Jonas Korlach, a United States-based biochemist, says that as a young man, he never would’ve predicted the path his life would take in adulthood. Growing up in East Germany, he was just 16 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, opening up a whole new universe just 15 minutes from his doorstep. And as a scientist with dreams of working on the cutting edge, his sights quickly turned toward the United States. “I was very intrigued by the power of the U.S. university system and the scale of research that was going on there — it was like nowhere else in the world,” Korlach reflects today.
After several visits to the United States for internships or exchange programs, Korlach moved to America permanently at age 24 to enroll in Cornell University’s PhD program for molecular biology. While in Ithaca, he discovered a technology that allowed scientists to read the entire human genome faster than had ever been done before. The machine that resulted from that is now the capstone of an entire company: Pacific Biosciences, a firm that reported revenues of almost $34 million in 2011. The company employs 285 people, most of them based in Menlo Park, California.
Jonas Korlach’s story is indicative of what so many of today’s foreign-born STEM graduates have to endure to remain in this country. Despite the fact that he helped invent the fastest machine in the world capable of scanning an entire genome, a United States congresswoman had to speak up on his behalf to help him receive a temporary residency visa in 2004, and he only just received U.S. citizenship. “I felt so humbled and honored to have [the Congresswoman’s] support,” Korlach says today, “but I wonder what happens to all the foreign students who aren’t as lucky as I am.” The answer: They form an ever-growing reverse brain drain, something the United States must take strong steps to reverse.