General Law

Not Science Fiction: American immigration politics threaten scientific advances

The year 2017 was an anti-science roller-coaster ride. From the plentiful deniers of climate change to the seven words rumored to be banished from the CDC’s vocabulary[1] to Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s questionable words equating fossil fuel consumption with the prevention of acts of sexual violence,[2] science seemed to be the biggest loser of 2017. Even the tax bill, the capstone of the year, appeared to be steeped in anti-science rhetoric, with several proposed provisions aimed at dismantling research. Among these were the taxation of tuition assistance for graduate researchers and increased taxation of companies examining renewable energy sources, both of which thankfully failed to make it into the final bill.[3]

Alongside all the powerful and disturbing hits to science, the country continues to see our administration make tactical maneuvers against immigration. As a humanitarian, I feel a deep sense of indignation that we have forgotten our history as a nation of immigrants and turned our backs on people who enrich our country both by strengthening our workforce and adding to our cultural melting pot. As a member of the medical community, however, I am worried that the disassembly of our immigration program will act as yet another catalyst to dismantle the country’s scientific endeavors.

From 1960 to 2014, 28 of the Nobel Prize winners in medicine have been scientists and physicians who immigrated to America. The numbers are similarly high in the fields of chemistry and physics, with 23 and 22 immigrants winning in these fields, respectively. Thankfully, nobody in our political administration has openly come out against cancer research, but considering that in 2014, 42% of the researchers in the top seven American cancer research centers are from 50-plus foreign countries, the administration placing severe restrictions on immigration deals a huge blow to science in our country and is in effect a stance against cancer research. Even the inventor of chemotherapy, George Clowes, immigrated to the United States from England to conduct research on chemotherapy and went on to found the American Association for Cancer Research.[4] In terms of the contemporary research landscape, American graduate institutions award approximately 30,000 doctoral degrees in the fields of science and engineering each year. Foreign-born researchers are responsible for 40 percent of these degrees. A high number of academic institutions coupled with more job opportunities in the fields of science and technology, as well as higher wages, are some of the factors attracting researchers from abroad to the US.[5]

So what would the American scientific landscape without immigrant scientists and medical researchers look like? In a word: prehistoric. The Nature Index ranks America as the number-one research-producing country, and had immigration restrictions prevented the aforementioned individuals from completing their research on American soil, perhaps we would still be learning about the four humors and spending our clinical years of medical school bleeding people with leeches. Most of us completing medical school will be entering into clinical practice that would not be possible without the contributions of researchers, many of whom are foreign-born. I hope that as a medical community, 2018 is an opportunity for us to recognize and celebrate the efforts of our colleagues who come from faraway lands to conduct valuable and potentially lifesaving research here in America before Jurassic immigration policies further threaten the well-being of our patients.






Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering

General Innovation

A Budding Clinician-Scientist

Before I embarked on my second year of medical school, I wanted to try something different — an experience I probably wouldn’t attain during the medical school curriculum.

I have always had an inquisitive mind, hence research held a natural appeal. Research, at least to me, can be broadly categorized into two groups: dry lab and wet lab. I was already involved in the former, but was keen to give the latter a shot. An oncologist took me under his wing, and I was soon introduced to the world of lab-based, experimental research.

Coming from a background with literally no lab experience, it was undoubtedly a steep learning curve at inception. There was an avalanche of lab-based skills I needed to learn and understand. I was tasked to perform lymphoma research, but it wasn’t until a month later that I actually got to perform experimental work on lymphoma cells. The first month was humdrum but necessary. I had to complete multiple safety courses, practice micro-pipetting, and learn about the entire range of complex lab equipment and procedures such as the centrifuge, film development for western blots, and flow cytometry machine.

After one month, I was given my topic and tasked to draft the experimental protocol. In brief, I was investigating complement-mediated cytotoxicity of rituximab (anti CD20 monoclonal antibody) on lymphoma cell lines. Even though I had some prior knowledge about the cytotoxic mechanism, I had to perform an  in-depth literature search to augment my understanding and look for existing experimental protocols that I could potentially adapt.

With a protocol in my armament, I thought I was confident and equipped enough to perform the experiment, until I realized that multiple roadblocks lay ahead of me. An initial protocol with six simple steps turned out to be twice as long after adding several intermediate steps that I had missed. There were other reagents that I had to add. For instance, staining the cells involved identifying the appropriate stain color, optimizing the concentration of the stain solution, incubating it for a period of time; it was not as simple as adding a reagent to a test tube of cells. Hence, it often took longer than expected to complete a single step, which resulted in me being late for the equipment bookings. Time management was the first lesson for me. It was quintessential for me to plan, in detail, the total amount of time I actually needed per step, with some degree of overestimation.

