Science without borders

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Science without borders

At Fred Hutch and other U.S. research centers, a global village works to cure cancer and other diseases

Oct. 16, 2017
Photo animation of scientists from around the world who work at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Fred Hutch, like other major U.S. research centers, attracts top scientists from around the world.

Photo illustration by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a campus of immigrants.

Like other major medical research centers in the United States, Fred Hutch attracts talented scientists from around the world. It always has.

Dr. Rainer Storb, who worked side by side with pioneering bone marrow transplant researcher Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and has led Fred Hutch’s Transplantation Biology Program since 1980, emigrated from Germany in 1965.

Immunotherapy research, which is revolutionizing the way cancer is treated and cured by harnessing a patient’s own immune system to fight the disease, is being conducted by a virtual United Nations of scientists. Among them are Dr. Stanley Riddell (Canada); Dr. Aude Chapuis (Switzerland); and Drs. Marie Bleakley and Cameron Turtle (Australia).

Elsewhere on campus, epidemiologist Dr. Chu Chen (Taiwan) unravels the secrets of tobacco- and hormone-related head and neck cancers. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Boeckh (Germany) fights back infections in bone marrow transplant patients and others with weakened immune systems. Evolutionary geneticist Dr. Harmit Malik (India) gleans lessons from the evolutionary arms race between humans and viruses and is one of several Hutch scientists named a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

photo of Dr. Stanley Riddell

Fred Hutch's Dr. Stanley Riddell, who emigrated to the United States from Canada, is a world leader in a type of immunotherapy called CAR T-cell therapy that is revolutionizing cancer treatment.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

In 2013, a study by the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization, analyzed biographies of about 1,500 cancer researchers at the country’s seven top cancer institutes. It found more than 40 percent were foreign-born. (At that time — the most recent such analysis done — the proportion ranged from 62 percent at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer center to 30 percent at Fred Hutch.) The scientists came from 56 countries, with China, India, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom supplying the most. For good measure, the study also listed four foreign-born U.S. cancer researchers awarded Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine.

Just as cancer and infectious diseases recognize no borders, neither does the scientific pursuit of ways to prevent, treat and cure them. As Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said last month: “Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency and the free flow of ideas. The United States has historically benefited from its attraction of international scientific talent, which is essential to U.S. economic and national security.”     

Who are the scientists who left their home countries to study or work at Fred Hutch? What drew them here and what challenges did they overcome to get here?

Here is just a sampling of five of their stories, from established veterans to postdoctoral fellows and graduate students:

Dr. Jihong Bai

Vasundhara Sridharan

Dr. Alexandre Neves

Dr. Raabya Rossenkhan

Dr. Mazyar Shadman

Dr. Jihong Bai

Photo of Dr. Jihong Bai

Dr. Jihong Bai investigates how neurons communicate with other cells — research that could lead to therapies for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as provide insights into cancer biology.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

China to Seattle: an America more diverse than the movies 

Neurobiologist Dr. Jihong Bai grew up in Beijing in an academic family — his dad a professor, his mom an engineer. Early on, he developed a strong intellectual curiosity, which was part of what drove him to apply in 1998 to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to do his doctoral work in biophysics.

Science was “much, much better” in the United States, especially in the years before China began investing heavily in academic research, Bai said in a recent interview in his Hutch office. He joined Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division in 2011 after a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

What also fueled Bai’s leap across the ocean was curiosity about another culture.

“I grew up hearing a lot of things about America, in a time when China was becoming more open— movies, music were getting to China,” he said.

It turned out that the America Bai found in Madison — and later in Boston and now Seattle — was different from the one he saw in the sci-fi and horror movies he watched in Beijing. (This was probably a good thing.)

“I had kind of a naïve view of what American families were like, what American culture was like,” he said. “But coming to the states, I found it was very different. Every family is different. That’s a good thing about the U.S. — it’s very diverse.”

True, after Beijing, the bucolic college town of Madison — population about 250,000 — did not offer much of a cityscape. (“Where is downtown?” Bai recalled asking his then-girlfriend in his first days there. “We just drove past it,” she replied.) But the atmosphere was friendly, open — and fun.

“It was just normal,” he said. “Sometimes normal is the best thing happening.”

He doesn’t recall ever having a “what have I done?” moment after the move. Only once did he feel even a little that he didn’t fit in. On his first Greyhound bus trip from Madison to Chicago, he walked out of the bus station and a police officer asked, “What are you doing here?”

The cop wasn’t hassling him, though, just making sure he was safe.

