Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship

Moving to the USA, Part 1

Seeing as I’ve already been living in the USA for 11 months, the above title perhaps feels a little daft. However, it may not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever moved countries that the process is rather hectic. Since last October I’ve gradually ticked things off the to-do list(s) and finally feel somewhat settled into the new work and lifestyle. Enough to feel vaguely comfortable taking a weekend to get this long-considered blog off the ground, anyway.

So why am I even here at all? In October 2015 I had the great fortune to start a 3-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship (MSCF) funded by the European Commission (EC). I was to work across chemistry and physics conducting research in single-molecule electronics, with the first two years based in New York, USA (‘outgoing phase’) and the final year spent in Rennes, France (‘return phase’). But that’s only the neat, glossy overview… I sent my first email about the prospective project (from my old PhD and post-doc stomping ground in London, UK) about 1.5 years before starting it – way back in April 2014! In this post I want to cover the journey from project conception to my arrival at JFK on Fellowship Day 1, before the memories completely fade, and for the benefit of others who may be applying for similar funding opportunities in years to come (closing deadline for this cycle is 14th September 2016 folks!). A lot of events during this time ran concurrently, so apologies if some parts of the story don’t run in perfect chronological order. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take me another 11 months to write up Part 2.

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Whilst I already had the kernel of a project idea in mind back in April 2014, I never thought I would end up writing it into an MSCF application for funding. I had sat in workshops on such things, and the consensus seemed to be that the MSCFs were not the most straightforward of documents to put together. I wasn’t keen. Yet my post-doc funding was rapidly running out! Needs must and the bottom line was, doing science costs money. In the following month or so, I made contact with Professors I hoped to work with and a broad project plan started to emerge.

Checking back through my records, the first draft application saved in a MSCF template is dated May 11th 2014. I was actually fortunate to visit New York around that time, off the back of a conference in ‘nearby’ Niagara Falls (America is vast). So I got to meet my prospective US-Prof, get some valuable feedback on the project concept, and even sat in on a group meeting. I was also lucky to catch a talk by my prospective EU-Prof in May 2014 at a different conference, this time in Paris. I can’t emphasize how important it is to attend conferences as a young researcher! Though I was keen to involve an additional industrial partner based in Switzerland, during this time the latter was actually considered a ‘Third country’ as a result of their February 2014 referendum “against mass immigration”. Whilst negotiations for them to re-enter the Seventh Framework Programme/Horizon 2020 scheme as a ‘Home country’ were in progress, the EC rules were clear. It proved impossible to include any additional project partner in Switzerland within either the home or return phases (whilst simultaneously keeping one in the USA). (As an aside, this continues to serve as a personal reminder of the potential hidden costs to UK scientific research following the recent Brexit campaign and leave vote [at time of writing, I understand that we are still officially considered a Home country for the current funding call, but there are already reports that the referendum result is having negative effects].)

I wrote the bulk of the proposal on weekends throughout that summer, aside from the last week or so prior to the deadline where I worked on it practically full time (the final push and polish). With a fair amount of back-and-forth between the assembled (and fortunately for me, willing!) project members, as well as feedback from as many people I could pin down to read the thing, my application documents finally got submitted on Sept 9th 2014. The waiting game had begun.

I did my best to wait proactively, rather than passively. Though I didn’t put in any serious work on any other funding applications, we had around this time just obtained the first clutch of interesting lab results which would ultimately lead to the publication of my best paper to date. This kept me busy. It was somewhat comforting that I was one of several post docs who had applied for a MSCF around my Department, so every time one of us would be passing the others’ office they’d poke their head in and ask if the other had heard anything. Then, finally, on February 4th 2015 I received a rather cryptic email from the EC, simply asking me to “access an important request for providing additional data necessary to prepare your grant agreement”. After frantic discussions with others as to what that actually meant, I was eventually convinced it meant my proposal had been successful. Boy do they work to scramble that message!

So after almost 7 years working in the same city and institution, I was moving on. But when? I still had several projects to finish, serve notice on my London room, book the flights, open bank accounts, find new accommodation… The middle of September became our target start date, but this ultimately got pushed back a little to October 1st 2015.

Paperwork wise, there was still a lot to do. Legal agreements between all parties needed to be drawn up, and various contracts had to be signed (in both English and French!). I cannot thank enough the various administrators who not only sorted all of this out, but also calmly answered every one of my often panicked queries. It is also an interesting thing to fill out US VISA paperwork as a chemist. Alongside the ‘usual’ series of questions such as “Have you ever been a member of a vigilante unit – Yes/No”, you have to answer (truthfully) that yes, whilst you do have considerable “chemical experience”, you have no – really no – plans to use this for evil, and it does not make you a national security threat! Despite checking and double checking every aspect of my VISA application (there really are some very specific photograph requirements), I was nervous about the associated interview at the US Embassy. Following some ‘helpful suggestions’ online, I even printed out family photographs in case I needed to convince anyone of my firm intention to return to the UK after the VISA expired! It turns out I had nothing to worry about, and the official took my passport to keep for processing. By this point, we were rapidly approaching the start date and I hadn’t even booked my flights. I took a chance and bought tickets despite not yet having my passport back. Luckily my documents arrived just a few days later.

The last six months in the UK were hectic, but enjoyable. I needed to push the research and deal with the logistics of moving, but also spend time with those close to me, knowing there would soon quite literally be an ocean between us. So whilst working to submit 3 papers, I broke my finger playing paintball, hiked in the Cairngorms and had a blast at Reading Festival. I emptied my room selling items on Gumtree, pawning things off on friends, family or charity shops, and sent a ∼1.5 m³ pile of books, household items and my electric guitar ahead of me via sea freight. I hurriedly booked NYC accommodation for my first month whilst cooking a pizza late one night.

My last weeks in the UK were filled with leaving drinks, goodbye parties and coffee hours at ever increasing frequencies. It was awesome, but somewhat saddening to think how many good friends and loving family I was leaving behind for those bright lights and streets paved with gold. Lab work and leaving preparations continued almost up to the point I stepped on the plane. I was still running columns in the lab until the week before, and remember thinking that I was crazy to be doing so. I didn’t have to imagine what my colleagues thought, they told me to my face! Somewhat frustratingly, even my very last day was spent photocopying lab books and transferring data – I vowed to be better organized in the future. A final clear out of 7 years’ worth of journal articles, chemical catalogues and notes from the old group office later got me in trouble with the Chief Services Technician for creating a fire hazard.

Paper_trail

In the departure lounge at Heathrow I cancelled my UK mobile phone contract, changed UK bank account mailing addresses to that of my mother’s house, and tried to set up a couple of NYC apartment viewings via SpareRoom. Eight hours later I emerged, sleepily, from the terminal building at JFK to jump in my first Yellow Cab to Manhattan as a freshly minted J-1 Research Scholar. Good bye Old Smokey, hello Big Apple. What do you have in store?

JFK_day1