The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
America’s Brain Gain
Last October, I was invited to speak on immigration at a college, and the student organizer asked if the issue would still be topical if we waited three months to hold the event. I said, “Immigration has been a source of controversy in America since at least the 1850s. And I believe there are even references in the Bible as to how immigrants should be treated.” The student agreed that a three-month wait would be fine.
One reason immigration has remained controversial in America is critics cannot decide whether the problem is that immigrants have too many hands that work or too many mouths to feed. The reality is the vast majority of immigrants come here to work and can feed themselves. America has a strong tradition of welcoming refugees who face persecution in their native lands, but even those admitted as refugees soon work and make productive contributions. Still, there remain concerns that immigrants, even highly skilled ones, take jobs from Americans.
The idea of immigrants “taking” jobs is based on a number of misconceptions. Mark J. Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the School of Management at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan, has written, “There is no fixed pie or fixed number of jobs, so there is no way for immigrants to take away jobs from Americans. Immigrants expand the economic pie.” Immigrants can expand that pie through increased consumer spending, which creates additional jobs, starting businesses, increasing investment, and fostering greater productivity.
Economists Giovanni Peri (UC, Davis), Kevin Shih (UC, Davis), and Chad Sparber (Colgate University) found in a recent study: “The productivity growth and skill-biased growth due to growth in foreign STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers may explain between 10 and 25 percent of the aggregate productivity growth and 10 percent of the skill-bias growth that took place in the U.S. during the period 1990-2010.” In addition, the researchers concluded, “An increase in foreign STEM workers of 1 percent of total employment increased the wage of native college educated workers (both STEM and non-STEM) over the period 1990-2000 by 4 to 6 percent.”
Several economic studies have demonstrated immigrants do not increase the unemployment rate. While there has been some debate about the impact on wages, even studies that find a negative impact confine those results to a relatively small and declining part of the U.S. labor force (native-born high school dropouts). A study by Giovanni Peri found no evidence immigrants “crowded-out employment and hours worked by natives.” The research found increasing employment in a state by 1 percent due to immigrants would increase the income per worker in that state by 0.5 percent.
If we should not fear that immigrants possess hands to work, then we should also not fear that they possess minds to think. “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands,” wrote the late economist Julian L. Simon. “In the long run, the most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth.”
The current problems in America’s immigration system are such that even people with great minds performing research beneficial to Americans do not have it easy. Generally, to work in the United States, a skilled foreign national must first obtain an H-1B temporary visa. But for the past 12 years, the supply of such visas has been exhausted before the end of the fiscal year, meaning a professional or researcher would potentially need to wait 12 to 18 months before starting work in America. Some are able to stay for a time in the United States on Optional Practical Training, if they obtained their degree in the United States, and others may be sponsored through nonprofit research institutes or universities that can apply for H-1B petitions beyond the current quotas. Many others are simply out of luck.
In April 2014, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received more than 170,000 petitions for essentially 85,000 H-1B slots and, as in past years, announced it would distribute the approved petitions by lottery. Even skilled foreign nationals who receive an H-1B visa run into difficulties when sponsored for permanent residence (also known as a green card). The wait times are generally 6 to 10 years or longer for skilled immigrants from India and China due to low green card quotas and the impact of “per country” limits.
Last year, my organization researched the biographies of approximately 1,500 cancer researchers at the nation’s leading cancer research centers (as measured by grants received from the National Cancer Institute). Overall, 42 percent of the researchers at the top seven cancer research centers are foreign-born. At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 62 percent of the cancer researchers are immigrants, while at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, 56 percent of the researchers are foreign-born.
In interviewing individuals at the hospitals, I found insufficient employment-based green card quotas harm top cancer researchers just as much as other highly skilled immigrants. “These individuals are stuck in holding patterns for an extraordinary amount of time,” said Adam S. Cohen, assistant general counsel and manager, Immigration Services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “Even if they receive a National Interest Waiver, our physician-researchers could wait several years for permanent residence.” A recipient of a National Interest Waiver does not need to endure the costly and time-consuming process of labor certification but still must wait for a green card to be available to attain permanent residence.
