Friday, January 15, 2010

American Nobel Laureates have Roots in other countries

Published originally in Centre Daily Times, Opinion Page Column, Oct 19, 2009

This year’s Nobel Prizes have been big news in the United States. Americans, including our president, dominated the awards in medicine, physics, chemistry, peace and economics. Only the Nobel Prize in literature eluded us.

The Nobel Prize in medicine, “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase,” went to Americans Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak. Blackburn was born in Australia and Szostak was born in the United Kingdom.
The 2009 Nobel Prize in physics went to Americans Charles K. Kao “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” and Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit — the CCD sensor.” Again, two are foreign born: Kao was born in China and Boyle in Canada.
Finally, Americans Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz shared the 2009 Noble Prize in chemistry with Israeli scientist Ada E. Yonath “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.” Ramakrishnan was born in India.
The Nobel Prize in economics went to Americans Elinor Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons” and Oliver E. Williamson “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm.”
The presence of five first-generation immigrants among the nine American scientists awarded the 2009 Nobel Prizes led me to research winners over the past 30 years.
I found many American Nobel laureates who were first-generation immigrants from countries as diverse as Austria, China, Italy, Canada, Venezuela, South Africa, Japan, United Kingdom, Egypt, New Zealand, Mexico, Hungary, Korea, Taiwan, Poland, Germany, India, Russia, Israel and the Netherlands.
This is not surprising because we are a country of immigrants, and 12 percent of even our current population is foreign born.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, which ended Thursday, I searched for Hispanic-American immigrants among our Nobel laureates.
There’s American Severo Ocha, born in Spain and the 1959 Nobel laureate in medicine and physiology for his discovery of RNA, or ribonucleic acid. Another example is American Baruj Benacerraf, born in Venezuela, and the 1980 Nobel laureate in medicine for “discoveries concerning genetically determined structures on the cell surface that regulate immunological reactions.” There’s also American Mario J. Molina, born in Mexico, and the 1995 Nobel laureate in chemistry for “work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”
The accomplishments of all first-generation immigrant Americans are the result of a wonderful relationship between scientific aptitude and the opportunity to do fundamental scientific research in the United States, eventually benefiting all of humankind.
Next time we meet an immigrant, perhaps we will think up positive descriptors such as researcher, educator, scientist, role model and pioneer and realize that this is another face of immigration in our country.
I feel the need for headlines such as “Five immigrants among U.S. Nobel Prize winners” or “First-generation immigrants make the United States proud” during this Nobel season.
Such headlines will be instrumental in creating a new set of perceptions about immigrants. And they will be a small acknowledgement of the vital role immigrants have played throughout history and in modern times in creating and sustaining the United States of America.
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