Moving to NCI at Frederick from Overseas, Part 3: How Current Employees Can Help

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 the final part 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.

For foreign fellows transitioning to life in the United States, NCI at Frederick employees are an integral resource.

As citizens or residents of the country and the Frederick community, they represent valuable sources of information, emotional support, and scientific guidance. It’s true that the training staff fill many of these roles, but all staff can play a part in welcoming and helping foreign fellows.

But, because many have lived in the U.S. for years or their entire lives, sometimes it’s easy to forget this opportunity.

To help employees and principal investigators who work with new foreign fellows, current NCI at Frederick fellows and staff have offered the following tips.

Be Aware

Newly arrived fellows are capable, eager scientists, but they will likely take some time to adjust to life in the U.S. Multiple fellows said that transitioning to a new country was extremely stressful and occasionally distracted them from their work.

One fellow described her feelings of isolation and solitude after coming to NCI at Frederick. The configuration of labs and offices in her work area meant that she wasn’t always in contact with her coworkers or supervisor, which made her feel like it was hard to get help. She also wanted to grow professionally by training and using educational resources, but she wasn’t sure how to find them, access them, or ask her colleagues about them.

Other foreign fellows struggle to navigate the bureaucracies of living in the U.S. Things that can be challenging for Americans, like obtaining a driver’s license, finding an apartment, and buying a car, are even more difficult for fellows who don’t have the same cultural context—and who are under extreme pressure to complete these requirements soon after arriving. Experiences that are even less common, like navigating the aftermath of a car accident, are often total unknowns to them.

Some fellows may want to ask for help but fear that they’ll annoy their supervisors.

“I think a lot of trainees are worried about all those things, and I think the PIs maybe don’t realize how the trainees may be worried about making them upset,” said Laura Hooper, Ph.D., Frederick fellows coordinator.

Other fellows may come from a country with a different scientific culture than the U.S. They may think that they’re expected to remain silent or defer to authority in all circumstances, which can cause them to avoid asking for help or voicing concerns when they’re struggling.

“You have to try to understand them because, to make them more productive, you have to be able to address their expectations,” said Howard Young, Ph.D., a senior investigator involved in the Frederick fellows community. Young added that lab staff, especially principal investigators, should ensure that these newly arrived fellows understand that it’s acceptable—even encouraged—to speak up in U.S. culture.

Be Active

Young suggested connecting your incoming fellows with someone who has navigated the transition in the past—especially if you can do so before the fellow arrives in the U.S. Try to find another scientist or National Institutes of Health employee who came from the same country, or if that fails, put the fellow in contact with the National Institutes of Health Fellows Committee.

If you supervise or work with newly arrived fellows, let them know that they can ask you about the work environment, the resources available to them, and the larger Frederick community. Even if you can’t give an answer right away, you’ve helped them to feel more comfortable about asking in the future.

Be willing to help with fellows’ needs outside of the lab. For example, they may need to be picked up and dropped off for work during their first few weeks in the U.S. As their closest associates in a new country—and their major connection to American society—you are the ones they are most likely to ask.

If you’re a principal investigator, you can also help by periodically meeting with new fellows one-on-one after their arrival. Give them a chance to relay concerns or request help privately. Make sure they have time to ask you questions about work, professional resources, their goals, and life in the U.S.

“You have to treat each person individually. You have to get a sense of what they need to succeed and give them the length of rope … that they feel that they need,” Young said.

Professional resources can play a particularly important role in this process. Even after these fellows settle their personal affairs, they may need time to learn about their new work environment. One fellow said it’s helpful to encourage them to attend symposia and upcoming training opportunities, use core facilities and administrative support resources, and contact potential collaborators. Hooper and Young agreed, adding that fellows flourish when they’re given avenues to grow.

In particular, principal investigators may need to make sure their fellows know it’s okay to pursue these opportunities, Hooper said.

New fellows can also flourish through mentorship and coaching. Hooper and Young recommended that PIs encourage their fellows to seek additional mentors and to network with scientists outside of their immediate field of study. Both activities will help them adjust to their fellowships and become more well-rounded scientists.

Hooper added that you can be a kind of mentor to foreign fellows even if you’re not a senior-level scientist. As an experienced NCI at Frederick employee, you have knowledge and wisdom that can help them adjust to their new settings, acclimate to life in the U.S., and advance their scientific career.

“We have a mix of younger people, like your postbacs who have just graduated from college … all the way up to your really senior research fellows. They can all help the folks below them because they’ve learned things,” she said.

“Those types of things are really important.”

See part one and part two for tips for fellows.