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Promoting Diversity Through Conversation

Foreign-born chemists have rich life histories to share, they’re just waiting for someone to ask

by Linda Wang
June 14, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 24

Credit: Jay Hagenaw/IUPUI
Varma-Nelson (center, in gray suit) has rich experiences to share with her staff at IUPUI’s Center for Teaching & Learning.
Credit: Jay Hagenaw/IUPUI
Varma-Nelson (center, in gray suit) has rich experiences to share with her staff at IUPUI’s Center for Teaching & Learning.

Look around you. Whether you work in industry, government, or academia, chances are that you have a colleague who was not born in this country. According to the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies, in 2007 immigrants accounted for 12.5% of the U.S. population. The center projects that by 2060, immigrants and their immediate descendants will make up about 22% of the U.S. population.

Foreign-born scientists have played a significant role in the growth of the U.S. science and engineering workforce. In 2003, of the 21.6 million scientists and engineers in the U.S., 16% were immigrants, according to the 2007 National Science Foundation report “Why Did They Come to the United States? A Profile of Immigrant Scientists and Engineers.” Of the 2 million Asian scientists and engineers in the U.S. in 2003, about 1.7 million, or 83%, were immigrants.

For many foreign-born chemists and chemical professionals, getting to the U.S. wasn’t easy. And once they arrived, they struggled to fit into the mainstream. By asking a foreign-born colleague about their life experiences, one can often do much more to bridge cultural differences and promote workplace inclusion than any diversity workshop or training session.

“Diversity and inclusion don’t just happen,” says Shinder Dhillon, global director for diversity and inclusion at Air Products & Chemicals. “They take hard work and a commitment to understanding each other better. We recognize that collaboration and innovation from all our employees are essential to our success,” she adds.

C&EN asked three foreign-born chemical professionals to describe their paths to the U.S. Their personal stories open a window to the varied experiences of those who have chosen to live and work in the country and offer valuable lessons in overcoming setbacks, staying focused, and finding mentors in the workplace.

Their routes to professional success can be models for everyone. By learning how these successful immigrants wrestled with challenges and integrated into U.S. society, others may be able to understand better how to help immigrants achieve their full potential.

Credit: Courtesy of Yen Wei (both)
Wei on a recent visit to his alma mater, Peking University. Right: Wei was ecstatic during his first day at Peking University.
Credit: Courtesy of Yen Wei (both)
Wei on a recent visit to his alma mater, Peking University. Right: Wei was ecstatic during his first day at Peking University.

Yen Wei, 52, Herman B. Wagner Professor of Chemistry at Drexel University and director of the Drexel Center for Advanced Polymers & Materials Chemistry, was nine years old at the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. During the period, intellectuals were persecuted, and the country went through extreme instability and sociopolitical turmoil.

Wei’s parents were banished to labor camps in the countryside, and Wei and a brother were sent to live with his grandparents in a ramshackle house shared with three other families, each to a room. “We had one light bulb, just 15 W, I remember,” he says. “We put a hole in the wall so we could get light from the family in the next room.” Wei often did his schoolwork by the soft glow of an oil lantern.

Everything, including food, was rationed, Wei says. Each month, for example, Wei’s family was allotted 1 lb of pork and a small bag of rice. Even soap and matches were rationed.

After school, Wei recalls, he and his classmates would run to a nearby coal-burning power plant to salvage unburned coal, gathering pieces with their bare hands. The factories “would unload the used coal outside the fence, and we would pick out as much unburned coal as we could find to bring home for cooking,” he says. “The coal was hot, so we would get burned all the time.”

Universities were shut down during the revolution, so after high school, Wei was sent to the countryside to work alongside farmers. “The country’s situation was so bleak,” he says. “There was no future for the country, and no future for our generation.” He considered taking his own life, he adds.

In 1976, three years after Wei was sent to the countryside, the Cultural Revolution ended, and universities reopened. An official from Peking University came to Wei’s region to select one student to attend the university. “I was extremely lucky,” he says of his being chosen.

