Working Life

The transcontinental scientist

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Science  20 Jan 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6322, pp. 318
DOI: 10.1126/science.355.6322.318

I suppose my penchant for crossing international borders started when I was just 3 months old. That's when my twin brother and I flew across the ocean from Chile after being adopted by Belgian parents. Later, my undergraduate research led me to Kenya for a 3-month research internship, where my interest in HIV and statistics was born. Then, halfway through my Ph.D. studies, I moved from Belgium to South Africa, where my wife is from. In the 8 years since, I have found career opportunities that keep me connected to both countries, and I have experienced the rewards—and challenges—of being a human bridge across two continents.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I have experienced the rewards—and challenges—of being a human bridge.”

I decided to move to South Africa in part because I was excited about what it could do for my career prospects, even though I knew that it would be hard to be away from my family and Belgian colleagues for much of the year. South Africa and the unit I was joining were a perfect fit for my research on sexual behavior and HIV transmission, and I expected that potential future employers would view my move as valuable international experience.

I have gone on to build an independent research career across continental boundaries. Today, I am affiliated with three Belgian universities and a national research center in South Africa. This has been possible thanks to my ability to do my work—mainly computer simulations and statistical analysis—almost anywhere, and the open-mindedness of my Belgian and South African bosses, who understand the value of international mobility.

Having one foot in Belgium and the other in South Africa has increased my eligibility for research grants and my success in securing them, expanded my network of colleagues and collaborators, and given me greater access to supercomputers and other research infrastructure. My cross-continental connections have also benefited the students I work with. For Belgian medical students, doing fieldwork in poor South African communities that are heavily affected by HIV adds purpose and perspective to their textbook constructs of how social circumstances influence health. Students based in South Africa benefit from additional guidance from senior Belgian statisticians.

Yet, there are times when I feel stretched to the limit. Each of my academic homes expects me to supervise students, apply for grants, and contribute to the institution's strategic planning, among other responsibilities. Keeping professional and social ties strong on both sides of my Belgian-South African double life also requires flying back and forth a few times each year, on top of routine travel for conferences and workshops. This transcontinental commuting is tiring, and it imposes stress on my young family. Our coping strategy has been to turn the challenge into an opportunity whenever we can. In the past year, I have taken our 3-year-old daughter with me to Belgium four times. It's expensive but worth it. It helps balance parental responsibilities, allows her and my Belgium-based family to build a strong relationship, and gives her an immersion in Dutch.

In the future, I dream of having part-time tenure in both countries, though whether such a scenario is achievable—or even desirable as our kids grow older—is unclear. Sacrificing proximity to family for academic opportunities is a dangerous game. I was reminded of this last July, when my father died after a 7-year battle with cancer; I arrived in Belgium just in time to say goodbye. He had worked very long hours for most of his life, and I know he regretted not spending more time with my brother and me when we were kids. I hope that I won't feel the same 30 years from now. On the other hand, in those last days together as a family I thanked my father for the wonderfully empowering outlook on life that he imparted: If you truly believe in your dream, pursue it regardless of practical obstacles.

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