Actually, Bai was on familiar terrain. The next morning, the city boy rose at 5 a.m. to admire the skyscrapers along Lake Shore Drive.

In life as in science, be open

The first time he realized that the U.S. had come to feel like home was when he and his now-wife — they met in college and married in graduate school — were returning to Madison from a trip home to visit their parents.

“On the plane, we were chatting, and I said, ‘We’re going home.’ And then I said, ‘Wow. Something’s changed.’”

After so many years in Madison— he had finished his doctorate in 2003 and stayed on to do a two-year postdoc — Bai realized that now he had to make an effort to fit in when he visited Beijing.

In the U.S., where Bai feels most different is in the lab. And that is not a bad thing.

“In graduate school, I realized I can think about the same thing [as others] from a different angle,” he said. “People like me bring a different view. We trained differently. We have different family backgrounds. I find things that a different person, not thinking the same way, may not find.”

Bai investigates how neurons communicate with other cells, using the microscopic C. elegans worm — research that could lead to therapies for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as provide insights into cancer biology. Recently, his research has expanded to explore spatial perception and behavioral biology. The team he heads up includes researchers from China, Israel, Japan, Nepal and the United States. There is no shortage of different views and new angles brought to bear on complex scientific questions.

His advice to young immigrant scientists today is applicable to both science and life: Just be open.

“There is not one way you should live your life,” he said. “Just make yourself feel at home. Then a lot becomes easier.”

Does he miss Beijing? Of course, especially friends and family. His in-laws visit Seattle, but his elderly parents don’t travel any more.

“Every time you go back, you see they’re aging,” he said. “That’s the most difficult thing, emotionally.”

Last year, his dad turned 80. Bai had already told his parents that he would not be able to get back for a visit that year because his work schedule was too harried. But his wife kept saying, “Really? You’re not going for his birthday?” On the last possible day, she pointed out that there was one airline seat still available.

Bai flew to Beijing for a 24-hour visit. It was his dad’s best gift.

Vasundhara Sridharan

photo of Vasundhara Sridharan

A doctoral student in psychology, Vasundhara Sridharan is studying tobacco addiction. Her research could contribute to creating culturally appropriate smoking cessation programs.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

India to Seattle: culture — and sticker — shock

A doctoral student in psychology at the University of Washington and member of Fred Hutch’s Tobacco & Health Behavior Science Research Group, Vasundhara Sridharan had never left India before moving to Seattle in 2012 to study. Five years after arriving, she works to help newcomers adjust to a new culture, starting with the sticker shock of visits to the old one.

A round-trip ticket to India costs $1,600 and takes 22 hours each way. Even worse are the self-doubts that hit on the wrenching flight back to Seattle.

“Most flights back are the worst ever,” she said. “Everyone questions themselves: ‘What am I doing with my life?’”

What Sridharan is doing with her life when not enduring the financial and emotional whiplash of long international flights is applying her talents, following her passion and studying a field that doesn’t exist back home.

In her case, it is studying people’s perceptions of tobacco addiction. Psychology programs in India train students to be counselors. “I’m a researcher,” Sridharan said. “My skill set is in data analysis, hypothesis making, scientific research.”

Still, she had not counted on how “super hard” it would be to be away from family. The homesickness hits especially during Indian holidays, when her phone lights up with texts from relatives and friends while here, no one takes a day off. 

Like other foreign-born researchers, she stockpiles vacation days for visits that by necessity take longer than trips by U.S.-born colleagues. Travel can be so costly that one long visit makes more financial sense than frequent short ones. (Ineligible for most grants because she is not a U.S. citizen, Sridharan worked two jobs until being awarded a Hutch United fellowship last year.) Longer trips also help meet expectations to visit everyone in large or extended families.

Sridharan’s research involves data collection that she can schedule, allowing her to work extra before and after a trip home to free up time for travel. Plus, she has an understanding team, led by Dr. Jonathan Bricker. Other graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with more time-dependent lab experiments — or less sensitive lead scientists — may not be as lucky.

In addition to travel costs are visa costs. A visa authorizing a scientist to work in the United States can take 90 to 180 days to process and costs $6,500. Renewal requires yet another trip home — something Sridharan undertook after the November 2016 presidential election even though her current visa wasn’t set to expire for another seven months. She did so because she was worried about then President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to restrict immigration.