The road ahead was filled with pockets of ups and downs, albeit often the latter. There were many occasions on which experimental results contradicted my hypothesis – cells died when they were not supposed to; cells didn’t die when they were supposed to. When occasions like these arose, I went back to scrutinize every step in the protocol, to make sense of what could have possibly went wrong. But I soon realized that the things that seemed insignificant to me were the sources of the experimental failures. For instance, I had initially assumed that all serum types were similar in composition and purpose. However, the serum I had used was not viable for cell survival. Hence, I switched from commercial serum to human serum in subsequent experiments. The next road block came when my cells became unresponsive to rituximab. It was only much later on that I accidentally happened upon a paper, which stated that the particular cell line in my experiment was intrinsically resistant to the drug. These experimental failures served to teach me one very important lesson — to scrutinize the fine details and consider every possibility that could account for failures.

Lastly, I would like to underscore the significance of perseverance. I consider it to be the cornerstone of being a good scientist and researcher. Amidst the myriad of failures, I would have given up on continuing my experiments if I was devoid of it. Research can be a plodding process with multiple failures; but if you believe in your purpose and persevere, you will eventually reap the fruits of your labor.

I have always had an ardor for research, and I intend to pursue the Clinician-Scientist pathway. I am thankful for this lab experience, for it has opened my eyes to the unappealing — at least to most medical students —world of research. As mundane as it can be, I find both the process and end product meaningful to fellow scientists, doctors, and the society at large. This experience has not stifled my interest and passion for research and science; it has taught me instead the values that are essential for a scientist.

If you’re thinking of doing research or being a clinician-scientist, this is just my two-cents worth of lessons that I’ve personally picked up in my short five month stint thus far in the lab. Be humble. Be hungry to learn. Be careful to look out for details. And, most importantly, persevere despite how monotonous research can be.

Photo Credit: United Soybean Board

General Literature

Frankenstein: A tale for the Modern Age

“I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation up on lifeless matter.”
– Dr Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein (2)

Frankenstein is a science fiction novel published by British author Mary Shelley in 1818 that has become an integral part of modern day culture. It follows a Swiss scientist named Dr Victor Frankenstein who becomes obsessed with alchemy and the idea of creating life. His indelible curiosity gradually leads him down the path towards atrocious experiments in the name of science, to the point where he creates a creature – a ‘monster.’

This novel, which has captured our imaginations since its release almost two centuries ago, has led to several famous film adaptations and has become one of the cornerstones of the Horror genre even to the present day.

The inspiration for this novel came from the early 1800s when scientists awed audiences with their ability to use electricity to stimulate the nerves of dead animals, a process called galvanism (1). In 1803 the body of murderer George Foster was attached to a large battery, and witnesses tell us that ‘the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened’ (3).  It was during this era that science started to take over the reins, stepping onto its pedestal as the fountain of knowledge.

Interestingly, the subtitle of Frankenstein is ‘Modern Prometheus’ (3). Prometheus is the Greek God who brought knowledge to humanity, and later paid for his ‘crime’ through eternal torment. In a similar fashion, Victor Frankenstein brings further knowledge to humanity through his obsession with the life sciences, leading to his creation of a ‘monster’ that ultimately torments him to his dying day. The novel, despite being written at a time when science was just learning to walk, is as relevant today as it was when first published. Yes, it may just be a work of fiction, but the deeper warnings contained within its fine pages speak to us in a way that no scientific journal can.

Frankenstein reminds us that the humanities are the seat belt for the sciences. They have been there to remind us of our morals when all we want to indulge in is our supreme power as human beings. They remind us to stay humble, to think and to question, and not merely to set fire to everything that surrounds us.

History is littered with examples of how scientific discoveries can lead us astray. From the splitting of the atom, which led to the creation of nuclear weapons, to the rise of technology, which has led to the dehumanization of everyday life. But of course, this is a simplification. Science has also given us so much that we now take for granted: organ transplants, heating, the latest iPhone, the very roof over our heads. Science has given us our healthy years, filled with food, shelter, safety and comfort. What Frankenstein highlights is our human desire to go further; to extend our years beyond our imagination, so that not only do we never die, we never grow old either. This hubris is perhaps part of human nature.

What Frankenstein teaches us is that we must take responsibility for our creations, and remember that every gleam of hope also betrays a darker path; ultimately, it is not the ‘monster’ that leads to his masters’ demise, but the lack of empathy and responsibility that is displayed. By continually digging deeper and deeper, searching for a way to transform the cells that create us and the organs that give us life, we must not forget the power that lies in our hands, the ever-human desires of greed and selfishness that can take over our quest.

