Moving to NCI at Frederick from Overseas, Part 1: Joining the Community

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photos by Richard Frederickson
Photo of a large brick and metal sign beside a fence. The sign says, "Welcome to Fort Detrick & National Cancer Institute - Frederick"

Editor’s note: This is part one of a series about foreign fellows moving to NCI. Other parts can be found under the “Frederick from Overseas” query. The opinions in this article are held by individual fellows and employees and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institutes of Health, NCI, NCI at Frederick, or the Poster staff. All fellows were granted anonymity.

A young scientist from outside the United States says she had many expectations after learning she’d been hired for a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. Being unable to find housing wasn’t one of them—but that’s where she and her family ended up three weeks after arriving in the U.S.

She had no credit history, no Social Security number, no clear way to convince landlords to sign a lease, and—worst of all—no immediate path for improving her family’s situation. She and her children moved in with a relative, but without a car, she couldn’t reach her NCI at Frederick laboratory more than 20 miles away.

For many foreign fellows, coming to work at the National Institutes of Health is the opportunity of a lifetime and a thrilling new adventure. But the difficulties of starting fresh in a new country also make it incredibly stressful and daunting.

The young scientist faced several hurdles after her arrival. One day, she spent $100 on Uber rides so she could travel to work from her relative’s house. Other times, she paid for hotel rooms or Airbnbs in Frederick. Even after obtaining her Social Security number, buying a car, and finding affordable housing closer to her lab—all challenges—she and her family struggled to settle in. For weeks, they used cardboard boxes as furniture while they sought budget items to furnish their home.

Other fellows have faced similar trials. One from Asia struggled to figure out the process for obtaining her driver’s license. Another Asian fellow had problems securing housing and a car loan. One from Europe didn’t know what professional, financial, and social resources were available to her. Many fellows were surprised that owning a car is practically a requirement for living and working in Frederick.

“They’re things we take for granted, but someone from another country maybe would handle very differently, and they just don’t know what to do when that should happen to them,” said Howard Young, Ph.D., a senior investigator who has been involved in the NCI at Frederick fellows community for years.

Finding an Easier Way

Although the transition can be stressful, there are tools and strategies that can help. The National Institutes of Health offers a free 21-page guide, Moving to the National Institutes of Health, that contains links and useful information about banking, housing, and other aspects of life in Bethesda, Frederick, Baltimore, and northern Virginia. For fellows who have already settled in and are looking for more information about life at NCI, there is the NCI Fellows and Young Investigators (NCI FYI) app for Android and iOS.

Both Young and Laura Hooper, Ph.D., Frederick fellows coordinator, say that NCI and NIH are also investigating new resources, expected late this year, to help incoming foreign fellows.

In the meantime, Hooper, Young, and current fellows have volunteered advice for foreign scientists who are planning their move to Frederick.

You Are Not Alone at Any Point During Your Transition

To all new and incoming fellows, they would say you have dozens of colleagues in Frederick and Bethesda who have gone through this experience already and can therefore give advice. You also should ask your principal investigator for information about life in the U.S. and for connections with other fellows who can help you transition. You can contact the National Institutes of Health Fellows Committee, as well.

“Always reach out for help if you need it,” Young said. “Don’t become a silo where you’re holding everything in and then you’re frustrated because you don’t know what’s going on or don’t understand what to do.”

There are many ways to ask for help at NCI at Frederick, such as the Frederick Fellows email LISTSERV (you should be automatically added to it soon after you arrive), the Frederick Diversity Committee (FDC), and the Center for Cancer Research Fellows and Young Investigators Association (CCR FYI). One fellow pointed out that the committees are a great way to meet other fellows with a similar cultural background.

Because NCI at Frederick will be your home for the next few years, you should do everything possible to make it feel like home. That means joining committees, participating in activities, attending symposia, and getting outside of the laboratory. Being active in the community helps you acclimate, expands your professional and scientific skillset, and lets you network with peers. Just take your time choosing which committees to join so that you don’t overload your schedule!

The best way to feel included is to avoid isolation in the first place. Be involved, boldly seek new opportunities, and look for additional mentors who can foster your scientific growth. If you don’t know where to find those resources, ask someone, like fellows who are part of the FDC or CCR FYI.

“Your PI won’t be mad if you reach out to somebody in a different lab, if you have a second mentor, because that PI is going to realize it’s going to make that trainee more confident, more knowledgeable because they’re going to gain perspective from different areas,” Hooper said.

You should also remember that no strategy is going to work the same way for everyone. Don’t get discouraged if settling in or becoming involved at NCI at Frederick takes longer than you expected. Keep striving, asking for help, and seeking professional opportunities.

See part two for more specific tips about life in the U.S. or part three for tips for current employees.