Supporting ‘different perspectives’ in science

The order President Trump issued in January freezing entry to all refugees and to travelers from six majority-Muslim countries was blocked in the courts, then rescinded and replaced with a temporary freeze. In late September, a new order partially or fully restricted entry from eight countries.

Sridharan said the orders have had a chilling effect, causing even some colleagues from India and other countries not on the list to cancel plans to attend conferences or visit family for fear of visa problems on re-entry.

What can non-immigrant colleagues do to help ease the stress? Because families are far away and often in a far different time zone, having a U.S. support system is “huge,” Sridharan said.

“I personally give a shout out to my team, which is wonderful,” she said. “My postdoc [Dr. Noreen Watson], who is from the U.S., spent countless hours giving scientific feedback on my fellowship application. Being a peer mentor — willing to help out, fine-tuning applications — is super helpful.”

Sridharan encourages foreign-born researchers to tap campus resources such as Hutch United, a researcher-led group founded to foster a supportive community for underrepresented and self-identified minority scientists. 

Ever the psychologist, she also is good at reminding foreign- and U.S.-born scientists alike what immigrants contribute.

Medical research used to focus solely on men, she pointed out, leaving a treatment’s effectiveness or potential side effects in women unknown. In the same way, demographic groups may respond differently to treatments — or, in her field, tobacco cessation programs — increasing the importance of including diverse participants in medical studies and having diverse researchers plan them.

“A lot of research has been done that shows that different perspectives increase the creativity of a team," she said. "People who come from different countries have different cognitive problem-solving approaches because of the cultural systems in which we grow up: How we’re taught to see, how we’re taught to think, where we come from all lead to that diversity of thought.”

Finally, there is value in having the medical research field reflect the population it serves.

“As the overall U.S. population becomes more immigrant, physicians-scientists need to keep up,” she said.

Dr. Alexandre Neves

photo of Dr. Alexandre Neves

Dr. Alexandre Neves, a postdoctoral fellow at Fred Hutch, studies how neuron stem cells develop — research that could have implications for understanding brain cancers and brain abnormalities caused by the Zika virus.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Brazil to Seattle: Follow the question

How does a fertilized human egg go from a single cell to a fully developed adult with hundreds of thousands of different cell types? That question is what drew Dr. Alexandre Neves to Fred Hutch.

Once young scientists decide on their research interests, they seek out the best mentor in that field. So with a doctoral fellowship at Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal that let him go anywhere in the world to study, the Brazilian-born Neves headed to Seattle in 2002 to research stem cells — particularly those in the brain — with developmental biologist Dr. James Priess.

“In my defense, I came here in June when it was sunny,” Neves said.

Also in his defense, the mentor he chose was named this year to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious scientific honors.

Having completed his Ph.D., Neves remains at Fred Hutch as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Robert Eisenman’s laboratory, using fruit flies to study how neuro stem cells develop — research that could have implications for understanding brain cancers.

The intellectual firepower of U.S. scientists, labs and research centers draw young researchers like Neves from around the world. Many plan to return home after their studies, and do. But after seeing the science that’s possible here, many end up staying.

Neves is one of them.

“At a research institution like the Hutch, you’ve got core resources like next-generation sequencing. And the concentration of expertise — if someone in my lab doesn’t know how to do something, I can find someone else at the Hutch who has the expertise,” he said. “If you order something for research, it gets here in a day or so. In Brazil, it can take a month or longer. It’s very hard to plan your work.”

Part of the community

Neves still misses family, food — and the sunshine — back home. (Being able to stream Brazilian music has helped.) But now married with two young children, he has lived in Seattle longer than he has lived anywhere else. He has experienced the full emigrant experience, from worrying about visas to getting a green card to becoming a naturalized citizen.

“I wanted to do that for the feeling that I belong here, that I’m part of the community,” he said. “Being a citizen, now I realize how privileged I am. I’m not worried every time I travel. I’m able to get funding for research.”

Having seen firsthand the difference between doing science in a country that supports research and one that does not, Neves has become an impassioned advocate for fully funding the National Institutes of Health, which in turn is pivotal to funding research centers like the Hutch.

Securing an NIH grant already is so competitive that it can drive young people away from a science career, he said. Now, he fears that talk of funding cuts to the NIH puts U.S. science competitiveness itself at risk.

“Now more than ever, scientists need to get out of their bubble and engage with people and with policy makers,” Neves said. “I want to be able to talk to regular folks about why basic science is important.”

In doing so, he will also show them the face of U.S. science today. Of Neves’ nine-person research group, three are natural-born citizens, three are naturalized citizens like him and three are here on work visas. In addition to Brazil, they hail from China, India, Korea, Russia and Taiwan.

