Celebrate the Nobel Prize Winning Immigrant Scientists — But Not at the Expense of the Greater Immigrant Community

September 30, 2020 | 9:35 am
Nitish Meena/Unsplash
Melody Tan & Christopher Jackson

We are scientists and engineers from immigrant families. Over the past year, we have watched as these identities have increasingly intersected amid federal attempts to end the DACA program, restrictions on Chinese researchers, and attacks on international students. However, when we hear our scientific societies and academic institutions take a stand in support of immigrants, it is usually a tired mantra that praises the contributions of only a select few immigrants.

In upcoming weeks, the US will likely celebrate that same group of eminent immigrant scientists as the 2020 Nobel Prizes are awarded. Well-intentioned people will cite that 34% of US Nobel laureates have been immigrants and that 45% of US Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and their children. Similarly, success is measured by the number of patents they receive or the dollars they have poured into the economy.

However, focusing exclusively on these metrics of success can reinforce the perception that immigrants must be the next Albert Einstein to deserve recognition — or worse, to deserve a place in this country. In reality, the community of immigrant scientists includes refugees who have to work multiple jobs while taking classes to support their families. Immigrant scientists are also students whose parents have limited English proficiency or science background. Immigrant scientists drop out because they lack the resources to get through weed-out courses and never have a role model in these fields. If the only time you hear about immigrant scientists is in the context of Nobel Prize winners, it is not unreasonable to think that you could never be one. Or that you are less valued because you are not.

Immigrants and immigrant scientists should be valued as more than our accomplishments or productivity. It is damaging to measure a person’s worth by how much they are perceived to contribute, and no one is able to be “sufficiently productive” all the time. Specifically, as Asian Americans from immigrant families, we push back against the harmful “model minority” narrative, which erases diverse backgrounds and experiences while ignoring structural racism and other issues.

The two of us chose science and engineering, in part because they are fields universally recognized across cultures and languages. We are fortunate to pursue doctoral degrees not simply because of intrinsic merit, but because of mentors who celebrated the diverse perspectives we bring to the lab and opened doors to new opportunities. We strive to advance scientific research and give back professionally. But that does not define our worth. We get sick and take time away from work. We change careers. We challenge the status quo. Regardless, we belong.

Scientific societies and academic institutions rightfully advocate for their members from immigrant backgrounds. It makes sense for individuals to celebrate their own accomplishments and those of their colleagues. However, the scientific community needs to recognize the debt owed to the longstanding movement for immigrant rights. This summer, when international students in higher education faced upheval from the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ban, it was decades of activism by undocumented immigrants that primed policymakers and the public to understand the harm of ICE’s actions. Standing on the shoulders of the immigrant advocacy community enabled academia to quickly mobilize against this ruling. Thus, we all have a responsibility to advocate for immigrant scientists in a way that builds up the greater immigrant community.

Instead of reflexively turning to economic arguments when advocating on immigration issues, we challenge ourselves and our scientific societies and academic institutions to champion the immigrant community more holistically. Scientists should speak up in defense of all immigrants, regardless of their status, education, or country of origin. Immigrants should be supported along their unique paths, within and outside of science, and appreciated for the diverse perspectives they bring to our community irrespective of discoveries and awards. Otherwise, we perpetuate a culture that only celebrates immigrants when they put dollars in our pockets, but, in the next breath, tells them to go back home — whatever that is supposed to mean.

Of course, we’ll be rooting for immigrant scientists to win big at this year’s Nobel Prize ceremonies. Scientific societies and academic institutions should likewise celebrate our Nobel winners from immigrant backgrounds. However, this cannot be at the expense of ignoring that we are members of a greater immigrant community that deserves our support.

Melody Tan is a PhD Candidate in Bioengineering at Rice University, where her research focuses on using optical imaging to improve the detection of oral cancer. Throughout her doctoral program, she has started several initiatives equipping students to engage with policymakers, including founding Rice SciPol and a state level science policy fellowship program. She is also involved with the National Science Policy Network, where she leads the State Fellowships Committee. Motivated by the need for healthcare access and immigration reform, Melody spends the rest of her time registering voters and volunteering on political campaigns.

Christopher Jackson is a PhD Candidate in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, where his research focuses on using nanomaterial tools for plant gene delivery and biological sensing. At Berkeley, he currently leads the Science Policy Group at Berkeley and the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative. He has served as an editor for the Journal of Science Policy & Governance and the Berkeley Science Review and a volunteer with Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally. Chris is passionate about issues related to science policy, energy and climate, immigration, and equity.

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