In 1992, I was fortunate enough to spend one year in California, working as a post-doctoral researcher in the IBM Almaden Research Center. That was in the pre-internet age when dinosaurs still roamed the planet – at least this is what my 8-year old daughter apparently believes. Now, in 2016, I left again Belgium for the USA, this time for a one-year sabbatical in Boston, in Robert Langer’s MIT group, working on some new nanofibrillous materials for cell culture. Fulbright was generous in supporting the project, as well as my home University.
So, what is the difference between temporarily relocating to the USA before and after the birth of Netscape Navigator (remember this old browser?). Well, the difference may appear to be huge at first sight. In 2016, we looked for an apartment before relocating, visited it by skype, and signed the contract by some pdf-based certification procedure (which still remains somewhat opaque to me). We also managed to start the electricity and gas utility contracts while 5000 km away, and pre-registered our child to school. We used Google Maps to identify every potentially useful shop in our neighborhood, and when we arrived, we directly got a mobile phone plan, which allowed us to navigate in Boston, find rapidly convenience stores, select the best public transportation route – all in a zip. And we started paying bills online.
Back in 1992, we discovered everything upon arrival, used city maps to find our way, read local newspapers, and asked, asked, asked a lot. And we started paying bills… by sending checks. But overall, it took about the same time to settle, maybe because everything was simpler – what convenience has been brought by the internet has most probably been dissipated away by a parallel increase in complexity.
However, one thing is now the same as it was in 1992: we rapidly met a lot of nice people, eager to help and provide useful advice: Patty, who lived for one year in Brussels, and discussed with us at length of the options we had to register our child at school; Elizabeth, who welcomed us and provided numerous practical advices; Donna and Ray, who organized a come-together neighbor party two weeks after our arrival, which gave us the chance to meet Val, Robbie, Chuck, and many others; Kathy from the Cambridge Public Schools, and Darrell, the principal of our child’s school, who listened to our worries and provided good advice for the registration process; Héloïse, who helped us to find a place to live, and offered us assistance; and of course our scientific host, Bob, and many others to come in the lab. This was the real thing we needed most, people with an extended hand, blowing internet benefits to smithereens in comparison.
Now, thanks to all these people, the Fulbright, my home University, and their numerous sponsors– plus the internet, for possibly 5% – I am ready to start a fruitful year of research in MIT!
– Dr. Alain Jonas
2016-2017 Visiting Research Scholar at Massachussets Institute of Technology