I’m a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, co-advised by Prof. Lisa Alvarez-Cohen (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Prof. Jill Banfield (Earth and Planetary Sciences).
I study microbial communities in contaminated environments (both natural and built) and how they can remediate the contaminants present in their environment. Most of my work is computational (metagenomics and bioinformatics), but I take any chance to go out to the field.
I was born in Israel and did my PhD there as well, before moving to the US. My experience during graduate school was very different than that of my current postdoc. I worked in the Zoology department and studied microbe-sponge symbiosis (marine sponges). Most of my work was in the lab (growing bacteria) or in the field (measuring sponges growing on the Coral reefs of the Red Sea).
Moving to USA
2 – How long have you been in USA?
I have been in the US for just over four years.
3 – Why did you decide to move to USA for your postdoc?
The US has some of the best universities in the world. I also felt it would be easier to acclimate in an English speaking country. One motivation, which I discovered was wrong, was that I though the culture in the US would be more similar to that in Israel.
4 – What difficulties (if any) have you encountered when moving to USA (Visa, Housing…)?
Following the previous question, I did not understand how different the culture in the US was compared to my home country, Israel. This is not a negative, there are many things here that I prefer over what I grew up in, but the culture shock was unexpected.
One geographic difficulty is the high price of living in the Bay Area. My family and I moved to Berkeley while the Tech industry was booming, the housing prices were rapidly increasing. At the same time, the university reduced the priority for postdocs in the family housing.
For postdocs coming with partners and/or families, it is important to account for the difficulties that their partner would face. While I had structure and an immediate community in the lab, my spouse remained alone and had to create support circles and take care of our toddler alone.
San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
5 – Was it hard to get a visa?
The visa process was relatively easy. The questionnaire looks frightening but is not hard to answer and the interview was quick. The only problem we faced was that not all the requested forms were properly listed in the embassy site. It is always important to check with former/present people who passed the process about these kinds of things.
How to apply for a J-1 visa ? A step-by-step guide
How to extend your stay in USA (J-1 status) ?
J-1 visa requirements: The rules you must respect!
What are the steps to get a J-1 visa?
Check our step-by-step guide to get a J-1 visa, along with other articles related to J-1 visa requirements, J-1 status extension…
6 – Where are you living now?
I’m still living in the same place near Berkeley.
Berkeley is a city located in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area, in California.
It is home to the University of California Berkeley.
Living in USA
7 – How did you find the transition to living in USA?
As mentioned above, there were several challenges in the move. But after acclimating, I enjoy living here. I like the community I’m living in, my life is mostly calm and nice.
8 – Did you experience any culture shock?
I experienced several shocks. Growing up in Israel, we always felt like the two countries have a similar culture but I was very wrong. There is much more subtext in conversations here and it takes time learning to read all the small cues. I was a little afraid to talk out of place the first couple of weeks, but as I came to know my peers, my fear quickly evaporated.
I think it is the small things that are sometimes responsible for the larger shocks. I remember the first time I went to buy diapers for my child. Even though the brands were the same ones I knew, all the packaging was different and I could not figure out what I need to buy.
9 – Was it easy meeting new people / making friends?
Being part of a lab helps with that a lot. You get an immediate community that way. I am fortunate to have great friends in both labs I work at. It is harder to find friends outside of work but I feel as though this issue has more to do with the fact that most people already find their circle of friends by the time they reach my age. Nonetheless, we were able to find good friends over time. Living close to a large university means that there are many transient people living around. This means that even when we do find friends, they come with an “expiration date”.
10 – What do you enjoy most about living in USA?
I love how beautiful California is, even around my town. I have never in my life seen so much diverse flora. In general, life in the US is pleasant and you have many comforts (e.g. Amazon Prime!). In addition, the Bay Area has amazing restaurants of all types.
Berkeley, California, USA
11 – What do you enjoy least about living in USA?
It is hard living here without a car. Even though public transportation in my area is good, you still need a car to travel and go grocery shopping. On that subject, I don’t like the fact that we need to go to several places to get all our groceries.
