Working Life

A detour for love

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Science  03 Oct 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6205, pp. 134
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6205.134

My advisers would have told you that I had a bright future. As an undergraduate at New College of Florida, I pursued research in coral reef biology. I studied abroad in Ireland for practical training in biotechnology. I learned Spanish to aid in collecting samples for my thesis on coral immunogenetics in Honduras. As a graduate student in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Mayagüez, I traveled across the Caribbean monitoring coral disease outbreaks and their impacts on important reefs. I had become globalized: My personal and scientific relationships spanned continents and hemispheres. My science career seemed assured. And then I fell in love.

“There are many paths to a bright future.”

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender couples, love can be complicated. When the love spans nationalities, the challenges are especially formidable. I met my Chilean partner in 2009, during a Thanksgiving barbecue on the beach. He was a chemical engineering graduate student at UPR.

For the first year of our relationship, we were like any other graduate student couple. However, in 2010, we learned that UPR's accreditation was at risk after strikes that paralyzed the state university system. Many graduate students and faculty, including my advisers, were applying for positions at other universities. My partner and I followed suit, applying to programs in the United States. We were lucky to be accepted to the same university.

I am a U.S. citizen and would have married my partner to confer immigration rights. However, under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), such rights were not conferred to same-sex couples, and evidence of any serious relationship with a U.S. resident would have been grounds for denial of a student visa. So my partner went back to Chile, waited for paperwork from the new university, and scheduled an appointment at the U.S. embassy. I stayed in the United States, working part time as a tutor. We told ourselves we would be separated for only a few months.

My partner's visa application was rejected. My parents had sponsored him as a “friend of the family,” but the authorities didn't believe my family would be willing to sponsor a mere friend.

Should I be forced to choose between my career and the person I love? To me, the answer was clear. I spent my meager personal savings on a one-way ticket to Chile. I put my career on hold and took a job teaching English as a second language. I eventually found a job as a high school science teacher. After only a year of teaching and curriculum development, I was promoted to the school's director of science education. I collaborated with my partner, who was working at a local engineering university, to set up hands-on summer research experiences for my students who were interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers in college.

To make sure I didn't drop off my former adviser's radar, I published the research we had produced during my time in Puerto Rico. I lacked the computing power to analyze some of our genomic data, so I collaborated with bioinformaticians.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA on 26 June 2013. I proposed marriage the same day. We were married less than a month later, in Argentina. We applied for a green card for my husband. I applied to graduate schools in the United States.

Earlier this year, I accepted an offer from the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, where I am currently rotating in some of the most influential immunology labs in the world. In April, I was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. We are still pushing papers through the bureaucratic U.S. immigration system, but now we have a foundation of civil rights on which to stand.

Unexpected detours can improve skills and strengthen one's resolve to tackle science and society's challenging questions. There are many paths to a bright future.

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