Under the same stars

He has spent the last decade around some of the world’s biggest and most complex machines: accelerator facilities that produce exotic isotopes otherwise created only in stars. These intellectual pursuits have taken him far from home and led him across three continents: In addition to his time in the United States and the United Kingdom, he also completed a postdoc at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Wako, Japan, home of the Radioactive Isotope Beam Factory (RIBF). The distance occasionally nags at him as his parents get older and he watches his nieces and nephews grow up mostly via pictures shared through email and social media. And adjusting to different climates and cultures hasn’t always been easy. But Lorusso believes that dealing with Michigan winters, Japanese bureaucracy, and the London housing market have been worthwhile sacrifices to claw his way into the field—a sentiment shared by other nuclear physicists who have traveled similar roads. 

From culture shock to a scientific home

Lorusso’s story of a yearslong and possibly permanent sojourn in foreign cultures is not unusual in science, and it is particularly common for physicists. In 2014, temporary visa holders earned 45% of U.S. doctorates in the physical sciences, as compared with 37% across all fields, according to the National Science Foundation. One of the reasons physicists are so likely to undertake major relocations is that there are relatively few of the accelerator facilities that many rely upon for their research. So researchers must flock to the sites that have the instruments they need, even if that means leaving home behind.

These transitions can be exciting and rewarding for scientists, who get to explore a new culture while pursuing their research. As Lorusso says, “Bari was great, but I knew there was lots more going on in the world. I wanted to see it.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When Lorusso moved to Japan for his postdoc, he had years of studying the complex process of element formation in stars under his belt, but he found that he had trouble managing the basics of day-to-day life, including finding an apartment and a car. A low point, especially given his expertise in precise measurements, was being rejected when trying to open a bank account because his two signatures on the application didn’t match exactly. “Several times during my first 2 or 3 weeks in Japan I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” he recalls.

Like Lorusso, Sarah Naimi—who grew up in Algeria in the 1990s during the country’s civil war, earned her Ph.D. in France, and completed postdocs in Japan and Germany before beginning a permanent research position at RIKEN—has had her share of challenges settling into her new home halfway around the world. “I’m trying to connect at any level I can,” she says of her relationship with her adopted country. “I’m quite immersed in the Japanese culture, but I think it would be much better if I could understand the language.” She’s working on it, and writes about some of her efforts on a blog, but she still winds up depending on her department secretary or Japanese colleagues for help with things such as making doctor’s appointments. Even so, she says she doesn’t feel isolated and makes sure to maintain an active social life outside the lab—mostly with international friends who speak English or French.

Lorusso, too, managed to find his footing in Japan. “Overall it was a great time,” he says. “Exciting is the right word.” He urges other scientists to be undaunted by big moves, especially early in their careers. “When you’re young, these difficulties are so much smaller than [the] excitement of being in a place that is very interesting, very different. If you want to travel and see the world, this a good job to do that.”

And some commonalities extend across oceans, which can help traveling researchers feel more comfortable. For Lorusso, his familiarity with the similarly hard-charging scientific cultures in the United States and Japan alleviated some of the stress associated with his relocation. The nuclear physics labs, characterized by an intense mix of competition and collaboration, had become a second home that scratched the one itch that Italy will never reach. “I still feel strongly Italian, but I realize I’m a little bit different than my friends who stayed,” he says. “I feel very comfortable in the United States and Japan because there is something in my personality that just matches those countries which are dynamic, push hard, and are aggressive when it comes to science.”

Lorusso’s former MSU classmate Alfredo Estrade—an assistant professor at Central Michigan University (CMU) in Mount Pleasant who grew up in Uruguay, completed postdocs in Germany and Scotland, and has traveled to Japan and Brazil to conduct experiments—has also found a cultural home that stretches across the world. “When I say I’m a nuclear scientist, old friends back in Uruguay seem to think I’m some sort of crazy scientist playing games in a basement lab,” he says, but his scientific colleagues know otherwise. The bonds with these people are a big reason he is in nuclear physics.

Some of his favorite professional memories come from the time spent bonding with colleagues after the grueling 24-hour sessions collecting data on in-demand instruments that are typical for many physicists. The specific methods for blowing off steam depend on the country: In Japan, it was sitting on the floor drinking beer and sake, with the locals ordering a continuous stream of tasty small dishes, and singing karaoke, while in Germany, “currywurst mit pommes (fried pork sausage with curry spiced ketchup and french fries) and a Hefeweizen (wheat beer) feel very, very good after a week of beamtime!” Still, the camaraderie that arises is the same.

He also appreciates the collaborative environment engendered by the big projects in his field, which require the participation of many researchers. “In all these large labs where I’ve trained and worked, you need everybody on the team,” he says. “You have to rely on your colleagues to be successful, to achieve the measurement you’re after. That same culture, I’ve found it in all the different labs.”

Family factors

Another type of teamwork factored into Estrade’s globetrotting: that between him and his wife, whom he met while he was a student at MSU. When he finished his Ph.D., they decided to move to Europe so that he could continue pursuing his research path, even though it put a wrinkle in her plans for her public health nutrition career. “One needs to have a partner willing to go along,” Estrade says of all the moves and lab-hopping during the graduate and postdoc years.

But even if some family members are willing to come along for the ride, physicists are likely leaving others half a world away. Lorusso has opted for a compromise, choosing to relocate to Teddington—despite the London gloom, the expensive housing market, and a lab with far fewer resources than were available to him as a postdoc—so that he can visit his family in Italy more easily. Since starting his job at NPL in early 2015, he has taken several weekend trips to Italy. “If you are talking about a permanent position in Japan or the United States, I would have had a serious problem,” he says. “You start to feel like you are losing relationships.” Of his parents, still in Bari, he says, “They are growing older. … At some point they will disappear, so you can imagine I really feel lucky to have them closer now.”

Being far from home can be tough, but Naimi says it’s not all bad. She has been away from her home country for 12 years now, but she feels closer than ever to her family thanks to the internet. “I think the key point is not to go abroad just to go abroad,” she says. “First you need a dream, an ambition, a goal.” Hers dates back to her childhood in Algeria, where she spent many warm evenings gazing at the stars from her family’s garden while fears of terrorism related to the civil war kept her confined to her home. “I started to look at the sky and then I wanted to understand it,” she says. “I thought, ‘There is a bigger truth somewhere there.’”

And although it’s hard to be physically so far away for so long, she thinks it also has some benefits. “I feel I am growing much faster because of the freedom of being far from home. I have no regrets! Most of the time in physics, to achieve our dreams we need to travel.”

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