Who? Sarah Weltje, Master’s student of Molecular Life Sciences
What? Internship at Sabin Vaccine Institute
Where? Houston, Texas, US
‘I wanted to go abroad for my internship. I didn’t mind where I went but because I had never travelled on my own before, I thought a western country would be a good start. Here at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Houston I am working with an antigen, a protein from the parasite Tripanosoma cruzi. This little creature spreads dengue fever in America. I am researching whether that protein stays stable for long enough with minimal cooling, both in its pure form and in the vaccine created with it. If it turns out that the end product keeps in the fridge for one to two years, that halves the costs. And as a not-for-profit organization, Sabin benefits from that: they will then get the green light from the sponsor to manufacture the vaccine.
What strikes me here is the gulf between the rich and the poor. America is the land of opportunity, but only for those who can afford it. Capitalism through and through, as I see it. Waiters can’t live on their wages here. They live off the tips or they have a second or even a third job. You can end up homeless because of hospital bills, even when you are insured. In apartment blocks, bouncers are hired to keep homeless people out of the hallway. The contrasts seem extreme to me, yet I’m told it’s not that bad in Houston. At the same time you notice that it’s increasingly normal among the better off for the woman to be a housewife. Around the lunch hour you see a lot of those typical blonde, slim housewives. I find it very contradictory.
But at the lab I don’t notice many cultural differences. I don’t notice a difference in the hierarchy, for instance. My supervisor encourages me to do as much as possible independently. I always come to work some time between a quarter to nine and a quarter to ten, and I leave between five and eight. Two of my colleagues work from ten to five and that is accepted too. What I do find interesting is that Americans generally work hard: less efficiently, but they go on working late.
I do miss the Netherlands. The down-to-earth, blunt people, being able to crack jokes using word play or to imitate Hans Teeuwen. And I miss sugar-free wholemeal bread with apple syrup and Calvé peanut butter, and being able to get somewhere in one and a half hours max, to do something nice. I’ve hardly seen any cycle paths or pedestrians here and I miss being able to go out for a walk in the evening without any worries. The funny thing is, though, that when I get back to the Netherlands I will miss this place too.’