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A life of science beyond borders

Pursuit of research excellence means supporting and navigating immigration issues for great scientific minds of every nationality

June 15, 2006
Immigration specialist Amy Garrett-Cowan and Dr. Harmit Malik

Amy Garrett-Cowan, Human Resources immigration specialist, navigates the maze of regulations governing employment of foreign nationals. Her work enables Dr. Harmit Malik, molecular biologist in the Basic Sciences Division, to focus on advancing the field of evolutionary biology — an opportunity that would be rare in his home country, which devotes most of its research support to applied, not basic, science.

Photo by Dean Forbes

The odds are against any single scientist discovering the cure to a disease. That's why it's essential to involve as many of the best minds as possible and enable them to work in the best places possible — no matter where on the planet that might be.

In the world of science, ability trumps nationality, and the opportunity for researchers such as Dr. Harmit Malik to work outside their own countries — and especially to work inside the United States — is vitally important to the timely and fruitful pursuit of knowledge.

"Your immediate surroundings really define how your research is going to progress and what you're going to think about," said Malik, a molecular biologist in the Basic Sciences Division. "My colleagues here are so accomplished and generous. I feel very lucky to have found a place that suits me and my research so well."

Malik, who is from India, is one of more than 300 foreign nationals (including green-card holders), representing more then 40 different countries working at the Center. "Science is a very global endeavor," said Han Nachtrieb, vice president for Human Resources. "It isn't about politics or borders. It's about the person with the best idea — and that person just might be from another country."

Navigating the maze of rules and red tape governing the employment of foreign nationals has never been easy, but it's become even more challenging in the wake of national security concerns raised by Sept. 11.

"No immigration benefit of any kind can be granted without a full security check and clearance," said Steve Miller, an immigration attorney who assists the Center. "And those checks and clearances can drag on because there's a big backlog."

With the backlog come delays and with delays can come all sorts of problems related to funding, planning and deadlines if a foreign scientist is unable to start work on schedule. Nevertheless, conducting world-class research and providing excellent patient care demands an outstanding work force regardless of the challenges.

Amy Garrett-Cowan of Human Resources works with visa issues full time, helping foreign nationals manage the alphabet soup of visa categories governing their entry and the duration and conditions of their stay.

"I try to minimize the bureaucracy so they can focus on their work," said Garrett-Cowan, who at any given moment is dealing with as many as 30 different visa situations. Her duties include helping some foreign nationals obtain green cards, which allow them to work here indefinitely — and which they must have to qualify for certain research grants.

At the Center, it's all about "being open and able to provide a home for outstanding and talented scientists," Nachtrieb said. In some cases, there may be only a handful of people in the world with the expertise necessary to advance a particular line of research. "These are not software engineers," he said. "They are working in a very narrow and esoteric environment."

Benefits to science

Even for positions that demand less experience, the Center still cannot afford to restrict its hiring. With so many foreign students studying science at U.S. universities, the best candidate is frequently a foreigner who came here to study but wants to stay and work.

Some foreign nationals want to gain experience before returning to their own country, making the Center a training ground that helps improve medical research and patient care around the world. In other cases, foreign nationals want to pursue long-term careers at the Center, where their skills contribute greatly to our mission.

Yan Liu is a statistical research associate who supports the Translational Outcomes Research Program, processing and managing the data researchers rely on to formulate conclusions. She followed her husband, Huaqi Jiang, to the United States from China in 1997. Both studied at Iowa State University, where she earned a master's degree in statistics and he earned a doctorate in genetics. "China is picking up now, but at the time, the opportunities for advanced education could not compare to the United States," Liu said. "That's the main reason we came here."

Liu has been at the Center, where her husband is a now a postdoc in the Basic Sciences Division, since 2000. "The position of statistician is very important," Liu said. "If you make mistakes, the whole project can fail. I feel like I'm making an important contribution here."

Opportunity in basic science

About half of the Center's 240 postdocs — researchers with doctoral degrees who accept temporary appointments — come from other countries. In some cases, a principal investigator will recruit a particular postdoc because that individual's focus coincides with a specific need related to the principal investigator's research. Other times, it's the postdocs who seek positions with specific researchers.

Malik, who earned his doctorate in biology at the University of Rochester, came to the Center as a postdoc to work with Dr. Steve Henikoff, whose interest in evolutionary biology mirrored Malik's. Such an opportunity would be rare in his home country, Malik said, because India devotes most of its research support to applied, not basic, science.

Malik worked with Henikoff as a postdoc from 1999 until 2003, when he was appointed to a faculty position. Today, he studies how chromosomes come apart during cell division and why the process occasionally goes haywire. The hope is that acquiring a better understanding of the process will pave the way to prevent such conditions as Down's syndrome, male infertility and even cancer, which occurs when the chromosomes "unzip" incorrectly.

It's not the kind of research that Malik can wrap up overnight, but he has time. Not long ago, Malik received approval of his green-card application. "It feels great," he said. "Having found the perfect match here, I wasn't interested in giving it up."


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