“Talent from All Corners” Event Honors the Contribution of Immigrants to American Science

Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Robert Lefkowitz, PhD, event host

Robert Lefkowitz, PhD, event host

Who has the right to shape what America is?

This was the question posed by Ravi Bellamkonda, PhD, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, to an audience attending  Monday evening’s event, “Talent from All Corners: How Immigration Helps Shape American Scientific Leadership.”

The brainchild of Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz, MD, and sponsored by the Duke Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, Duke Research, Duke Faculty Advancement, and Duke Science and Society, the event featured nine Duke University faculty members— and one external keynote speaker, Lynn Caporale, PhD, —who shared their stories about how immigration has impacted them personally and professionally. 

Caporale, a biochemist, independent consultant and strategic scientific advisor, gave a talk entitled “Immigrant and refugee family origins of America’s Nobel Laureates” in which she traced the ancestry of multiple Nobel Laureates—including Stanley Cohen, Arthur Kornberg, and Duke’s own Lefkowitz—back to immigrants.

Immigrants and the children of immigrants have contributed vastly to scientific innovation in America, especially in the fields of medicine and physiology, Caporale asserted. The line-up of speakers that followed was a testament to that. 

Linda Caporale, PhD Linda Caporale, PhD, keynote speaker

Bellamkonda, who came to the United States from India for graduate school, is a leading developer of brain tumor therapies. 

Nita Farahany, PhD, professor of law, professor of philosophy, a second generation Iranian-American, is founding director of Duke’s Science and Society program. Amit Patel, MD, assistant professor of medicine, a second generation Indian-American, is a gastroenterologist specializing in the study of the esophagus.

Samira Musah, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who was born in Ghana and moved to New York as a teenager, now engineers stem cell applications for human kidney disease. Guillermo Sapiro, PhD, originally from Uruguay, is the James B. Duke Professor of Engineering and recently partnered with the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development to develop an app that screens toddlers for early signs of anxiety or autism spectrum disorder.

Nimmi Ramanujam, PhD, Robert W. Carr, Jr, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, of Indian ancestry, developed a pocket colposcope with her team. It has been deployed in India, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, and the U.S. to help women detect cervical cancer. Fan Wang, PhD, Morris N. Broad Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology, who moved to the United States in the late 1980s from China, is a renowned researcher whose work focuses on chronic pain.

Linda Cendales, MD, associate professor of surgery, was born in Colombia and pursued part of her education in South Africa before immigrating to the United States. She has built a career in hand transplant surgery, performing the first bilateral hand transplant in North Carolina. 

The faculty members spoke about the challenges they faced as immigrants - social isolation, bullying, language barriers, fear of deportation, and even learning how to drive or ordering a sandwich in America.

“What remarkable courage it takes to be an immigrant,” said Lefkowitz after hearing the speakers. The grandson of Russian and Polish immigrants, Lefkowitz won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2012 for his discoveries revealing the inner workings of G protein-coupled receptors.

“If you win an award like the Nobel Prize, you are an ambassador for the field, for science,” said Larry Carin, vice president for research at Duke, who gave closing remarks at the event. “The idea to do this event was 100 percent Dr. Lefkowitz. This is something that he cares a lot about.”

Carin also added that the event represented Duke’s commitment to diversity.

“This event says something about Duke and what we value,” Carin said.