In April 2013, President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative (short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). The goals of the initiative, starting with money from the National Institutes of Health and other federal entities, are “toaccelerate the invention of new technologies that will help researchers produce real-time pictures of complex neural circuits and visualize the rapid-fire interactions of cells that occur at the speed of thought.” The hope is this “will open new doors to understanding how brain function is linked to human behavior and learning, and the mechanisms of brain disease.”
In this newsletter, the Vilcek Foundation, which plays a leading role in recognizing the contributions of immigrants in scientific and cultural fields, has interviewed and profiled four of the world’s top experts on the human brain. All four are immigrants to the United States. Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Brain Tumor Surgery Program, was born in Mexico. Dr. Huda Zoghbi, professor of molecular and human genetics at the Baylor College of Medicine, is from Lebanon. Dr. Amishi Jha and Dr. Anjan Chatterjee were both born in India. Dr. Jha directs the Jha Lab and is an associate professor at the University of Miami. Dr. Chatterjee is a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine.
Each took a different path to the United States. Dr. Huda Zoghbi escaped war in Lebanon to study medicine in America. Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa came to America first as a farmworker and later graduated from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Amishi Jha traveled more than 8,000 miles to America and produced research to help prevent post-traumatic stress for U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, a country just 400 miles from her native India. Dr. Anjan Chatterjee grew up in two places, and while he found athletics rather than academics was a surer route to popularity for teenagers in America, the emphasis on “smarts” he learned in India ultimately gave him outstanding success as an adult and researcher in the United States.
All four individuals make clear they are proud to work in America and in important fields of research. In their laboratories and daily interactions they know improving America's immigration system will enhance the lives not only of immigrants but of the Americans who will be the customers, patients, and beneficiaries of new innovations and discoveries that will take place throughout the 21st century. Dr. Huda Zoghbi, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, Dr. Amishi Jha, and Dr. Anjan Chatterjee show immigrants do not possess just mouths to feed or hands to work, but also minds to puzzle out some of the great mysteries that affect humanity.
Stuart Anderson, former head of policy and counselor to the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, is executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan policy research organization in Arlington, Va.
Neuroscience and philosophy may seem like diametrically opposed fields of study, but for Indian-born Anjan Chatterjee, the two are intricately related. His research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine uses cutting-edge neuroscience to probe questions that have fascinated philosophers for millennia: Is beauty universal? What is language? Where is the line between humanity and technology?
Anjan is equally comfortable in both realms. He completed a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Haverford College, where he focused on early Greek philosophy, with an interest in European Continental philosophers and the British Empiricists. After his undergraduate studies, Anjan was split between pursuing philosophy further in graduate school or attending medical school, as some members of his family had.
Despite his love for philosophy, Anjan chose medical school: “Ultimately, I thought that without some kind of empirical grounding, I wouldn’t be able to make ongoing sustained contributions in philosophy,” Anjan says. “I felt like I needed to be grounded in empiricism in a way that philosophers typically are not.”
The quest for empiricism has not stopped Anjan from investigating the metaphysical. The main focus of his research for the past 25 years is the relationship between spatial cognition and language. Much of our perception of the world is defined by information we take in through our physical senses, of items and phenomena that exist in physical space; they exist in what Anjan calls a “spatial analog representation.” Anjan is interested in what happens in the mind when such “analog” information is translated into language, which can be thought of as a “digital or symbolic representation.”
This is not a new question; many philosophers have theorized on this process of abstract representation—what it means, what is possible, and what is inherently lost in translation. Anjan relates it to the writings of philosopher Immanuel Kant: “He raised this issue of how these two ways of representing the world are so very different, but there has to be some kind of method of bridging across them,” Anjan says. “Part of our work recently has been looking at what form that might take, and so that’s an example of a question articulated by philosophers that still remains germane, and which we might be able to address in a completely different way than the philosophers did in the past or are doing now.”
Anjan investigates this question through two methods: The first uses a reverse-engineering approach, where volunteers who have suffered focal brain damage—such as strokes, brain tumors, or other head traumas that injure specific parts of the brain—participate in experiments. Anjan and his team evaluate what they can or can’t do—for example, some patients are unable to name prepositions but are able to name verbs, adjectives, and other parts of language—to make inferences about the role of various structures of the brain in processing language.
This approach is complemented by functional neuroimaging, where healthy participants complete tests, such as naming verbs and prepositions, in a scanner. The researchers are then able to see which parts of the brain show changes in activity. When used together, the two methods provide converging evidence to support or refute the team’s hypotheses.