“I might in process of time, renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption”
– Dr Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein (2)

Many may question how relevant such warnings are in the present day. Perhaps these messages do not apply to our times. Very few of us would turn our backs upon science, casting our technologies aside and turning to the fire to heat our food and the rock to give us shelter. The issues that Frankenstein brought up, of using nature to bring about life, can be found within any hospital across the world. The use of the defibrillator – a device that uses electricity to shock the heart back into rhythm – could be described as the answer that Frankenstein worked so hard to find – to bring people back from the dead, to introduce life so to speak. Would one call this abominable?

Perhaps we are being unfair to Frankenstein – looking at ourselves as medical students and doctors, how many of us would not do the same as him; sitting hours within a cramped room, reading textbook after textbook, trying discover the intricacies of the human body: how does it breathe, how does it sleep, how does it eat, how does it live? Isn’t this what we do every day – delve deep into the human body so that we can learn how to shock it back to its original state?

We can choose to see both ourselves and Dr Victor Frankenstein as lights that shine onto pathways of future knowledge, discovering new cures and assembling fresh treatments along the way. But we must remember that we cannot rely on science alone to answer all of our problems. Ultimately, science cannot work in a lab by itself. It must work within the context of our greater society, and it must be made morally accountable for its actions. By continuing one’s endeavors out of pure selfishness and greed, one may tread down a path from which there is no return. In the end, it is the monster created from Frankenstein’s obsessions that kills him, and this can serve as a warning to us all.


  1. Brown, A.S. 2010. How early experiments with electricity inspired Mary Shelley’s reanimated monster [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 8th January 2016]
  2. Shelley, M. 2010. Frankenstein. William Collins.
  3. Pires, V.M. 2013. Shelley’s Monster: A Lesson on Scientific Hubris [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 8th January 2016]

Featured image:
Frankenstein by Khánh Hmoong

Lifestyle Public Health Reflection

Can social justice replace medicine?

‘Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.’
Marmot (2)

Despite the leaps and bounds that science has made over the past century, with all its shiny new techno-gadgets and ever-advancing drugs, the primary reason for our good health today lies in something much less sexy: vaccinations, clean water and sanitation- changes that we take for granted.

We live in a world that is changing every second. Bigger cars, faster phones, all the information at our beck and call: from the education that is offered to our kids, to the healthcare that is offered to our decaying bodies.

The hospital of today is a far cry from the one half a century ago. The minute you walk into a hospital your senses go haywire. You have stepped into the world of the future. The full scale of our technological advancement greets you within these four walls. The bizarre beeping overwhelms your ear canals, screaming into your brain as the alarms screech constantly in the background. The reams of wires trail along the floor of the wards, wrapping themselves around their patients like Christmas presents, offering nourishment to bodies overwhelmed with disease. We are living in the world of machines, and it is upon them that we place our hopes of immortality.

Everyone knows of the success story of Science. We are bombarded by the media, informing us of the next new cancer drug, the gene unlocked that will solve all our problems. What we forget is that we are not merely organisms residing within a vacuum. Nor are we machines ourselves, whose very pores can be zapped with electrodes, transforming our very identity. We are human beings living and breathing on this planet Earth. We digest the world around us. We are not merely scientists of the world within ourselves, of the DNA that twirls inside our cells. We are also manufacturers of the world around us; of the houses we live in, the food we eat and the lives we live. Perhaps the answer to a better, healthier life lies here instead.

But, is this the role of the doctor? Shouldn’t we leave this task to the politicians, to those who have the power to make these important decisions? Isn’t the duty of the doctor ultimately towards her patient, towards that individual who is sitting opposite, rather than to humanity as a whole? I believe Virchow, the German Doctor, described it best when he said:

‘Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.’ (1)

Of course there are diseases that can only be fixed by looking inside our own bodies – diseases that come from within, that cannot be changed by any amount of control over one’s environment; Huntington’s Disease is one example.

But if you take a quick glance at the causes of mortality in both the USA and the UK, you will find that the majority of these diseases are significantly related to one’s lifestyle. The top leading cause of death in both the UK (3) and USA (4) is Heart Disease, which has very strong links with lifestyle, including smoking (5), a high-fat diet (6) and poor exercise (7).

In the past, when tuberculosis and polio wreaked havoc upon the population, the role of the doctor was to prescribe medication; to act as the priest who offered the gift of life through his knowledge and wisdom. Yet now, this power lies upon the patient. Our lives are no longer cut short by the plague, but by the pathways we choose to make while we are still alive.

The role of the doctor continues to change along with society. The doctor is the servant of the public. As our ailments in life continue to revolve around these pathways that we choose to take, so must the doctor focus her gaze away from the leaves of her prescription pad and begin to question the foundations of such paths; the reasons behind these choices, the thoughts and actions that lead a person towards their own destruction.

