Pittsburgh’s new immigrants: A world of diversity at research laboratory

Ever since a fall left her partially paralyzed 16 years ago, Brenda Walker hasn’t done a lot of traveling.

But in a way, the North Side woman still gets to see the world, every time she goes to the University of Pittsburgh research laboratory run by Monica Perez.

She is close to Monica Perez herself, a well-known researcher on spinal cord injuries who was born in Chile. She also has worked with Toshiki Tazoe, a scientist from Japan who studies the neural pathways from the brain to the limbs, and John Cirillo, an Australian researcher who measures spinal cord signals with electrodes attached to the skin.

And she loved her relationship with Karen Bunday, a British scientist who has since returned to London. When Ms. Bunday would put electrodes on Ms. Walker’s hands to measure her muscle activity, “She’d always say, ‘you have to relax,’ and I’d think I was totally relaxed, but when I looked at the [feedback] waves, they were still jumping. So then I would take a deep breath.”

The international flavor of the Perez lab — which also includes scientists from China, Italy and America — is the rule in scientific research these days, not the exception, and that highway has brought thousands of immigrants into the region over the past several years.

Foreign-born boom

A report this year by the National Science Foundation indicated that 42 percent of all science and engineering doctorate holders in the U.S. are foreign-born, including more than half in the fields of computer science, mathematics and engineering. The foreign-born share of postdoctoral researchers, like the people in Monica Perez’s lab, is even higher than in regular faculty jobs.

While neither the University of Pittsburgh nor Carnegie Mellon University — the two leading research institutions in the region — would provide statistics on how many foreign-born faculty and scientists they have, Pitt engineering dean Gerald Holder said that in his school alone, he estimates a quarter of the faculty is foreign-born and half the graduate students are.

“America is a great place to do science and to work, so the demand to come here is very high,” Mr. Holder said. “And the people who come here from overseas add a lot of value to the American economy. If you think of the U.S. as USA Inc., you want to hire the best people you can. Companies want to hire [talented immigrants] and so do universities, and they want to come.”

In engineering, he noted, the hiring rate for engineers with bachelor’s degrees is so high — more than 95 percent at Pitt’s Swanson School — that it may make graduate school less attractive for many American students, and that may have boosted the percentage of foreign-born master’s and doctoral students even more.

While foreign engineering students often choose Pitt or other top engineering schools based on their reputations, the staffing in medical research labs is influenced more by what the specialty of the lead researcher is.

Monica Perez works with people who have spinal cord injuries but still have some movement. She and her team are trying to figure out how the brain communicates with the nerves and muscles that are still active, and are using such techniques as magnetic stimulation to try to improve the muscle control that patients still have.

Mr. Tazoe, the Japanese researcher, was working as a postdoctoral student in Sweden, studying how the two sides of the brain control muscle movement, and sought a position in the Perez lab because “I knew she was an expert in my field because she was really famous, and I wanted her to be my supervisor for my training.”

About this series
This year, the Post-Gazette is taking a close look at the people who have come to the region from foreign nations and settled here. On average, they are a highly educated group, and local leaders eagerly hope to draw more of these skilled newcomers. This month, the Post-Gazette will launch a parallel project, "Odysseys," in which we plan to showcase one person living here from each of the United Nations' 193 member states.

Over the next three days, we will look at the standout students from immigrant families, a controversial new book on immigrant success and a research lab with scientists from around the world.

Connect with the whole series by visiting, bookmarking and sharing our Pittsburgh's New Immigrants section.

Diversifying skills

From her vantage point, Ms. Perez said, she often looks for postdocs who have certain skills so she can build up the range of her lab’s capabilities. She recruited Bostonian Finn Calabro partly because he had worked with a kind of brain scanning called functional magnetic resonance imaging, and she hired Chinese postdoc Jinyi Long because he had done experiments in which people controlled the movement of a computer cursor using signals from EEG sensors on their scalps.

Paolo Federico, a researcher who came to the lab from Abruzzo, Italy, had sent applications all over the world looking for a lab that could help him learn TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation. TMS is a primary research tool in the Perez lab. It consists of wands that are held over the scalp and emit magnetic fields to change the electrical activity in parts of the brain.

Ms. Bunday, who now works in a TMS lab at University College London, said she was proud to be part of a study at the Perez lab in which TMS stimulation helped partially paralyzed patients improve their reaching and grasping skills for more than a quarter hour after the experiment.

