What does an eight year old boy escaping the Nazis on a boat to the United States have in common with the award-winning chemist who taught at some of the most preeminent Universities in the United States? Easy: they’re the same person. Martin Karplus, an Austrian-born chemist who holds American citizenship was honored last week with the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Karplus was one of the nine Americans Nobel Prize winners for sciences. Of the nine, four of them were immigrants. These awards highlight the importance of immigrants to the vitality of sciences within the United States.
All three winners for Chemistry were immigrants who became American citizens. In addition to Karplus, South-African born Michael Levitt and Israeli born Arieh Warshel shared the Chemistry award “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” Put simply, they developed “a powerful new way to do chemistry on a computer” in the 1970s. As a result of their work, computer “simulations are so realistic that they predict the outcome of traditional experiments.” That includes predicting the chemical reactions used in developing new drugs.
The other immigrant honoree, German-born Thomas C. Südhof, received his award for Physiology or Medicine along with two other Americans “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.” According to a professor at Harvard Medical School, their work is critical “for elucidating how Alzheimer’s plaque and tangle pathology arises in the brain, especially at synapses.” Südhof, who immigrated to the United States on a post-doctoral fellowship in the 1980s, has done scientific work that made progress in our understanding of autism and is a member of Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.
The Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University found that since 1906, when the first Nobel Prize was given, “foreign born scientists and engineers are over-represented among Nobel Laureates in the U.S.” Specifically, 32 percent of all U.S. Nobel laureates were immigrants. And the U.S. has produced more science Nobel laureates than any other nation. Considering these numbers, it is not surprising that immigrants also make up more than 40 percent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students in American MA and PhD programs. It is increasingly difficult for these STEM graduates to stay in the United States due to difficulties obtaining a visa.
The high proportion of immigrant Nobel Prize winners emphasizes the significant contributions of immigrants to the sciences within the United States. More than awards, immigrants are making huge leaps in our understanding of the world and our bodies. The work of these immigrant honorees has tangible importance to every American who suffers from Alzheimer’s or autism, or whose life has been saved because of a new drug developed with the help of the computer program written by immigrants. If our immigration system cannot meet the demands of science in the 21st century, then it jeopardizes the future scientific achievements of the United States.
Photo Courtesy of Adam Baker.