It is not enough to simply inform someone by saying ‘you need to do more exercise.’ Anyone who has made a New Year’s Resolution to do so will understand this. Even in the UK, a country where healthcare is free, one’s health is still dependent upon how much one earns. The richer you are, the longer you will live (8). How is it that in this day and age, this is still the case? Healthcare is a right. And as doctors, it is our duty to ensure this edict is followed. The politician may sit upon his throne and hand down his judgments, but it is the healthcare professional who is in contact day in and day out with the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Indeed, there are some excellent examples of attempts to try and balance this injustice within our society; free school meals in the UK which lead to improved nutrition in children (9) and the ban on public smoking to try and reduce passive smoking (10) are just two examples. These changes in legislation lead to the question: how much control should our government have over our own decisions towards our health? If someone wishes to smoke and drink all their life, then that is their right. Autonomy is one of the principles the doctor must follow; today’s healthcare system revolves around the patient and her choices. No longer does the doctor hold authority over the patient’s body. Yet this does not mean we cannot improve the world around us; we are still capable of building a healthier society, a society in which we will not only live longer, but be happier in as well. Free education and housing are two examples of societal changes that do not necessarily impose upon our personal rights, yet can lead to healthier childhoods and happier families.

Let’s say you are a single working mother – you are only just reaching your rent each month. You can only work part-time because you need to pick up your son from nursery every afternoon. You have no family who can look after him. This leaves little money for food, so you mainly feed your son. His diet is very poor, not only because of the little you can afford, but you yourself have never learned how to cook. Your own childhood consisted of fast food and the occasional apple or banana handed to you by a father who you rarely saw. You live in a very deprived neighbourhood. You cannot afford heating, and your son is constantly sniffling and coughing, hiding under his hole-infested jumper that you managed to grab from a local charity shop. You are isolated – your husband has left you, you have no one to talk to and your neighbours scare you. When you’re not working, you stay at home for your own safety, and ultimately for your son’s. You try to remain happy for your son. You want the best for him. But you are scared. You are scared for the future, you are scared about your next paycheck, you are scared about being burgled, being mugged, having your son taken away from you. You are scared about becoming a failure, of disappointing your son. You start drinking a glass of whiskey each evening to help you calm these anxieties. You gradually spend more and more money on alcohol, an attempt to grasp control of these spiraling criticisms that constantly call into question your ability to be a mother. But this does not always help. As the days turn to weeks, your thoughts begin to gain a voice of their own, almost screaming through your ears; you are a bad mother. A failure. Maybe you’d be better off somewhere else. Your son would have a better life without you. He wouldn’t have such an awful mother.
You eye the packet of paracetamol lying on the table. What would happen if you weren’t here? Wouldn’t your son lead a happier life? He would no longer have this dark mark tainting his existence. He might even be happy… What do you do?

In various points throughout this story, one could take out their pen and draw a mark where someone could have intervened. Not necessarily to offer medication or money, but things such as social support; someone to help look after the son in the afternoons, advice on how to apply for jobs, or housing in a more residential area. A helpful hand to hold on to during the darkest periods, a pat on the back, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen. How different would this story be if these simple interventions had been available?

It is very easy for us, the next generation, to caress our mobile phones and laptops that fit in both hands. It is easy to see the world as decaying pieces of rubble to improve, gadgets to insert, wires to wrap around and transform. No doubt this way of thinking has changed our healthcare; it has saved many lives. But we must never forget that humanity is not a machine itself. It cannot be controlled by our remote controls and our drugs; we must look further afield in order to truly appreciate the complexity of the human being. When we look at the human body, at a life that has been lived hard and is ending early, we see not genes that have played havoc, but decades of depression, underlying abuse, a cigarette to cope, a bottle of beer to forget. Addressing these problems is a task that requires us to go beyond our scientific skills. It requires us to understand the emotional lives of our patients.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” 
– Anne Frank


  1. (with acknowledgements to Siân Anis), J. R. A. (2006). Virchow misquoted, part‐quoted, and the real McCoy. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health60(8), 671.
  2. World Health Organisation. 2008. Inequities are killing people on grand scale, reports WHO’s Commission [Online[. Available at:
  3. Office for National Statistics. 2013. What are the top causes of death by age and gender? [Online]. Available at:–deaths-registered-in-england-and-wales–series-dr-/2012/sty-causes-of-death.html [Accessed: 13th October 2015]
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015. Leading Causes of Death [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2015]
  5. British Heart Foundation. Smoking [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2015]
  6. World Heart Federation. Diet [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2015]
  7. Myers, J. 2003. Exercise and Cardiovascular Health. 107:e2-e5
  8. Royal College of Nursing. 2012. Health Inequalities and the Social Determinants of Health. London: Royal College of Nursing
  9. BBC News. 2013. All infants in England to get free school lunches [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2015]
  10. Bauld, L. 2011. The Impact of Smokefree Legislation in England: Evidence Review. England: Department of Health

Featured image:
Human Genome by Richard Ricciardi