Plaza Voices: Immigrating to STEM

There’s absolutely no doubt that innovation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has improved life drastically for the average human. Lifetimes are longer, fewer of us go hungry, we are more instantaneously connected than ever before, and we continue to explore beyond where we thought we were capable of going. From Bill Nye’s new series to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos, we can’t get enough science, and for obvious good reason.

Despite being roughly 13% of the population according to the US Census Bureau, immigrants carry nearly twice their weight in the STEM workforce at an astounding 25%. Additionally, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, in 2011, foreign-born inventors were credited with contributing to more than 75% of patents issued to the top 10 patent-producing universities. Here’s a look at just a few of the many contributions immigrants have made and are making in the world of STEM.

Confirmation of Albert Einstein’s theories about gravitational waves
Gabriela González, born in Córdoba, Argentina, is a leader of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. She has spent many years studying whether black holes actually have an impact on our space and time. Alongside National Science Foundation director France Córdova, whose father is Mexican-American, González made the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves at the collision of two black holes. This provides convincing and confirming evidence for Albert Einstein’s theories of the universe, who was himself also an immigrant. 

Improving early cancer detection and treatment
Elizabeth Stern, born in Ontario, Canada, discovered 250 stages of a cervical cell’s progression from normal to cancerous. This made being able to detect and treat cervical cancer in its earliest stages far easier than before. Before Stern’s discoveries, cervical cancer was nearly always fatal.

Looking at atoms’ movement during chemical reactions
Egyptian born Ahmed Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999 for his work creating a rapid laser technology that allowed for the study of atoms’ behavior in different reactions. By looking at the smallest possible particles, scientists were able to understand and have more control over outcomes. As a result of Zewail’s discoveries, an entirely new field of physical chemistry, femtochemistry, was established. Zewail was appointed by Barack Obama to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and later on became the first United States Science Envoy to the Middle East.

Pioneering into and democratizing space
Franklin Chang-Díaz was the first Hispanic American in space. Born in Costa Rica, he came to the United States in 1968 on a one-way ticket purchased by his father. He studied thermonuclear fusion and physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and completed a PhD in 1977. In 1980, he was selected to work for NASA and flew seven missions before retiring in 2005. Since then, he continues to work in rocket science and be an advocate for space education for all. As Chang-Díaz said in Time magazine in 2016, “I think space is a great equalizer and I think you don’t need to have a country that’s rich in natural resources and territory to be able to work and do business in space," he adds. "What you need is gray matter. That’s the natural resource that you need and we’ve got plenty of that.”

Of course, this is just a small selection, and in absolutely no way meant to be comprehensive, but simply an illustration of the fact that when it comes to exploration in STEM, there will never be a border big enough to contain it. Can you think of any other innovators in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to add to our list?

Recommended Reading
The Best American Science Writing 2012 Edited by Michio Kaku
The New York Times Book of Science, More than 150 Years of Groundbreaking Scientific Coverage, Edited by David Corcoran
The Way We Will be 50 Years from Today: 60 of the World’s Greatest Minds Share Their Visions of the Next Half Century, Edited by Mike Wallace
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, By Rachel Ignotofsky 

Plazas are an open community space where immigrants from all over the world connect with people, information, and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help! Please see our events calendar for more information.

Written by Desiree on April 26, 2017