner Wonder Woman

It was an early blow to my self-confidence. I was attending my first group meeting in the lab where I had just started as a postdoc, and I was pleased that I had managed to follow most of the discussion. Then, in front of everyone, my supervisor turned to me and asked about my previous
accomplishments. I froze. As a Ph.D. student, I had achieved lots to be proud of. But all of that was in my home country of Brazil. Now I was in Washington, D.C.—and I didn’t know what the word “accomplishment” meant. When I looked it up later in my English-Portuguese dictionary, I realized what I should have said: presenting my research at international conferences, publishing, teaching, and more. But at the time, all I could utter in response was “I don’t know.”

I had decided to do a postdoc abroad because I thought the training would help me secure a faculty position. I applied for and received a Brazilian government fellowship to spend 18 months working abroad. A professor I had met at a conference agreed to give me a position in his lab. It all seemed so easy—until I actually started.

In a new lab and a new country, I struggled. After the mortifying lab meeting incident, my confidence took another hit when some of my experiments and analyses didn’t work. The paper I intended to publish did not materialize. I used to be invited to give talks; now, I was asked to speak more slowly because of my accent. My confidence was shattered. Could I only be successful in my own country?

After months of self-doubt, I reminded myself that I had potential. I needed to do something to regain my lost confidence.

I saw that many of the Latin American scientists I had connected with were thriving at large institutions that had more resources to support training and development. Although I liked my lab and had a good relationship with my supervisor, my institution didn’t offer enough of these opportunities. I thought a change of environment might be what I needed.

I contacted a principal investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He said that, if my current supervisor approved, I could join his lab for a 6-month trial period, which would take me to the end of my fellowship. My original supervisor agreed that changing institutions would be best for me, and I made the move.

Could I only be successful in my own country?

Once again in an unfamiliar environment, I still felt insecure. I was certain that my new supervisor didn’t actually think I was good. I thought he was just being generous and giving me a chance to get some training. I doubted that he would renew my contract when it expired. Nonetheless, I was determined to make the most of the time I had.

I started to see the benefits of my new environment surprisingly quickly. There were more opportunities to interact with others—for example, in meetings, in the hallways, and in chats with administrative staff—which forced me to talk more. It was intimidating at first, but with practice I began to feel more confident in my English. The many training programs that NIH offers—covering topics such as leadership and writing as well as cutting-edge science—helped, too. I proposed new projects and collaborations, including one with my original supervisor. I began to receive positive feedback on my presentations. My accent is still the same, so I assume that this is due to my restored confidence.

I’ve now been in the lab for a little more than 2 years, and I’m so proud of how far I’ve come. I’ve presented my research at international conferences, sometimes winning travel awards to attend them. I review and edit manuscripts for journals, and I’ve published my own papers. My confidence is back. I feel a little bit like Wonder Woman. She was a strong warrior in her homeland. When she left, she experienced obstacles and failures—only to become even stronger than before.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

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