At Peking University, Wei fell in love with chemistry. He finished his undergraduate studies in 1979 and received a master’s degree in polymer chemistry from Peking University in 1981.

Wei received a U.S. scholarship from the Li Foundation to pursue a doctorate at the City University of New York (CUNY). He remembers arriving in New York City with only $25 in his pocket. “That night, I didn’t sleep. I was so excited,” he says. “I went to the top floor of the Chinese embassy and looked at the night sights of New York City the entire night.”

In class, Wei struggled with his English: “The only thing I could say to my adviser was, ‘How do you do?’ That’s it.” A year went by before Wei could engage in conversation.

Wei worked extremely hard, and in 1986, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from CUNY. He completed a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987, and later that year, he accepted a position as an assistant professor at Drexel University, where he continues to teach today.

Whenever Wei experiences frustration or encounters a setback in his career, such as rejection of a grant proposal, he reminds himself that the disappointment is only temporary and that things will get better. His strength and conviction, he says, come from the hardships he endured during the Cultural Revolution. “Those days, I felt complete darkness. I didn’t see anything at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “But I still had faith that things would get better.”

He says he’s saddened to see many young people give up too easily. “For the young people, they feel that even getting a paper rejected is hardship,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Now it’s time for you to pay the tuition. Learn how to take those setbacks.’ We paid the tuition earlier, when we were young. Sooner or later, everybody has to pay the tuition.”

Wei says he feels privileged to be able to do the chemistry that he loves. “I have no regrets,” he says. “When I think back to those bad days during the Cultural Revolution, it makes my life worth more.”

Hedieh Modaressi, 41, a business development manager at Rhodia, also grew up during turbulent times. She was nine years old when the Iranian Revolution of 1979 began. She remembers having to abide by strict Islamic regulations, such as having to keep her head, arms, and legs covered. Violent demonstrations would routinely erupt in the streets, she recalls.

Later, when Iran engaged in war with Iraq, bombings and air raids became a part of everyday life. “One morning, we were going to school, and it was about two or three blocks from our school where one of the missiles had hit,” she says. “We went to look, and there was this guy in his pajamas running around the ruins of his house. It was chaos.”

Modaressi recalls one particularly close encounter she had with an air strike in the Iranian capital, Tehran. “I remember visiting my grandmother at the hospital. I got out of the hospital and wanted to get a taxi,” she says. “One of my relatives saw me and pulled over. He said, ‘Get in, get in, the bombing is going to start.’ In a matter of 60 seconds, we heard the bomb. The building next to the hospital was attacked, and all the windows of the hospital were broken. I honestly felt that our car was hit.”

Those experiences strengthened Modaressi’s resolve to attain a better life. “Nobody wanted to stay in Iran, and the only way you could get out was to pass those difficulties and survive,” she says. “Staying focused was just a natural reaction to the pressure.”

Modaressi earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Sharif University of Technology, in Tehran. She left Iran in 1994 to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan and went on to receive a doctorate in chemical engineering from McGill University, in Montreal.

“For me, it was very clear that if I did well in school, doors would open,” she says. “I think what got me where I am today was that I had a very clear goal from early childhood, and I stayed focused.”

In 2004, Modaressi joined specialty chemical company Rhodia, in Cranberry, N.J., as a project manager. After a couple of years on the technical side, she felt ready for a change. “I realized that I liked to do business development,” she says. “That was a bold decision. With a technical background, you normally do not think of a career in the business world.”

In her free time, Modaressi says, she approached the business development manager and suggested ways that she could assist him. “If he couldn’t make it to a customer with a sale, or if he did not have the information, I would go the extra step and do the work,” she says. “I knew I wanted that job, so I didn’t mind the extra work. I trained myself to do what was needed to be successful in that job.”

A year after she started assisting the business development manager, he left the position to return to France. “When it came to who would be suitable to replace him, I was an obvious candidate,” she says.