Anjan’s other area of research concerns aesthetics; he is interested in the biological underpinnings of our experience of beauty and our relationship to art. His research examines three different components: the sensory and motor processing of information, the emotional and rewards system, and the effect of meaning and knowledge on our experiences. While culture certainly influences what is considered beautiful, there is strong evidence of universal definitions of beauty as well as biological reactions to certain visual cues. This can be seen most clearly in facial preferences, which favor symmetry and sexual dimorphism (the pronouncement of gendered facial traits as determined by hormones), even across cultures and amongst babies.
Anjan’s book, “The Aesthetic Brain,” uses neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to examine the role of aesthetics in our minds and our lives.
The field of neuroaesthetics is relatively new, having come into existence only in the late 1990s. Anjan recently authored a trade book, The Aesthetic Brain, and although the topic has gained popularity since its inception, he still faces resistance from scholars in both the sciences and the humanities. “People in the sciences think that this is not real science, that it’s soft and fuzzy and so on and so forth—which, I should point out, was the same complaint about cognitive neuroscience when [it] first started,” he says. “On the humanities side, there is … a backlash against neuroscience entering this field. Some of it is around claims that neuroscience would ‘explain everything,’ which is a ludicrous claim. The other critique is that sometimes neuroscientists are not well-enough versed in either philosophy or art history and make claims that are not sufficiently informed by these other traditions, and I think there is certainly truth to that. It’s a field that begs for communication and collaboration across disciplines, which doesn’t happen as often as one would like it to.”
His last area of interest is the ethics of neural enhancement. In a paper published in the journal Neurology in 2004, Anjan coined the term “cosmetic neurology” to describe the practice of using enhancements, such as pharmaceutical compounds or electrical stimulation devices, in order to gain an advantage. Examples include students taking Adderall, a medication intended for ADHD patients to increase attention, memory, and motivation, or athletes taking steroids in order to perform more competitively.
Anjan has been careful not to take a general stance on the usage of enhancements—he believes individual circumstances should be considered in each case—but he does believe that they will become more and more prevalent, something the last 10 years have proven true. As they do so, Anjan believes it is important that society address the ethics of cosmetic neurology, as well as the underlying issues that make the use of enhancements so appealing.
“For me, the question of the uses of medications for enhancement is really symptomatic of this cultural milieu we are in,” Anjan says. “We are in a ‘winner-take-all’ environment, where small advantages give disproportionate rewards, and I think cultural forces are in place for people to want to do anything they can, which could include the use of pharmacology, to get ahead.” It is not hard for Anjan to imagine a future where such enhancements are considered the norm—or even required by employers.
Anjan and his family make their trip from India aboard the S.S. America.
Anjan has never been comfortable with a “winner-take-all” attitude. He first came to the U.S. at the age of 1, but returned to India to start school. He attended a Jesuit school in the state of Gujarat, where he excelled. “In India, being smart in school was valued, and you could be just as popular by being smart as you could by being a good athlete,” Anjan remembers. Such was not the case when he returned to the U.S., this time to New Jersey; there, he was puzzled to discover that there were derogatory terms for smart people—“‘geeks’ and things like that,” Anjan says. After finishing his last three years of high school, Anjan chose to attend Haverford College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, even though he had been accepted into Ivy League universities. “My choice was partly influenced by the immigrant experience of finding high school [in America] large and alienating, and I wanted a smaller, more nurturing environment for college.”
Anjan went on to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he currently holds the Elliott Chair as professor and chief of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital. He is the president of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics and the chair of the Society for Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology. And if he is also, indeed, a geek, then it is safe to say he brings much credit to the term.
Courtesy of Agapito Sanchez, Jr.
Immigrants make the journey to the United States for a number of reasons. For physician and medical researcher Huda Zoghbi, her journey began with a dangerous war that left her no choice.
Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Huda could not have been any happier. The city’s peaceful and vibrant atmosphere in the 1970s was inviting for tourists, and as Huda remembers, “It had just peaked to be a very fun, international city.” It was a good time to start her undergraduate studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB); just as the city was gaining an international following, the same was happening at the university. “That was really my first experience with interacting with people from around world, so it was a wonderful time,” says Huda.
