Scientist shortage has schools turning to other countries

Harish Joshi, left, Associate Professor of Cell Biology at Emory Univserity, with two doctoral students, Jun Zhou center, and Joyce Yao, in the cell biology labs at Emory Wednesday on Aug. 23, 2000. (Kimberly Smith/staff)
Harish Joshi, left, Associate Professor of Cell Biology at Emory Univserity, with two doctoral students, Jun Zhou center, and Joyce Yao, in the cell biology labs at Emory Wednesday on Aug. 23, 2000. (Kimberly Smith/staff)

Credit: KIMBERLY SMITH

Credit: KIMBERLY SMITH

This article originally published in The Atlanta Constitution on Aug. 31, 2000.

Modern science is messing with Nikolai Ivanov's mail.

Nikolai Ivanov is getting an advanced degree in biochemistry. Andrei Ivanov, a biology researcher two floors down, is getting letters addressed to Nikolai. They are used to such mishaps; Ivanov is a common Russian name. But Nikolai and Andrei Ivanov are not in Russia. They are in Atlanta. And, in science in Atlanta, being a foreigner means having company.

"I came here because this is where my friends were," says Nikolai, 26, referring to his eight classmates from Moscow's Higher Chemical College who now research chemistry at Emory University. Last week, Emory held orientation for 200 more like them --- students from all over the world, the majority of them graduate students poised to fill a void here for research in science. Similar orientations were held at Georgia Tech and Georgia State last week.

As America's bright students opt for professions such as law and business, scientific departments here are increasingly turning to applicants from overseas. Picking American colleges off Web site rankings and from college guides, these students apply sight unseen to U.S. campuses and come with their own money, or live on scholarships. The greatest number come from China, then countries such as India, South Korea, Germany and Russia.

"Far too few Americans are graduating with advanced degrees in science," says Terry Eiesland, associate director for international student and scholar programs at Emory University. "There's no way we can get all the people we need to keep that engine running unless we look beyond our borders."

According to government figures, more than half of all doctoral students in American computer science and engineering departments come from other countries. At Georgia Tech, that figure climbs to 62 percent. More than a third of the candidates for U.S. doctorates in the physical and natural sciences are from abroad. In Georgia, almost 1,600 foreigners who already have their doctorates are temporary university researchers and professors, about two-thirds of them in the sciences. Perhaps thousands of temporary scholars have gone on to acquire permanent residency or citizenship.

Ahmed Abdelal became a citizen in 1978, "to exercise full prerogatives in the democratic system that we enjoy," he says. Abdelal is the balding, lively dean of Georgia State's College of Arts and Sciences. He says directors of foreign universities often ask him for advice on how to keep their own scientists at home.

In the last three years, Abdelal has established 20 international faculty and student exchange programs for Georgia State, with universities from Venice to Tel Aviv, including his native Egypt. And as a scientist, he runs a biology lab at GSU, where his researchers --- doctoral students working toward a doctorate and graduates who already have doctorates --- come from Egypt, Israel, China and Taiwan. The only American is their technician.

Left to right: Shehab Hashim, a graduate student working on Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics (from Egypt); Dr. Iris Porat (from Israel) who is doing post-doctoral work in Molecular Genetics; Dr. Ahmed Abdelal Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at GSU; Dr. Hsiuchin Yang (from Taiwan) who is doing post-doctoral work in Molecular Genetics: and Debby Walthall, (from USA) Research Technician in Molecular Microbial Genetics. They are pictured in the Molecular Genetics lab at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. (Kimberly Smith/staff)
Left to right: Shehab Hashim, a graduate student working on Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics (from Egypt); Dr. Iris Porat (from Israel) who is doing post-doctoral work in Molecular Genetics; Dr. Ahmed Abdelal Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at GSU; Dr. Hsiuchin Yang (from Taiwan) who is doing post-doctoral work in Molecular Genetics: and Debby Walthall, (from USA) Research Technician in Molecular Microbial Genetics. They are pictured in the Molecular Genetics lab at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. (Kimberly Smith/staff)

Credit: KIMBERLY SMITH

Credit: KIMBERLY SMITH

Abdelal has an unusually ambitious goal in hiring foreign scientists: world peace. "Even when international relations are tense," he says, "scientists are on the forefront of those making contact. In science, you might never discuss politics, but relationships form all the same."

That does not make hiring any easier. "It's not more difficult to find scientific faculty," laughs Abdelal, whose college hires professors from all corners of the world. "We just have to pay them more." He says in computer science, competition with private employers has driven professors' starting salaries as high as $70,000 a year. That's $30,000 more than an English department colleague.