“If we have a lab potluck, we start to get this interesting mix of things,” Neves said.

The same can be said for their science.

Dr. Raabya Rossenkhan

photo of Dr. Raabya Rossenkhan

A virologist with expertise in HIV, Dr. Raabya Rossenkhan is doing a postdoctoral fellowship in biostatistics, working on genetic sequence analysis of HIV vaccine studies.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Botswana to Seattle: Creating version 2.0

Navigating different cultures is nothing new for Dr. Raabya Rossenkhan, who arrived at Fred Hutch from Botswana by way of Boston to start a postdoctoral fellowship in 2015. That is not the same as saying it is easy.

“As a scientist from a developing country, I feel I had to work a little harder to be taken seriously at the beginning,” she said. “The challenges drive you to create version 2.0 of yourself.”

Born in Botswana to parents from the island nation of Mauritius, Rossenkhan grew up loving science. She majored in environmental biology at the University of Botswana. By the time she began working toward a master’s degree in 2003, her country was in the grip of the AIDS crisis. Switching her research focus seemed both obvious and urgent.

“HIV changed my career,” Rossenkhan said. “I saw people in my community dying.”

But here was the catch: The University of Botswana had neither the expertise nor the facilities for HIV research.

She found collaborators in the Botswana Harvard AIDS Initiative Partnership. Impressed by her initiative, researchers there oversaw her work on a project studying HIV in breast milk. After receiving a master’s in applied microbiology, she did her doctorate in virology. She conducted the majority of her research at the Harvard School of Public Health, focusing on evolution of the virus during early HIV infection. Satisfying challenging Harvard and the University of Botswana publication requirements, she graduated and accepted a one-year postdoctoral position in 2014 in renowned HIV researcher Dr. Max Essex’s Harvard lab.

A conference in Budapest that year brought her to another cultural leap. She decided to learn biostatistics, which is how she came to move west to work for Fred Hutch biostatistics and bioinformatics researcher Dr. Paul Edlefsen on genetic sequence analysis of HIV vaccine studies.

“For a postdoc, you want to do something different, get exposure to new techniques,” she said. “I’m a virologist by training. But I also really care about what I do from the bottom up, thinking about solutions from multiple perspectives.”

Rossenkhan confesses to a what-have-I-done moment on her first day at Fred Hutch. Compared with Botswana, multiethnic Mauritius and even Boston, Seattle seemed, well, homogenous. And the Edlefsen group’s members were all, well, male. But most daunting of all, the scientists around the table weren’t even speaking a language she recognized.

“They were all speaking deep statistics!” she said. “I walked in and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, have I made a mistake with my career?’”

‘Fire in my heart’

Her apprehension didn’t last long. When she arrived on campus and needed to list an emergency contact — something most non-immigrants take for granted — Edlefsen insisted she put his name down. He invited her to his family Thanksgiving dinner. She describes him as an “amazing mentor” who supports and affirms her. As for the rest of the group, “They are the kindest people you could ever meet,” Rossenkhan said. “They’ve all taken the time to make me feel welcomed and valued.”

Rossenkhan is determinedly positive, so much so that she can be reluctant to talk about the challenges of navigating different cultures and living half a world away from her family. Her optimism, she said, is driven by her faith.

“Islam is a core component of who I am, and part of that is seeing the best in others,” she said.

But you can detect the effort in the ways she tries to make things easier for other young immigrants as volunteer chair of her department’s English language program and serving on the Fred Hutch Diversity Council. You can also hear it in the advice she dispenses on ways to make immigrants and minority populations feel welcome and empowered:

Listen more. Take time to engage.

“I went to a talk, and [afterward, Fred Hutch President and Director] Gary Gilliland and I were walking together to an elevator,” she said. “I had a warm-hearted feeling when he attentively asked me what I thought of the talk. Experiences like these go a long way towards making people feel welcome.”

As for Botswana, she returns frequently to visit family and friends. Although her country has made great gains in HIV care over the last decade, it continues to fuel her research drive.

“No matter what I do with my career, my goal will always be to try to improve the situation of people in Botswana,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you work as long as you have a positive influence. I feel fire in my heart for what I do, and I love getting up in the morning or going to sleep at night thinking about a problem we’re trying to solve.”