At the end of her junior year, Huda was accepted into the medical school at the university. “We had great professors. Some were American and some were Lebanese and some were from other countries.” Despite the idyllic setting, the eruption of the Lebanese civil war in the middle of her first year of medical school changed everything. “It was the best of times, but sadly, quickly turned to the worst of times,” says Huda.
With the war raging in the midst of the city, it was impossible for students to commute between home and school, even though most lived within two miles of the university. The medical students were resilient, though, and pushed to keep the school open. They lived in the basement of the medical research building and traveled to the hospital for meals by way of an underground tunnel; life, and the school year, went on.
When Huda returned home at the end of the school year, however, her parents felt it was too dangerous to stay in Lebanon. The family decided that the three children — Huda and her younger brothers — were to pack up and head to Texas, where their older sister lived, to get away from the war, if even just for a summer. It was the first time that Huda had ever visited the States, and it was not an easy trip out of Lebanon; the trip to Texas took the family about three weeks, as they were unable to travel directly to the U.S.
The summer in the U.S. came to an end, but the war in Lebanon was only escalating. By October, it had become clear that there was no way to get back into Lebanon and Huda and her siblings had no choice but to stay in the States. Huda’s younger siblings were enrolled into American schools, but her situation was more complicated. She was a year into medical school already, and it was—and still is—very difficult to transfer into an American medical school. She was also two months behind the school year.
After a couple of frantic but unfruitful weeks of applying to American medical schools, Huda was finally accepted to the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. “I bought all the needed books and the next day showed up in school, and in one of the classes the professor says, ‘Great, see you tomorrow; don’t forget, tomorrow is the first-quarter exam.’” Huda’s memories of that very long school year mostly involve studying and crying. After that year, she went back home hoping to finish her medical studies at AUB. Her professors, however, talked her into staying and finishing her medical education at Meharry, given the war and uncertainties in Lebanon.
Stranded in the US, Huda continues her studies at the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
With her hybrid background of schooling, finding a residency would prove to be another challenge. Luckily, Ralph Feigin, a young chairman who would later become the president and CEO of the Baylor College of Medicine, saw something in Huda that other schools overlooked. “He called me in to his office and said, ‘Huda, what can I do to get you to come here?’[with] a big smiley, cheerful face,” Huda says. After months of being rejected from one institution after another, Huda finally had an option that felt like home.
Over the years, Huda developed a fantastic relationship with Dr. Feigin. “I considered him my American father,” Huda says. To this day, Baylor College of Medicine is Huda’s home base, and now she is a professor of pediatrics, molecular and human genetics, and neuroscience.
During her residency at the Texas Children’s Hospital, Huda quickly became an expert in the field of Rett syndrome—all through chance. It began with an article in Annals of Neurology describing patients with the syndrome and Huda’s encounters with two patients with symptoms of the rare disorder.
Rett syndrome is a postnatal neurological disorder, first recognized in infancy and almost always seen in girls. It causes disruptions in brain function that can lead to problems with cognitive, emotional, autonomic, and motor functions. Patients with the disorder suffer from impairment of speech, mood, movement, breathing, chewing, and digestion.
After those first two patients, Huda began to look back into the medical records at the clinic, trying to find similarities in previous patients, and identified a few who had previously been undiagnosed. She published her first clinical research paper on the disorder in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985. Following that, many families brought their girls with Rett syndrome to the same clinic; after treating them, Huda was inspired to pursue the genetic cause of Rett syndrome and to train as a genetics researcher under the mentorship of Arthur Beaudet.
Although training as a genetics researcher brought Huda’s main focus away from Rett syndrome, she never forgot the disease. She returned to studying the disease during what little spare time she had as a postdoctoral fellow, and when she assumed an independent position as a researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine, she was thrilled to devote more of her attention to it.
Huda plans to establish a fund to help female postdoctoral fellows pursue bold ideas. Courtesy of Paul Kuntz.
Her dedication has paid off; Huda’s lab is behind many discoveries that have shed light on Rett syndrome. Most notably, the lab identified mutations in the gene MECP2 as the underlying cause of the syndrome. “MECP2 is a gene that encodes a protein whose activity is critical for the normal functioning of mature neurons in the brain,” Huda says. It also acts as a biochemical switch for regulating genes involved in neurological functions, and dysfunction of MECP2 can result in the abnormal expression of other genes.
