Tuesday, December 13, 2016

International Students Make American Science Stronger

I was reading last weeks editorial from the journal of 'Science' -- a prestigious science journal very widely respected by the entire world science community.  The editorial titled "Life For Refugees Scholars" detailed the emerging problem of refugee scientists leaving battle zones such as Syria.  What caught my attention was the closing paragraph shown below:

Displaced scholars, whether refugees or in exile, need the support of institutions large and small, in countries large and small, to break through the barriers that prevent them from academic engagement and employment—fears that they will take jobs away, require more help than they give, or not make the transition to teaching students in the host country. In succumbing to this backlash, we forget that the world's great universities became great because they welcomed refugees, exiles, and thinkers in distress. With support from the international academic community, threatened scholars and scientists can be saved. Let us all ensure that academic training is not wasted, knowledge for present and future generations is preserved, and that the next Albert Einstein or Felix Bloch is not lost in the painful currents of forced emigration.

In the paragraphs below, I would like to briefly discuss the benefits of having international students here in America to elevate science in the United States.

Graduate School in the United States

Upon entering graduate school in the United States two observations became very apparent to me:

1) The graduate class is small compared to an incoming freshman class at the undergraduate level.

2) Foreign students make up a sizable portion of the class

The first remark is based on the observation that one encounters when entering a graduate school class in the physical sciences.  This could be the case, since compared to say a graduate law or graduate medicine class, the research class is rather small.  Although, when you consider the available position (research laboratory positions available), then the class size makes sense.

Given that the class size is small, the second observation was rather surprising to me at first.  When I entered graduate school at University of California at Riverside, the total class size was around 15 students.  At least 50% of the class was made up of international students.  I did not understand the reason at first.  As I will explain, the reason became apparent in my second quarter of class near the end of my first year in graduate school.

Classes and Exams!

Part of every class was an exam component.  Educational institutions still use the written exam as a critical measure of learning success.  Although, after leaving graduate school, UCR was in the process of changing around the steps (tests -- written and oral) which made up a 'graduate degree' from the department -- which was surprising.

During the first year of a Ph.D. program, the major component of the graduate educational process is to take all required classes for the degree.  The remainder of the time spent in graduate school will be devoted to research and giving updates on your research project.  Upon hearing this, students are usually quite amazed and happy.  The thought of only taking around 6 classes for your Ph.D. -- is exciting.

With that being said, the classes are different from undergraduate courses.  The material is slightly different in the treatment of problems.  Fundamentally, in chemistry, one would start to explore more difficult aspects of the same problems encountered in the undergraduate education process.

How is that possible?

Take for example, the assumption of an "ideal gas" which is grounded in two basic assumptions:

1) The atoms are treated as point particles

2) The point particles do not interact with each other

These two assumptions simplify the types of chemistry problems that can be entertained.  Based on the two assumptions, atoms or molecules will be treated as independent entities and not interact with each other.  When the break down of the assumptions occur, the incorporation of math becomes more prominent in the problem solution.  More math -- oh no!

Math is not a problem generally speaking.  But not all chemists are going to enter a field of research that requires a heavy math background.  This is a point of debate for a later post.

At the point you might be wondering why I am talking about this?

What happened to international students?

Well, during classes, a student from the United States cannot help but notice that the international students are able to solve problems rather easily.  A common assumption is that they are trained in math better than students in the United States.  This might or might not be true -- again, a point for debate for a later post.  What is true about their presence is that "political rules" have been put into place to accept the student into the United States graduate education programs.

One is that the student must have already completed the equivalent of a "Master's Degree" from their country or origin.

The above requirement turns out to benefit a United States student to a large extent in the long run.  Even though, in the short run, this is counter-intuitive to the feeling a person gets when competing with an international student.  Let me explain below.

International Students Inspire U.S. Students

As I mentioned above, each international student entering the United States for graduate education has the equivalent of a "Master's Degree" from their country of origin.  Note: what this means overall is that the courses that every American graduate student takes in graduate school have already been completed by each international graduate student.  The comparison would be for be for a student to take the same course twice -- have two times to complete a course.  Of course, during the second time around your grade should increase.