Credit: Jackie Gruscott/Rhodia (left) Courtesy of Hedieh Modaressi (right)
Modaressi is now a business development manager at Rhodia. Left: Modaressi in Tehran in 1984.
Credit: Jackie Gruscott/Rhodia (left) Courtesy of Hedieh Modaressi (right)
Modaressi is now a business development manager at Rhodia. Left: Modaressi in Tehran in 1984.

Modaressi says that growing up in a turbulent environment has made her fearless. “My level of tolerance for risk is definitely higher than average, and I really think it comes from my background,” she says. “When you’ve been put in a situation where you could have lost your life, you look at things with different perspective.”

Modaressi feels fortunate to be where she is today. And she advises others to stay focused on their goals. “You need to have a goal in your life,” she says. “As long as you stay focused on it, you can achieve it.”

Pratibha Varma-Nelson, 59, a chemistry professor and executive director of the Center for Teaching & Learning at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), grew up in a middle-class family in Pune, India. At age 10, her father passed away, so she and her younger brother were raised by her mother, who supported the family by tutoring students from their home. “I was influenced by my mom’s attitude toward educating women and equal rights for women,” Varma-­Nelson says. “There was never any question from my mom that there was anything I couldn’t do.”

After high school, Varma-Nelson enrolled at Wadia College at the University of Pune. She received the highest grade in her freshman chemistry class of 600 students. That got her noticed by her professor, Jayant Mandlik. “I always had questions, so I would go to him for help,” she says. “He was like my academic father. He encouraged me and made me believe that I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

After Varma-Nelson’s sophomore year, Mandlik left India to take a research position at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). But he and Varma-Nelson stayed in touch. “He continued to encourage me to pursue chemistry,” she says. “I wrote to him and asked whether there was any chance I could come to the U.S. He said yes and helped me with the applications.” She was accepted into UIC’s Ph.D. program in organic chemistry and came alone to the U.S., which was uncommon for single women in India at that time. Mandlik and his wife hosted Varma-Nelson in their home for several months until she found a more permanent place to live.

Credit: Randy Newbrough/IUPUI (top) Sudarshan Varma (bottom)
The young Varma-Nelson mentors students involved in a peer-led team learning project. Below: Varma-Nelson (from left) with her family in India.
Credit: Randy Newbrough/IUPUI (top) Sudarshan Varma (bottom)
The young Varma-Nelson mentors students involved in a peer-led team learning project. Below: Varma-Nelson (from left) with her family in India.

Two years into her Ph.D. program, Varma-Nelson’s mother passed away suddenly. “I came to the U.S. when I was 21, and then I never saw her again,” she says. “She was my hero. She built a good foundation for me.”

Varma-Nelson received a doctorate in chemistry in 1978 and completed a postdoc at Loyola University in 1979. She started her career as an assistant professor at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago. She moved to Northeastern Illinois University in 2002 to serve as chair of the department of chemistry, earth science, and physics. From 2006 to 2008, Varma-Nelson served as a program director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation. After that, she joined IUPUI, where in addition to her role as executive director of the Center for Teaching & Learning, she directs a research group working on cyber peer-led team learning and other collaborative teaching approaches.


Varma-Nelson says she has had mentors throughout her career. When she first started teaching, she sought the advice of other faculty members, she says. “I grew up in a different environment, so in trying to understand the students, I needed to talk to faculty who were more familiar with the student culture here.” She also sought mentorship when she was trying to move from a liberal arts college to a Ph.D.-granting institution. “At every stage in my life, there’s always been someone who’s been willing to show me what I need to do,” she says.

She is now giving back by mentoring others. “When I became a tenure-track assistant professor and had my own students, I knew how important it was to be encouraging to them, so I spent a fair amount of time telling them about my own experiences and encouraging them to do what interested them instead of what others told them to do,” she says. Varma-Nelson is also mentoring students to serve as peer leaders and working with faculty members to improve how they teach.

Having mentors can be beneficial at every stage of your career, Varma-Nelson says. “Seek out multiple mentors for different aspects of your life,” she says. “Having a diverse group of mentors is key to success.”

At the same time, she says, look for opportunities to mentor others. “When somebody approaches you, give good advice,” she adds. “Our mission should be to give back what we received.”


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