Because MECP2 is on the X chromosome, this proves that the disorder is X-linked. This discovery explained why the disorder is usually found only in girls. When boys are born with an inactive form of MECP2, they die shortly after birth. Girls are able to survive, as they are born with two X chromosomes and thus have one healthy copy of the gene in half of their cells.
Huda’s success in this area, as well as her work on inherited balance disorders and cerebellar development, has earned her a lot of well-deserved recognition. Amongst many other honors, she has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator since 1996 and was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004. In 2009, she was the recipient of the Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science, and most recently, Huda was named the recipient of the 2014 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. Despite all the accolades, she makes it clear that she has had the support of mentors, collaborators, and her family along the way. When asked about the March of Dimes prize, she says, “It’s really a prize that honors all these people.”
To this day, Huda still works hard to honor the legacy of her mentors, Drs. Feigin and Beaudet, and all of those who have helped her along the way. Starting a fund at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute is just one of the ways that she plans on doing that. Her hope for the fund is to help female post-doctoral fellows pursue bold ideas. “If I can do that once every year for a female post-doc, I figure it would be the best way to really honor my patients, mentors, collaborators, and trainees who really have been wonderful,” Huda says.
Throughout his life, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa has looked to many people for guidance and inspiration. The figure he most often compared himself to, however, is a fictional one: the Mexican comic book superhero Kaliman. Dedicated to upholding justice, Kaliman possesses keen intellectual abilties, superhuman powers, and a maestro’s command of martial arts.
Perhaps this is the secret to Alfredo’s larger-than-life accomplishments. Born in the rural village of Palaco, Mexico, Alfredo was the oldest in a family of six children. Life was not without hardships: Alfredo started working in his father’s business, a gas station and mechanic’s shop, at the age of 5. During rough patches, the Quiñones family scraped by on meals of tortillas and salsa.
Alfredo poses in his hometown of Palaco, Mexico, at the age of four.
At age 19, Alfredo became a schoolteacher, but despaired of ever pulling himself and his family out of poverty. The only solution, as he saw it, would be drastic; it would require the boldness and agility of a superhero. On New Year’s Day in 1987, he scaled the 18-foot-high wall separating Mexico and California and landed in the United States—only to be immediately arrested by border patrol agents. As soon as he was released back on Mexican soil, Alfredo decided, with the tenacity and derring-do for which his comic book idol was known, to try his luck again once the border patrol agents had left.
This time successful, Alfredo became a migrant farm worker and laborer in California. In time, his family joined him there. Although he enjoyed his work, a brush with death—in the form of a fall into an empty oil tanker—forced Alfredo to reconsider his future. Kaliman would have made more of the opportunities available in this new country, and so Alfredo would too. He signed up for classes at San Joaquin Delta College, all the while learning English.
From there, he went on to complete an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and then attended Harvard Medical School, where he discovered his love of brain surgery. Today, Alfredo is a neurosurgeon and Professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches, researches the migratory behavior of brain cancer cells, and performs between 250–300 brain surgeries each year. He even has his own superhero name—these days, Alfredo is known as Dr. Q.
Alfredo with his first grade class, pictured fourth from right, first row.
Alfredo is a veritable expert in the field of brain surgery: He has written and edited textbooks, including the sixth edition of the industry standard, Schmidek & Sweet Operative Neurosurgical Techniques, and a forthcoming text that will include, for the first time, instructional videos in 2D and 3D formats. In the operating room, he helped pioneer a surgical technique that allows for minimally invasive access to parts of the brain. Inspired by a colleague who adapted a common plastic surgery procedure for eyelid lifts to clip aneurysms, Alfredo realized the potential for this procedure to remove smaller tumors in the front of the brain in select cases, thereby reducing the need for full craniotonomies. “We live on the shoulder of giants,” Alfredo says, modestly.
The link between Alfredo’s operating room and his laboratory is a close one. Although he originally intended to focus exclusively on surgery, he saw firsthand the need for a greater understanding of brain cancer. “As a surgeon, seeing my patients succumb to this horrendous cancer every single day—and I do mean every day—and seeing their families’ hearts broken,” says Alfredo, “gives me the energy and passion to keep working hard, not only in the operating room but also in the laboratory.”
