Before I get started I want to make one thing clear: I am a fervent supporter of STEM and biomedical research. I consider it a tragedy that our ever-accelerating advances in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) seem to be outpacing our ability to effectively educate the broader public about the importance of these fields and their respective contributions. Science, at its core, is the process that enables humanity to discern and ascertain truth—facts about the reality in which we are inextricably immersed and insight into how our lives take shape within this reality. And it is with respect to this truth that I share my own experience and observations.
I’ve worked in a half dozen research labs since graduating high school, and one thing has consistently bothered me: I’ve noticed that immigrants and foreign graduates disproportionately bear the burden of a university system that consistently exploits—and often mistreats—its grad student and postdoctoral workforce.
It started during my time as an undergraduate student at Duke. Anyone who has come in contact with the science and engineering programs of America’s research universities has likely noticed a vast number of foreign students that fill the graduate and postdoctoral training positions. In college, where I studied chemistry, the majority of the grad student teaching assistants (TAs) in my department were foreign grads.
As a college student, I often listened as classmates expressed a deep and privileged frustration that their overpriced tuition wasn’t being used to screen out those TAs who spoke “broken” English. Putting aside whatever theoretical value teaching assistants have on a student’s learning (one which I would argue is minimal), the intro-level science classes, for many, also served as an introduction to how major universities focus the majority of their energy on research productivity and not undergraduate education. Disturbingly, I witnessed on multiple occasions students openly mocking Chinese TAs to their face during lab and discussion sections. It made me uncomfortable then, but I didn’t yet possess the vocabulary or perspective to contextualize these experiences. I just quietly hoped that these TAs were having better luck in their research endeavors.
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Recent studies show that foreign students comprise over 80 percent of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, and over 60 percent of those in math and computer science. Furthermore, over half of all foreign students in American PhD programs come from just three countries: China, India, and South Korea. The factors driving these trends are multiple, but the end result is that America’s science and tech research in both academia and industry is heavily driven by the skills and experience of an immigrant workforce.
Although it already takes on average 6-8 years to earn a PhD with many dropping out along the way, those who receive their doctorate may continue on to a “fellowship” or “postdoctoral” position. Currently, about half of America’s postdoc researchers are foreign graduates. These temporary positions offer the opportunity to spend an additional number of underpaid years (usually 2-5), working 50-60 hours per week to produce further research under an established professor. Most who step into this academic purgatory are hoping to achieve the statistically unlikely dream of a tenure-track position at an academic institution where they can finally head their own lab, direct their own research, and command their own army of postdocs.
Many of the students and researchers who come to the U.S. for graduate school or postdoctoral positions obtain temporary visas. This temporary status adds yet another layer to the exploitive power built into STEM’s academic infrastructure—one that already struggles to retain women, people with disabilities, and those from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. For many researchers residing in the U.S. on work visas, their ability to remain in this country is often directly tied to the academic institutions that employ them. Under these conditions, if a postdoc quits or is terminated, they not only lose their legal status in the U.S. but they may jeopardize any future possibility of obtaining permanent residency status. Given the length of time that it takes to earn a PhD or complete a postdoc (or both), it is not surprising that many STEM researchers who come from abroad end up laying down roots in the U.S., starting families and building communities.
Having a researcher and her family’s immigration status wrapped in the meaty palm of her employer makes for a rather oppressive dynamic. In my own experience, I have seen professors wield this yoke with fierce efficiency. I have seen last-minute meetings scheduled on a holiday, and watched postdocs quietly acquiesce. I have been in a lab where one member pawned off nearly all her custodial and technical work to a Chinese researcher while simultaneously denying his contributions to her productivity. At first I thought these conflicts were simply rare situations of discrimination involving a few individuals. Similar to how I discounted the context in which Chinese TAs were publicly shamed by undergrads at Duke for having an accent, I simply hoped that these foreign grads would learn to stand up for themselves over time. But the deeper I venture along the shaded slope of academia’s research landscape, the more I see that my own ability to voice a concern does not always extend equitably to those colleagues and friends with whom I share a lab. In one of many painful examples, many top-ranked universities have consistently leveraged their power in order to spread fear and misinformation through implied threats of deportation against their own international students and employees who might be considering unionization.
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In my second year of medical school, I briefly joined a cancer biology lab. I say briefly because I quit after four weeks. On my first day in the lab, I noticed that all four of the graduate and postdoctoral researchers were from China. They were intrigued by my presence because I was apparently the first American medical student that seemed interested in working there. I was paired up with this gracious postdoc who was charged with training and mentoring me. While working together, she mentioned that she had graduated from medical school in China and was planning to complete her postdoctoral training in hopes of applying for medical school in the U.S. She told me that she knew it was a long shot for any foreign grad to get into an American med school, but that she had to try, and that she needed a good recommendation from the professor in order to do so. She was the one who taught me how to run my first PCR.
Everyone arrived early in the morning, usually worked until dinner, and always referred to the professor as “Lao Ban,” which translates to “Boss.” Whenever they heard his footsteps approaching, they would frantically announce “Lao Ban is coming” and all chatter (and laughter) would quickly cease. Apparently, he didn’t like it when his trainees spoke Mandarin in the lab. He actually told me this during my second week in the lab when he learned that I, too, spoke Mandarin. “How would you like it if I spoke in a language you didn’t understand?” he asked me. I just nodded. I never got to ascertain his policy on laughter, but it didn’t matter because we spoke Mandarin anyway, and yes, we even laughed.
In fact, it became a running joke after I joined the lab that Lao Ban only found Chinese people to work for him. “Chinese people know how to swallow bitterness,” my postdoc supervisor would say, employing a Chinese idiom used to convey a high tolerance for pain. “You know only Asians can withstand his temper” one of the grad students chimed in. Everyone laughed, but I didn’t laugh quite as hard.
It concerned me that a well-known professor and successful researcher would staff his lab with only foreign grads, and that behind his back, everyone openly acknowledged the oppressive atmosphere he cultivated. When I was the target of one of his tantrums a couple weeks later, I decided that was enough. I attempted to meet with him in person and inform him that I was resigning, but learned through my postdoc supervisor that he was refusing to talk to me. I ended up putting a signed letter on his desk, thanking him for the opportunity.
A few weeks after joining a different lab (and a much healthier environment), I bumped into my former postdoc mentor while eating lunch on the quad outside of the medical school. She was glad to see me and joked, “Lao Ban is too hard, huh?” I smiled and thanked her for her brief but meaningful mentorship. She nodded. “It’s good you can leave. Lao Ban is not worth it, sometimes. And I’m happy I could hopefully teach you something. For me, I still need to finish.”