All six Americans who won Nobel Prizes in science this year were immigrants — a fact widely noted as anti-immigrant rhetoric flared on the campaign trail.
At the glitzy Breakthrough Prize ceremony in Silicon Valley on Sunday night, two of the five winners of the $3 million prizes for biomedical science were US immigrants.
And one of them, Dr. Huda Yahya Zoghbi, is acutely aware that she might not even have been allowed in the country if Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants had been in place when she came to the United States from Lebanon.
Zoghbi immigrated some 40 years ago, as a young medical student from a Muslim family. Now, she’s researching drug targets for neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, at Baylor College of Medicine. Helping in her lab are grad students and postdocs from all over the world, including Iran and Lebanon.
Cut off the flow of immigrants, she said, and science will suffer.
“If you start eliminating a pool of talented scientists, you will slow the discovery machine,” Zoghbi told STAT in a phone interview before the ceremony.
“The world will suffer,” she said.
President-elect Trump has oscillated on exactly who he wants to prevent from coming into the country, but his plan to ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States is still on his campaign website. (It’s worth noting that critics on both sides of the aisle have called that proposal unconstitutional.)
Trump has also floated the idea of blocking immigration “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism,” which could include dozens of countries around the world — including Lebanon, which the State Department has deemed a “terrorist safe haven.”
Zoghbi, now 61, is a scientist, not a political advocate. She said that while she values her Muslim heritage, today she doesn’t subscribe to one single religion. And most of all, she exalts science and logic.
She is being honored for discovering the genetic causes of Rett syndrome, a rare brain disorder, and spinocerebellar ataxia, an even rarer neurodegenerative condition, and then elucidating their biological pathways over several decades of work. She’s now collaborating with drug companies in the very early stages of the quest to turn her discoveries into drugs.
She’s also trying to apply her rare disease research to more common conditions, and earlier this fall published a study identifying a potential new drug target for Alzheimer’s disease in mice.
Her fellow immigrant among Breakthrough Prize biomedical winners is Roeland Nusse, a Stanford developmental biologist who’s originally from the Netherlands. One of the founders of the prize is also a US immigrant, from Russia: Google cofounder Sergey Brin.
Zoghbi is attending the red-carpet ceremony with her husband, a cardiologist, and her son and daughter-in-law, both doctors in training. (Her daughter and son-in-law weren’t able to make it because they made her a first-time grandmother a couple weeks ago.)
And the $3 million prize money? Zoghbi won’t be spending it on herself. She plans instead to create endowments — in honor of her mentors, collaborators, and trainees — to fund research and professional development.