He formed a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in order to research the migratory behavior of brain cancer cells and brain cancer stem cells—one of the factors that makes brain cancer so insidious. Although tumors can be removed or treated with chemotherapy and radiation, it is difficult to remove every single cell, and these cells often travel to healthy brain tissue and propagate new tumors.
In addition to investigating these patterns, Alfredo and his team are researching ways to disrupt them; he holds two patents on potential treatments for dismantling the molecular processes of migration. One such method uses genetically modified stem cells derived from human body fat to destroy cancer cells—“Trojan horse cells,” as he calls them. In experiments with mice, Alfredo and his team modified mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs)—which have a tendency to seek out cancerous or damaged cells—to secrete a small protein known to suppress tumors. Although this form of treatment is still years away from human trials, it has the potential to curb the destructive migratory behavior of brain cancer cells and was shown to significantly extend the lifespan of mice with glioblastoma, a particularly deadly form of brain cancer.
On the job, circa 1988: Alfredo supported himself and his family as a migrant farmer and welder when he first arrived to America.
Despite his superhuman trajectory, Alfredo is careful to not lose sight of what makes him human. “In my business, there’s a lot of sadness,” Alfredo says. “Ultimately, I want people to feel that sadness, but I also want them to feel the happiness.” He has not shied away from either task: His website and blog are filled with stories about patients—on their diagnoses, their surgeries, but also their lives and their families—and many of them, tragically, are no longer alive.
Considering the high mortality rates of brain cancer, Alfredo saw that his patients and their families needed hope. He recalls a patient from 2009 who died, despite Alfredo’s best efforts. The patient’s parents approached him afterward and asked what they could do; they were still committed to fighting the disease. “I realized suddenly that I was so arrogant, for so many years, to think that I could [find a cure] alone,” says Alfredo. “They were being affected, and they wanted to do something. We all want to do good in this world.”
With a team of patients, colleagues, and friends, Alfredo runs several marathons a year to raise money for research on brain cancer.
Alfredo connected his network of patients and their families to form a formidable group of fundraisers. He runs multiple marathons each year with them, and the money raised has been invaluable to his research, as sources of funding neuroscience research have declined over the past few years.
Throughout his career, Alfredo met many role models, in addition to his family and Kaliman. These mentors helped Alfredo navigate around many obstacles, including racism and financial hardships, on a path that few thought could be open to an undocumented laborer—himself included. Today, however, Alfredo realizes that he would not be where he is today if it were not for his incredible origin story: “The reason I am who I am is because I didn’t have many things,” says Alfredo. “I came to this country illegally as a migrant farm worker, which I thought was the biggest deficit in my life, and it has turned out to be my greatest strength.”
Ever aware of those past kindnesses, Alfredo set up the Mission Brain Foundation. The foundation supports missionary work to underdeveloped countries, where Alfredo and his colleagues set up temporary clinics to provide free surgical care, donate money to local institutions, and exchange training with regional doctors and specialists. “I want us to be ambassadors of the United States,” Alfredo says. “I’m tired of hearing how the United States is in this war and that war and so on and so forth, when I know we are the most giving country in the world. I want to be the ambassador of the part of our country that wants to change the world.”
Although he’s grateful for where his path has taken him, Alfredo acknowledges that he has had to pay “the price of triumph,” as he calls it. The long hours take him away from his wife and family—Alfredo married his college sweetheart, Anna Peterson, with whom he has three children. Still, Alfredo is pleased with where he is and how far he has come. “When I was poor, I was happy. Now that I’m a full professor and a brain surgeon, I am happy. I’ve always been happy,” he says. Perhaps that, too, is the secret to being superhuman.
When one thinks of the American armed forces, the image conjured is likely not that of a roomful of soldiers practicing mindfulness meditation together. Thanks to the STRONG Project, though, such scenes are indeed reality. Led by Indian-born Amishi Jha, the STRONG Project is studying the effects of mindfulness exercises and their impact on working memory, attention, and emotional regulation.
The STRONG Project, which stands for Schofield Barracks Training and Research on Neurobehavioral Growth, trained approximately 200 soldiers in mindfulness exercises for eight weeks before a 19-month deployment in Afghanistan; soldiers were encouraged to continue practicing daily while deployed. The soldiers’ levels of memory, attention, and other variables were evaluated before and after deployment using computer-based exercises and brain wave recordings.
