Yana Karol had a goal: She wanted to get a job at NASA and move to sunny California. It took the Minsk native and former academic secretary at the Institute of Physics of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus just six months to attain her dream.
«You just have to really want something to make it happen,» she insists. California is home to NASA’s Ames Research Center, where scientists study astrobiology. They are looking into the origins of life, how it evolved and how it spread throughout the universe. They also conduct research on the operation, capabilities, and safety of airplanes. The center is located at Moffett Federal Airfield, near the city of Mountain View in Silicon Valley.
Yana Karol has completed post- graduate programs at the Lille University of Science and Technology (France) and at the Institute of Physics of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. She has a Ph.D. and has an additional doctoral degree in physics and mathematics. She worked as a junior researcher at the Academy of Sciences and later as an academic secretary at the Institute of Physics. She was involved in remote sensing of the Earth’s atmosphere.
«Late last February I began what I call my ‘new life,’” says the young woman. «I contacted NASA’s Ames Research Center and began preparing documents for submission to the NASA Postdoctoral Program. Why waste time on trifles? If you are going to go off somewhere, it should be to the best possible place.”
In her application Yana described all of her knowledge and experience, and listed everything, she wanted to work on at the American space center. It took her 15 pages of academic text. «My applications were first reviewed by the leader of the team where the vacancy was, and then by three other independent experts. I was almost sure that I would make it because I was really a very good fit for them – from the topic of my dissertation to my managerial expertise,» said the Belarusian scientist, who is not given to false modesty.
Six months later Yana received a letter from NASA. The letter congratulated her on being accepted into the program and specified her salary for the first and subsequent years. Yana does not disclose how much NASA is giving her, but she says that the amount is 10 times greater than what she was paid at the Academy of Sciences.
«I can’t remember what I did after I received the letter. I probably jumped up and down and screamed. I guess the only thing I didn’t do was walk on the ceiling – I don’t think there are any footprints on it. First I called my mother. After that, I called a friend. In mid-October, I obtained a US J-1 visa, that’s issued to people enrolled in Work & Travel programs
Yana wrote in her blog that she found it funny when her future supervisor asked her why she wanted the NASA job in view of the fact that she held such a serious position as academic secretary: «’What is the likelihood that you will agree to work with us?’ he asked me. Well, perhaps for Americans, an academic secretary is someone who lives in a villa on the seashore. I answered him honestly, about the money and about the fact that I missed academia and that the new job would give me invaluable experience that would be useful in any country of the world.» At NASA, the Belarusian scientist researches the atmosphere using a 4STAR airborne spectrometer (she studies the composition of particles suspended in the air). She says that the job is very different from what she did in Minsk, but is similar to what she did while in graduate school at Lille University: «However, things are more serious here: I use a more advanced device and it is permanently built into a NASA aircraft – you won’t have to tighten the screws before flying. I may also be able to take part in a measuring campaign in Namibia.
«My friends and relatives are proud of me, but they also miss me a lot. When I left for France, they did not whine as much as they do now. My colleagues’ reaction was mixed. Many congratulated me but some started speaking to me very strangely, apparently because they were jealous. I would be jealous, too,» Yana, laughs.
The scientist says that it was not very hard for her to change her life so radically. «You just have to really want something, and then you simply do whatever it takes to make it happen,” she says. “Things may look challenging but you have to do them. That’s how it is. I think that I had everything I needed to make things work: an academic degree, experience, and the idea of what else could be done in that field.»
Yana’s new employer paid to relocate her. Yana wrote about that in her blog: «They calculated my relocation budget – it was a five-figure sum. It was more than I made in a year at my institute. The budget included airfare, 12 nights in a hotel, 14 days’ car rental, per diem, luggage and some other minor things. I decided to arrive 10 days before I started work, in order to have enough time to recover from jet lag, find a permanent place to live, open a bank account, and so on.»
This is what the young researcher has to say about her first impressions of California: «I feel like I’m at the edge of the world: there is almost nobody in the streets, there are just cars. It does not feel like I am at the heart of civilization at all. I hear Spanish being spoken more than English, and it is not clear whether it is fall or spring – everything is in bloom and the trees are gold and scarlet.»
Yana is happy to be living in a place where there is no winter: «This is very, very important for me! I slept under a very thick blanket in Minsk all year round.»
The Belarusian scientist is going to stay at NASA for at least a year (her agreement provides for an annual extension of the contract), and it’s too early for her to talk about her further plans. “There is just one thing I can say: I do not want to go home yet. When I left for France, I immediately wanted to go back. People kept telling me that I would change my mind and stay, but I wanted to go back home more and more every day. This time around, I do not have that feeling. I don’t know – maybe I’ll feel differently in a little while. Actually, I dream of going to Spain. I really hope that with my work experience at NASA I will be able to find a position in Spain. But it is very difficult because there is a crisis going on there at the moment.»
By Dmitry Smirnov