I learned this fact from taking a class in "thermodynamics" in graduate school.  In the class, which was considered large, there were 6 students total.  Normally, a graduate course might have 4 students or maybe 5.  Six or above is considered very large.

Therefore, the classes in graduate school are intimate and like a "meeting" rather than a traditional lecture.  Nonetheless, the classes are still classes in which a professor lectures and students learn through listening and then completing assignments.  My thermodynamics course was no different.  What amazed me at the time were the scoring of the international students on a given exam.

The students would score very high on the exam -- perfect or "nearly perfect" -- meaning like 98/100.  If there was extra credit offered, the students would score on the order of 110/100.  Imagine, what the American students (myself) were feeling comparing ourselves to these students.  Plus, the grades were on a "curve" which meant, we would be graded against these students -- Oh My!

On the first couple of exams, we felt disappointed scoring 85/100, 90/100, 95/100.  While the international students were scoring: 98/100, 100/100, 105/100.  When the last midterm exam came in our class, the professor stated the following to the class:

Tomorrow's test will be extremely difficult.  I want to see if the international students can still score in the high 90's.  Therefore, I will be writing the test for them.  For the American students, take the exam and try your best.


What is the meaning of the statements emerging from his mouth?

Has he lost his mind?

The tests are already difficult.  Needless to say, we showed up the next day and took the exam.  I scored in the 70's.  I was not the best student to say the least.  Furthermore, I am not a great test taker.  As the professor explained to me later in my graduate career -- he said:

Mike, if the point of the class was to turn in great homework assignments, you would score perfectly. Your homework scores are great -- given the time to think and solve the work.  But unfortunately, life is not always about homework.  Sometimes, tests are needed too.

I will never forget him telling me this.  We were right outside the chemistry building.  He went onto to explain that the feeling of 'feeling not good enough' should either be put aside or dealt with.  Further, he suggested that if I felt overwhelmed, I could always drop out of graduate school and get a job earning pretty good money.  But, he also stated a theme that I have heard time and time again during my education by other professors -- which inspires me to move forward regardless of the 'local feeling' that I might be harboring.

My observation has been that you like being in school and thinking critically about chemistry.  And that if you were to drop out of school, you might find yourself bored without being challenged.  Further, in the current situation, you might want to understand why the University of California system accepts international students at all. 
International students are required to have an equivalent of a "Master's Degree" from their country of origin.  And the process of accepting graduate students is to choose the highest quality of student.  The reason why?  Because, we want to challenge you (American students) to achieve greater than what you would do had they not been in the class. 
If the international students were not in the current class, then the best student would be considered the best and the remainder of you would write them off (he is just really good at math).  But with international students present and kicking ass on the exams, you guys are really pushing yourselves to out do them on the exams and homework assignments.  This produces a better American graduate student in our experience.

After hearing the above statement, I felt changed.  First, I started to understand that bringing in international students to the university should not be viewed as a 'threat' but a challenge.  In the sense, to improve the science that American students do.  Second, immersing yourself in the study of science problems in research has changed over the years.  Let me explain.

In the past, the image of a scientist was one of a single researcher in a laboratory performing research quietly and thinking methodically.  That image has changed over the past few decades to be one of a 'research group'.  For those people who are not interested in science, the image that is preserved is the former image.  Therefore, when a funding issue arises, the thought of giving money to a 'single researcher' is questioned.

The fact of the matter is that science is performed by a 'research group' made up of a diverse amount of scientists.  The size of the group can vary from 4 people (3 graduate students + 1 professor) to 60 people (35 graduate students + 20 post doctoral fellows + 4 professional research staff + 1 professor).  Yes, large research groups exist like this.  Look no further than Professor George Whitesides of Harvard Chemistry Department.  His research group is enormous.  Of course, the amount of small companies and ideas that come out of his laboratory on an annual basis is huge too.