Although the results of the study have not yet been published, the data collected thus far is promising. Funded by a four-year, $1.72 million grant from the Department of Defense, the project aims to find ways to protect the psychological health of soldiers through mindfulness training, both on the battlefield and off. “Attention, working memory, and emotional regulation are susceptible to being degraded when we’re under high stress,” explains Amishi, which, for soldiers, is when they need it the most. With the increase of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst military personnel, finding ways to alleviate psychological suffering has also become a priority for the Department of Defense.
Amishi studies the effects of mindfulness exercises on the brain, a new but burgeoning field of study.
The STRONG Project is one of the most prominent examples of studies on mindfulness training, a relatively new area of focus in psychology and neuroscience. “Mindfulness is a mental mode that has to do with paying attention to present-moment experience without reactivity and/or having an ongoing story and interpretation of what we’re experiencing,” says Amishi.
“Think of the brain as an exquisite time-travel tool,” she says. “We can go to the past, we can go to the future, and it ends up that we spend a lot of our conscious experience in the past and the future instead of actually in the present moment.” Mindfulness exercises, which can take the form of attention to the sensations of breathing or walking, or guided body consciousness exercises, train the mind to remain anchored in the present moment instead of being “hijacked into time-travel mode.”
Although mindfulness has traditionally been more in the realm of spirituality than science, Amishi’s work, and that of other scientists, is beginning to corroborate the hypothesis that mindfulness exercises may have physical effects on the brain that can be observed—much like the effect of physical exercise on the body. Brain-imaging tools are showing that areas of the brain that deal with attention, awareness of surroundings, and emotional regulation appear healthier and stronger in longtime meditators.
In partnership with the Dept. of Defense, the STRONG Project finds ways to protect the health of active combat soldiers, both on the battlefield and off.
Given the emerging evidence of these benefits, Amishi hopes that her studies will help bring about a cultural shift in the way that such exercises are perceived. “Nobody would ever argue now, in this day and age, that physical exercise is good for the body,” she says. “The technology-driven, 24/7 kind of lifestyle and culture that we live in now begs for quiet, calm, and clarity. The mind, just like the body, needs to be exercised each day to stay in optimal health.”
Amishi herself first took up meditation 10 years ago as a result of feeling overwhelmed; at the time, she was teaching a full course load as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, honing her research focus, and raising a young family. The effects were so immediately powerful that Amishi felt compelled to study them: “From my subjective experience, the tension really felt like it was changing,” she recounts.
In her studies, though, Amishi has taken care to be as objective as possible. Although mindfulness has become a hot topic in the last five years, hardly any of her colleagues in neuroscience considered it a suitable area of research when Amishi first started investigating. “Within the academic climate, it was not really—and I would say that this is still the case—well-accepted,” Amishi says. “But we’re trying to be as rigorous as we possibly can, to have the appropriate controls, and to have very detailed manuals in what we’re training. Then, carefully, using behavioral measures and neural measures, we track what happens.”
Amishi’s work, and that of other scientists, shows that mindfulness exercises may have physical effects on the brain.
Now an associate professor at the University of Miami, Amishi is finding more and more scientists who are willing to hold mindfulness up to scientific examination. When she first started, she had only one colleague whose work she could refer to, that of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Now Amishi is planning to attend the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies this fall, a gathering of thousands of neuroscientists, psychologists, and humanities and education experts; there, along with the Dalai Lama and Arianna Huffington, Amishi will be a keynote speaker.
Amishi’s immigrant background has helped pave the way along her chosen research path. Growing up in a Hindu-Indian family, she watched her mother practice meditation daily; although she did not try meditation until later in life, being familiar with these practices—and being “bicultural”—was helpful in communicating and translating her research in various settings.
“What I’m doing is trying to bridge mindfulness as an Eastern-inspired contemplative practice with modern, Western neuroscience,” says Amishi. “Bridging neuroscience with the military context, and bridging mindfulness with the academic context … I think that there are some things that immigrants, who already have a very personal understanding of what it means to bridge different worlds and worldviews, may be particularly skilled at.”
Photos of Amishi Jha courtesy of Tom Cogill