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Diary Of An Immigrant’s Journey

by Linda Wang
July 8, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 27


Organic chemist Uzma Zakai, who is of Pakistani descent, has waited many years to become a U.S. permanent resident. She was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where she studied at British and American international elementary and middle schools. She then completed high school at the American International School in Salzburg, Austria. In 1999, she came to the U.S. to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Lenoir-Rhyne College (now Lenoir-Rhyne University) in Hickory, N.C. That step marked the first in her 10-year journey to become a U.S. permanent resident.

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
August 2002

September 1998—Receives F-1 student visa. In June 1998, the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia denies Zakai’s visa request because she is ethnically Pakistani. Zakai flies to Pakistan in July. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad also denies her visa request, stating that she does not have compelling ties to her home country, though she is a Pakistani citizen. After much legal wrangling, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad grants Zakai an F-1 student visa to study in the U.S.

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
December 2003

January 1999—Arrives in the U.S. Comes to North Carolina to begin undergraduate studies at Lenoir-Rhyne College.

May 2002—Earns bachelor’s degree. B.S. in chemistry from Lenoir-Rhyne College.


August 2002—Begins Ph.D. program. Starts Ph.D. program in chemistry in Richard S. Glass’s lab at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
January 2005

December 2003—Sister arrives from Saudi Arabia. Younger sister arrives in the U.S., moves in with Zakai, enrolls at Pima Community College in Tucson.

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
April 2005

January 2005—Joins American Chemical Society. After joining, serves as a member of the Younger Chemists Committee.

April 2005—Publishes first paper. First publication, “Synthesis, Gas-Phase Photoelectron Spectroscopic, and Theoretical Studies of Stannylated Dinuclear Iron Dithiolates” (DOI: 10.1021/ic050526q) in Inorganic Chemistry.

January 2007—Family emergency. Father passes away suddenly.

December 2007—Earns Ph.D. Ph.D. in chemistry granted from the University of Arizona. “It was a dream my father could not see.”

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
December 2007

January 2008—Begins postdoc; receives H-1B visa. Postdoctoral fellowship begins at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, joining Robert C. West’s group. University sponsors her application for an H-1B visa, which allows her to apply for a green card.

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
January 2008

January 2008—Mother arrives in U.S. Zakai’s mother, who is very sick, arrives in the U.S. from Pakistan. Daughter and mother live together while her sister finishes her undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona. After graduating later that year, her sister moves to Madison and moves in with Zakai, too. “You’ve got to learn to survive.”

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
January 2008

July 2008—Applies for green card. Begins green card application process. Applies for a national interest waiver as a research chemist.

October 2009—Receives green card. Zakai’s green card arrives, allowing her to apply for grants and fellowships previously unavailable to her because of the citizenship and permanent residency requirement. “For the first time in my life, I had my life in my hands.”

Credit: Courtesy of Uzma Zakai
October 2009

Today. Zakai is currently a U.S. Department of Agriculture Teaching Fellow at Cornell University. Later this month, she will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Iowa State University. Her goal is to find an independent faculty position in academia.


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