12 – What is the most striking experience or best moment you have had in USA so far?
The birth of my second child was here so that would be the best moment I experienced so far. 🙂
Working as a postdoc in USA
13 – How did you pick your postdoc research laboratory?
I first approached Prof. Alvarez-Cohen through a mutual connection, since she was working on arsenic remediation and this was a topic of interest towards the end of my PhD. Through her, I was introduced to Prof. Banfield and they decided to take me as a shared postdoc. UC Berkeley was an easy choice, being one of the top universities in the world.
14 – How would you describe the work culture/environment in research labs in USA? Is it different from your home country or others you had experience in?
I work in two labs and can say that the culture/environment is not defined by the country but by the people and the PI. One inherent difference between the US and Israel is the average age of the students. In Israel, people go to university only after finishing their mandatory army service, so most undergraduate students are >24 years old. In the US, that is the average age of graduate students.
Age of students varies by country
American students go to college or university straight out of high school. By contrast, all Israeli citizens over the age of 18 must have compulsory military service for a period of 24 to 32 months, and thus begin at university at a much older age.
According to an OECD study from 2013, Israelis are the oldest students in the world.
15 – How does research in USA compare to your home country or other experiences you may have from other countries?
It is hard to properly compare this. UC Berkely in general and my labs, in particular, have much more funding compared to my PhD lab/university. Here in my postdoc, I had the opportunity to use equipment and computational infrastructure that was just not present in my university, and in some cases in the whole country.
Cultural differences between USA – Home country
16 – What do you miss the most from your home country or last country you lived in?
Apart from family and friends, I would say that a good salad and a proper dish of hummus is what I miss the most.
17 – What custom/habits do you find most surprising about USA?
I never knew how much people here love the outdoor. I never thought about the US as a place where you get to see nature.
18 – Has anything funny happened to you due to cultural differences?
Nothing big comes to mind. I am always surprised by how much people are willing to share when sharing a table at a pub or in the playground, while at the same time never establishing any further relation.
19 – What are the biggest differences between everyday life in your home country and USA?
My everyday life has not changed much. The biggest difference is that I used to have family dinners with my parents, or my spouse parents, every week and now we see them twice a year.
20 – Tell us about anything in USA that you wished exist/be more implemented in your home country, and vice versa?
Public transportation during the weekend back in Israel would be great.
Public transport on weekends in Israel
In Israel, weekdays are from Sunday to Thursday, while Friday and Saturday are the weekend.
Saturday is the Jewish day of rest and religious worship, known as Shabbat, which is Hebrew for Sabbath.
Although Israel has a great network of transportation, public transport (buses, trains) are very limited, to not say impossible, during the weekend.
21 – Are there any stereotypes/cliché you may have heard about your home country?
Surprisingly no. I was always told that Berkeley is a hub of anti-Israel protests but I never experienced that here. Most people are just friendly.
Tips to future postdocs in USA
22 – What advice/tips would you give to international PhD students thinking to move to USA for a postdoc?
Find other people from your home country that live where you want to go. They would be in the best position to give you the tips you’d need.
23 – Is there something that you wish you’d known before moving to USA?
There is no particular thing that I look back at and could say that I wished I knew before. Cultural shock is inevitable to some extent so come prepared to have it.
24 – How beneficial you think a postdoc in USA is for your career?
I think that my postdoc is one of the most definitive things I did for my career. I learned so much during these past years and the move enabled me to do that. Less intuitively, my postdoc experience taught me about options outside of academia. The reason I chose to do a postdoc was so I can continue to a career in academia but now would prefer to move out to industry, so this is a fun twist.
25 – What are your future plans?
I hope to find an interesting job in industry as a first step. Learning about the work culture there would be a whole new adventure. I think I’ll still look for an academic position but this is not my one and only option now, which relieves a lot of pressure. And at the back of my head, I always have a little adventurous hope to be able to found a startup with a good friend of mine. We shared the same desk/bench for the past decade and always loved working together.
If you can have this adventure, do it! You can never know where it will lead you.
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