The salary gap points up one of many factors in the push-pull equation that keeps foreign scientists flowing in. Fueling the pull is the vacuum created in American universities when industry lures away their researchers with hefty private-sector salaries. The positions are here, waiting. A secondary pull is the sheer number of scientists already in the United States.

"Science happens where there is a concentration of good people in one place," says Harish Joshi, associate professor of biology at Emory. "Science is an activity where you need to bounce your ideas off of others, then things happen. If you are isolated it won't work."

Both Abdelal and Joshi were pulled here by the scientific community, but they were pushed here too, driven away by working conditions in their home countries. In Cairo and Delhi, they left behind limited facilities and supplies, stifling bureaucracy and professors who might be brilliant or might be lazy but well-connected.

When Joshi was attending grade school under a pine tree in rural India, though, he had no idea that his studies would take him to the United States. He just liked biology.

"I was always curious about animals," says Joshi, now 43. "I wanted to know why snakes slithered, what was inside them." At 10, he devised an experiment to find out how snake charmers worked. As cobras spread their hoods and danced to charmers' flutes at the local market, onlookers said the snakes could appreciate music. Joshi had his doubts.

He had been watching the cobra that lived in his back yard at the foothills of the Himalayas. Seeing that it only made enough venom to kill one rat every half hour, he sought a window of opportunity. Then, poking the snake out from under its boulder, Joshi went to work. First he made it dance by waving a stick and humming; then he waved the stick in silence. Both times, it danced. It was the motion the snake responded to, not the music.

"I don't remember if my mother punished me," says Joshi, who remembers the experiment itself with vivid pride. "I'm sure she did. She was terrified. I was always getting into things like that."

Now Joshi runs a lab where work is less dramatic but more meaningful. His team works on cell division and has already discovered a drug that might be used to treat breast and ovarian cancers.

Joshi is an example of what America gains from foreign scientists and what their home countries lose. In India he did research geared to the rural poor, on vitamin A. When his interests changed and he needed different facilities, he and his research had to leave India. His wife, a children's social worker, wants to work in India. But she stays here for her husband, travelling when she can to work in third-world countries.

Sometimes the home country's work conditions are good, but tenured positions are few, as in Germany. And sometimes positions are there, but conditions are so bad scientists couldn't work even if they stayed. In Russia, economic disaster has crippled the former scientific juggernaut.

"If I were in Russia," says Nikolai Ivanov, "I would be doing something else to support my family. Buying and selling at the market, or some kind of business." His colleague from Higher Chemical College, Liudmila Moskaleva, 25, estimates that of the 30 gifted students she knew in Moscow, only two are still doing science in Russia, surely moonlighting to survive.

"People here have the opportunity to just do science," says the slight, soft-spoken Moskaleva, on a break from her 12-hour workday. "They don't always have to think about how to get money for the basic things in life."

Nikolai Ivanonv says, "The hardest thing about getting here was getting here." His tortured road to gaining a treasured U.S. visa is traveled by many foreigners.

Sometimes, when they arrive, foreign scientists meet new difficulties. They face homesickness, culture shock and even prejudice. Most say they see their families once a year or less.

Finding one's way around new bureaucracies and cultural attitudes is a research project in itself. And sometimes those attitudes turn ugly.

"I have not experienced prejudice among the educated community," says Joshi, echoing other foreign scientists. "But to learn about American culture, I used to go to truck stops. There one guy grabbed me by the collar and said, 'You gooks come here and take our jobs!' " Joshi stopped the man cold, he says: "I told him if he could do my job he could have it."

Georgia Tech senior research physicist Jianping Gao says he has never been a victim of prejudice here. But he doesn't rule it out if he dealt with classified information. After Chinese scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired last year --- some say unfairly singled out --- for allegedly downloading classified files from Los Alamos computers, Gao, 46, resolved never to deal with sensitive information. Such defense-related grants bring well over $50 million annually to Georgia Tech research.

Most foreigners and their employers spoke of language, however, as the chief hurdle to acceptance. Communication is the lifeblood of science --- discussing projects, delivering papers at conferences and reading scientific journals. "If they cannot converse in English, they cannot communicate about science," says J. Alvin Connelly, head of faculty hiring at Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

That hasn't stopped the flow. Of the six professors Connelly's school hired last year, two were Iranian, two others Chinese and Indian.

Some professors like these may return home to retire. But many are likely to spend their working lives here, and their children, often born and raised here, are simply Americans.

Many, including Abdelal, feel guilt at leaving their countries' problems behind. Abdelal actually tried not to; he returned to Egypt with his Ph.D., "to change everything." But everything didn't change, and he came back.

Now, though, he has made peace with his principles. "I feel very fortunate working here, doing my science, and making connections with other countries," he says. "I am doing here what I tried to do back in Egypt, initiating activities in developing countries. I now have the best of both worlds."

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