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Robert Neubecker

As a scientist working abroad, I missed my culture—so I found a way home

Our lives changed tracks the day our daughter was born. My wife and I felt settled in the United Kingdom—we’d even bought a house 6 months earlier—but the arrival of our daughter forced a moment of reflection. We wondered whether we should move back to our native Brazil. I remember looking down at our newborn baby and thinking about how different her life would be there. In our native country, we’d be closer to our family and culture. But in the United Kingdom, I had the funding and lab resources I needed for my costly and highly specialized research program. Would such a move sink my career?

We had left Brazil 10 years earlier so that I could spend the last year of my Ph.D. program in France. Meanwhile, my wife started a Ph.D. in the United Kingdom. We maintained a long-distance relationship for the first few years. But by the time our daughter was born, we’d settled down in the same location; I had a research assistant position and my wife had a postdoc.

I was in an amazing scientific environment, working next to Nobel laureates. But I had been away from my extended family and my culture for too long. I missed acai, acarajé, pão de queijo, samba, bossa nova, capoeira, Brazilian jujitsu, and sunny skies. I worried that I might never return to Brazil.

My wife missed our homeland as well. As a mathematician, it was also easier for her to imagine doing her work in Brazil; unlike me, she didn’t need fancy lab equipment and expensive reagents. So with a newborn baby at home, we started to ask ourselves whether a move was in order.

Several events over the next few months nudged us further in the same direction. We heard that new professor positions had opened up at a university in our hometown, in departments that matched both of our research programs. Then, a few weeks later, I received a call in the wee hours of the morning from my brother, who told me that our father had passed away. The great happiness I had felt about my daughter’s birth suddenly gave way to a deep sadness. I felt that I was losing precious time with my loved ones.

After that, we had no doubt it was the right time to return to Brazil. We applied for the professorships and both received offers. It felt like our personal and professional lives were falling into place.

It wasn’t easy getting started with my research in Brazil, however. I didn’t receive any startup funding for my lab, so I couldn’t recruit grad students or hire postdocs. I was able to perform a few experiments myself thanks to reagents I had brought with me from my lab in the United Kingdom, as well as equipment I shared with other professors. Eventually, I secured Brazilian funding, which allowed me to form a team of bright undergraduate and graduate students and buy reagents and lab equipment on my own.

Nine years later, I still haven’t been able to perform the kind of experiments that U.K. funding would have allowed. And the antiscience views of the current Brazilian government have added to my worries about my squeezed budget.

I had been away from my extended family and my culture for too long.

But looking back, I’m happy that my wife and I put our personal well-being first and made the decision to move back to our home country. We’ve been able to have big meals with our extended family on weekends. We had a second child, and our kids are growing up close to their cousins who are around the same age. And I was able to resume Brazilian jujitsu training, which I hadn’t been able to do during my years abroad.

We are living the lives we wanted to live—working on rewarding research while staying true to what we feel is best for ourselves and for our family. Any scientist from a developing country who is considering a move home has to weigh the pros and cons, and the situation will be different for everyone. But for us, returning home was worth the costs.

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