I Owe My Career To Muslim Scientists Who Came To America


Donald J. Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, called yesterday for ”a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The statement proposing such a campaign, which the Chicago Tribune called “far-reaching and vague,” is the latest in Trump’s progressively inflammatory rhetoric toward followers of Islam, both in the United States and internationally, a group of 1.6 billion people – 23% of the world’s population.NC State University biology graduate, Yusor Abu Salha (right) and the principal of her Raleigh school, Sister Mussarut Jabeen (left) at the StoryCorps booth in Durham, NC, in May 2014. On February 10, 2015, Yusor was murdered execution-style at her Chapel Hill condominium with her husband, Deah Bakatar, and sister, Rezan. Photo credit: StoryCorps

The remainder of the statement is written in language unbecoming of a modern U.S. presidential candidate, better resembling the bigoted and paranoid rantings of my dearly departed Polish grandmother when speaking after her ninth consecutive shot of vodka.

I contribute here at Forbes because I am a biomedical scientist and educator, not a political operative. I therefore submit that Trump’s remarks are an affront to basic human decency and represent a position that compromises science and technology in the United States. Moreover, this exclusionary and isolationist rhetoric hinders international research collaborations and ongoing projects supported by the National Institutes of Health , our federal medical research agency. The popularity of Mr. Trump in Republican poll numbers suggests that a substantial deficiency exists in the U.S. population with regard to risk assessment and critical thinking skills.

My position, one that I trust is shared by fellow scientists, is also based on 25 years of stimulating and productive personal experiences with researchers who practice Islam. In fact, looking back through my Google Scholar profile, it’s unlikely that I would have been hired into my first independent, tenure-track faculty position at age 28 without the creativity and work ethic of my Muslim lab mates while at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s. Four of the eight publications that helped me secure that position were due to collaborative work with a Ph.D. student who came to the U.S. from Minia University in Egypt. I later wrote in support of his green card application – because he was the kind of scientist who enriched our country – and again when he came up for promotion and tenure as a University of Colorado breast cancer research faculty member.

Later in my career, Muslim scientists also figured in some of my most interesting work. Particularly in my field of natural products pharmacology and the search for new anticancer and antibiotic drugs from nature, international collaborations and agreements were essential to gaining access to flora and fauna for study.

I’m most proud of work on a NIH-Fogarty International Center project, led by my longtime colleague Nicholas H. Oberlies, Ph.D., while at RTI International where we explored the biologically diverse Jordanian deserts for new drug-synthesizing bacterial species. The Jordanian principal investigator on that project, who earned his Ph.D. at Purdue University and holds a U.S. patent, was recently promoted to full professor an associate dean of research and graduate studies at Qatar University. Not only is U.S. science and technology supported by international scientists but the reach of U.S. biological and chemical sciences training improves the lives of others around the world.

Mr. Trump’s statement also cites some faulty data from a poll of 600 Muslims in the U.S. conducted by an organization that promotes vilification of Muslims. But just like my Polish, German and Hungarian ancestors, the Muslims in my research and educational circles love America and are grateful for the opportunities provided by our intellectual exchanges.

I therefore call upon science and technology professional societies in the United States to denounce this proposal by the Republican frontrunner, but not as a political statement. Instead, Trump’s proposal and fomentation of anti-Muslim sentiment should be denounced because of the damage it does to progress in science and technology and advances in human health.

Love America the way that most Muslim-Americans do

On February 10, 2015, ten miles from my house, three students were shot to death at the Chapel Hill townhouse they shared while attending or preparing to attend North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina: dental student Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Yusor’s sister, Razan.

Twenty-one-year-old Yusor had just earned her B.S. in biological sciences at NC State and married Deah just six weeks before they were murdered, was born in Jordan but came to Raleigh when six months old. When the oral history project, StoryCorps, brought their recording unit to nearby Durham a year earlier, Yusor chose to speak with the principal of her grade school, a Pakistani-American, about living in America. In the segment and a subsequent interview with principal Sister Mussarut Jabeen that aired on our NPR affiliate in the days after the murders, Yusor said,

Growing up in America has been such a blessing. Although in some ways which I stand out wearing a hijab on my head, there are so many ways I feel embedded in the fabric that is our culture. And that’s the beautiful thing: that here it doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions, but here we’re all one. One culture.

Yusor’s America is the country where my family and I live. I invite Mr. Trump and his followers to join us.



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