The point is that science is made up of many critical components.  One is the diversity that drives the group (both international + American students).  Secondly, the funding of that research group is critical.  Third, the production of working scientists needs to happen to fill professional jobs in industry or academia.  Chemical industry, Pharmaceutical industry, Aerospace industry, among others to mention a few desirable job employers.

Most of the large industries mentioned in the last paragraph are 'global' industries which mean that there are multiple facilities around the world.  This fits in well with the diversity that is seen in the American university setting.  Having international students elevate American science as well as science all around the world.

Having a global mindset with regard to funding science is critical if we (as global residents of the Planet Earth) would like to save the planet.  Just because science research comes from the United States or Europe, makes either no less important.  Hence the need to preserve the ability to have visiting scholars and students mix ideas in with each other to produce 'global science' instead of researching in a small scale private setting with large borders.  Diversity is not preserved in such environments.


The reason why I wrote this blog post is due to the current administration that is about to take office.  First, I think having the politicians who fund research understand the importance of having international scholars and students is extremely important.  Second, the example that leads currently is the break up of Britain -- known as Brexit.

In an article from the website "Laboratory Equipment" titled "Brexit Uncertainties Threaten Brain Drain for UK Science" the threat of the 'brain drain' from the shifting resources in science funding are discussed along with immigration status.  Here is an excerpt detailing real fears of losing critical scientist due to shifts in the political landscape:

"I'm worried that after my current contract finishes, one of the prerequisites could be a permanent residence card," she said. "I'd like to apply for EU grant money, but how much longer will it be available for?"

Britain's top universities have long been among the world's most sought-after destinations for study and research, drawing the brightest minds from all corners of the globe. But since Britons voted in June to leave the 28-nation EU, many in the science community say the U.K. risks losing the money, the international influence — and crucially, the talent — to sustain that enviable position.

More than one-tenth of research funding at British universities has come from the EU in recent years. Some fields — such as nanotechnology and cancer research — are more dependent on EU funding than others, according to a report by technology firm Digital Science. From 2007 to 2013, Britain received 8.8 billion euros ($9.4 billion) in direct EU investment in research.

As you can see, immigration issues are not the only source of fear in the changing science landscape as a result of a political decision.   Regardless, when politicians start discussing changing the porosity (openness or closeness) of the national borders, science will be inevitably affected in a negative way.  Here is another excerpt to describe such a change:

Scientists and researchers argue that being part of the EU has given British science a huge boost because it allows Britain to recruit the best talent across Europe and take part in important research collaborations and student exchanges without being constrained by national boundaries. The bloc's freedom of movement means its 500 million people can live and work visa-free in any member state.

No one knows yet what form Britain's exit from the EU — commonly known as Brexit — is going to take, but immigration was a key issue for "Leave" voters. Many believe some limit should be put on the number of EU citizens moving to Britain.

Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to reassert control over British borders. She has offered no firm guarantees for the rights of Europeans already living in Britain, an uncertainty that weighs heavily over the 32,000 Europeans who make up 16 percent of the academic workforce in British universities. Many universities say the rhetoric over immigration control is also jeopardizing recruitment of researchers and students from further afield.

Typically, when we think of immigration issues, we restrict our definition to the "undocumented" (which I do not like to use) people who have crossed our borders for a variety of reasons (asylum, economic, livability, lack of resources, etc.).  What we do not consider is that any immigration reform will have an impact on science -- an adverse impact.

Which is why as Americans, we need to think and vote critically on immigration reform.  When we see changes start to take shape that are negatively impacting science, we need to take action and contact our local representatives (senators and congressional reps).  Otherwise, we are risking losing the status as the leader in science in the world.

In closing, the jobs of the future will revolve around our ability to lead in the scientific field.  Ranging from computational to environmental, jobs that are created will undoubtedly involve a higher education in science.  Therefore, it is critical to keep the momentum of incorporating international scholars and students into our science system to elevate our standing.  Lets make our scientists the best in the world.

Until next time, Have a great day!

No comments:

Post a Comment