“It was only a temporary effect, but it was quite exciting,” she said, and may one day lead to brain stimulation treatments to improve movement in spinal cord patients.

Brenda Walker has been through several of the TMS experiments herself, and feels they may have helped her hand and finger movements. She’s happy to be a mainstay subject at the Perez lab because “anything I can do to help them to get a handle on this issue and understand it better, it will help me, too.”

As to the virtual United Nations of scientists she works with there, “I said to them, ‘All of you come to the United States to do research?’ My, my — this is the place to be, evidently.”

Massive research enterprise

At Pitt alone, there are more than 900 postdocs and research associates on the main campus, university figures show, and the National Science Foundation ranks the school 12th in the nation in total research spending, at nearly $867 million. Carnegie Mellon ranks 82nd, with $256 million in research spending. So these two schools alone account for more than $1 billion in R&D expenditures.

Besides giving them a chance to do the research they care about, Pittsburgh also has been a welcoming city to the Perez lab scientists in other ways.

“When I came here,” said Mr. Long, whose wife and child are still in China, “it gave me a first impression that it was a very diverse city compared to Guangzhou,” where he was living. “It also is a beautiful city with a long history. The people are very kind and their food is very delicious.

“It was my happiness that Professor Perez needed me to come here.”

“When I came here,” Mr. Tazoe added, “I couldn’t speak English so well, but at the airport and the university, every person was really kind. No one kicked me out. I feel the people are quite friendly.”

Mr. Cirillo said he felt at home right away, because like his home town of Adelaide, Australia, Pittsburgh is “like a big country town. I did have to get used to everything being on the opposite side in driving and looking the other way before crossing the road. And the other major difference is the weather. Where I came from it doesn’t get below freezing.”

That was also Mr. Federico’s big challenge. While doing an interview on a still chilly March day, he said, “I’m shocked, really. Today at the bus stop, I was standing there with my jacket and hat on, and there was guy next to me without shoes or socks.”

Despite the weather adjustment, though, “I found very friendly people here. I thought the first problem would be my language. But people are really friendly so they help me when I don’t understand.”

Seeking the best

Monica Perez first came to the United States to improve her own English about 20 years ago, after working as a physical therapist in Rancagua, Chile. Once she was here, she realized she wanted to go into research, and earned a Ph.D. in 2003 at the University of Miami’s spinal cord injury center.

After that, like the researchers she now hires, she wanted to find a center that would teach her about the excitability patterns in the spinal cord, and won a position at the University of Copenhagen. “I remember when I told my mother I was moving to Denmark, she said, ‘Why? Can’t you find a job in the United States?’ And I told her it was not that, but that I had to go to that particular lab to learn a certain technique.”

“I have thought to myself: Why do we end up with so many foreign people in the lab? It’s not on purpose. I advertise and we get tons of people applying from the United States and others from foreign countries and it just happens to be that the people I thought had relevant experience tended to be people from outside the country.”

She is hoping to sponsor Mr. Tazoe for a green card so he can remain in her lab. But not everyone intends to stay in America when they come here for research training.

“For me it wasn’t a permanent move,” said Ms. Bunday, the British scientist who worked in the Perez lab from 2009-13. “I didn’t want to emigrate or anything like that. It was more to just experience a different lab and culture.”

As for those who think that foreign-born researchers come to the U.S. as an opportunity to make more money, she laughed. “Research in general is not very well paid. If you get into research for money, you’re clearly making a mistake.”

Mr. Cirillo, the Australian researcher, said that one possibility he sees for the future is the chance to use his new skills in TMS and other techniques to start his own lab in a university that doesn’t have such research, and that could take him any place in the world.

Mr. Federico, the Italian postdoc, mentioned another topic that is increasingly important in where scientists locate. His girlfriend is in a Ph.D. program of her own in Italy, using nanospheres to deliver drugs, and they are hoping she can finish her graduate work here, and then they would hunt for a city where both of them could pursue their research goals.

No matter what personal plans foreign-born scientists have, American academic leaders have good reasons for wanting to hang onto these bright young researchers, said Mr. Holder, the engineering dean.

“I do think if we’re going to train someone here for four or five years to get a Ph.D. or get a postdoc, it would be valuable to keep those students here,” he said.

The investment more than pays for itself when those advanced degree holders stay in America, he believes. “I’ve heard it said when someone gets a Ph.D. in the U.S., they should just staple a green card to it, because they are so valuable to the nation’s economy.”

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar

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