Dr. Mazyar Shadman

PHoto of Dr. Mazyar Shadman

Blood cancer specialist Dr. Mazyar Shadman stands before a portrait of the late Dr. Ollie Press, which hangs near his Fred Hutch office. While a medical student in Tehran, Shadman studied textbooks written by Press and other renowned Hutch researchers and dreamed of working here.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Iran to Seattle: Pursuing a dream

When Dr. Mazyar Shadman was studying medicine at Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran, one of his professors spent several months in Seattle working in the laboratory of Fred Hutch stem cell transplant specialist Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem.

“That changed my life,” Shadman said in an interview in his office at Fred Hutch, where he is now an assistant member of the Clinical Research Division. “That’s how I learned about this place.”

Already interested in oncology, Shadman decided then to focus on blood cancers. The textbooks he read carried the names of Fred Hutch luminaries Drs. Fred Appelbaum and Ollie Press. Seattle beckoned.

Shadman grew up in Tehran and graduated from college and medical school there, but he was born in the United States. His Iranian parents had been attending college in Ohio; they returned with him to Iran when Shadman was 3 or 4 months old.

At age 26, he returned to his country of birth to pursue his dream of working at Fred Hutch. Having U.S. citizenship eliminated any travel barriers. But landing his dream job was another matter.

“It’s very competitive, as you can imagine,” he said.

On the advice of friends, he applied to the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, studying under Dr. Polly Newcomb, to add a master’s degree in cancer epidemiology to his medical degree in 2008. Then it was off to the Cleveland Clinic to do his residency in internal medicine. A hematology and medical oncology fellowship brought him to the Hutch in 2011.

His pride at being here is palpable.

“Now I got to work with Ollie Press,” he said of the renowned Fred Hutch researcher and mentor, who died last month. “I see Fred Appelbaum. You talk to them, and they’re the most humble people.”

Dreams carry a price. Shortly after arriving in Seattle, Shadman got a phone call from his younger sister in Tehran. “What is adenocarcinoma?” she asked him.

She was reading from their father’s colonoscopy report. He had been just been diagnosed with colon cancer.

“I’m his only son,” Shadman said. “He had to do radiation and chemo, and I was here. It was a very difficult time. I was lucky — I have a passport. I was able to go home for a month.”

Luckier still, his dad’s treatment was successful. But now his parents are aging, and Shadman feels the distance keenly. He was pleased when they were able to visit for the birth of his first son, Daniel, a bubbly boy Shadman proudly shows off in an iPhone photo.

The man in the photo

He and his wife were still expecting their first child in late January when President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry for 90 days by citizens from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen — and Iran.  

Shadman had come to the U.S. expecting that some people might not welcome his presence, never mind that he is a citizen and never mind how hard he worked to get his job. The history of the relationship between the United States and Iran is, to put it mildly, complicated. But he had been surprised at how little friction he encountered.

“This place is amazing,” he said. “It’s the culture here. The institutions have been really supportive. And a good thing about our field is that we make good connections with our patients.”

Then came the executive order, and Shadman wondered whether he had misread his welcome.

“Living here 10 or 11 years, you start thinking you are a part of it,” he said. “Then you realize that maybe a lot of people think like that and it’s been suppressed.”

photo of travel ban protest

Dr. Mazyar Shadman's patient, David Brastow, joined a Sea-Tac protest against the travel ban announced in January.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mazyar Shadman

He followed the news as protests erupted around the country against the ban, including one at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and attorneys general — led by Washington state — sought to block it. Within days, the Trump administration eased travel restrictions against green card holders, a category that includes Shadman’s parents. (They were later able to make the trip to see their new grandchild.)

One reaction more than any other restored Shadman’s faith in his dream. He woke up the morning after the airport protests and checked his iPhone. Someone had posted a photo on his Facebook page. It had been published in newspapers and on web sites around the world. Even his father texted it to him.

The photo was of a bearded man at an airport protest holding a giant sign that read, “My Iranian doctor is keeping me alive.”

What no one who sent him the photo even knew was that it had been taken at SeaTac — and the man holding the sign was one of his own patients.

That morning, Shadman stared at the photo and savored the moment.

“It was a great feeling,” he said. “It’s all you need.”

Mary Engel is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, where her editorials were part of a healthcare series that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She also was a fellow at the year-long MIT Knight Science Journalism program. Reach her at mengel@fredhutch.org or on Twitter, @Engel140.

Robert Hood, senior multimedia editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is a longtime photojournalist who grew up in newspapers and most recently worked at NBC News Digital and msnbc.com, directing multimedia operations. Reach him at rbhood@fredhutch.org.

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