Ashlesh Murthy, a former PhD student in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is used to facing pretty daunting odds – both in his scientific endeavors and his personal life. As a child from a middle-class family in Bangalore, India, he needed an extremely high score on a merit test just to be admitted to school in India where he earned his medical degree: In a year when 50,000 or 60,000 students from his state took the entrance test, he scored among the top 100, securing one of the relatively rare spots set aside for merit-based candidates.
So when he arrived in America to pursue a master’s degree in 2001, it was of little surprise that he once again tackled a Herculean project. Working with Professors Bernard Arulanandam and Guangming Zhong – immigrants themselves from Malaysia and China – Murthy began testing a new protein related to Chlamydia, trying to figure out if it could be made into a workable vaccine. “Scientists in the infectious disease community kept telling us, ‘This is never going to work. How can you even envision something like this?’” Murthy recalls today, chuckling. Within six years, Murthy had injected his vaccine into a mouse for the first time; by late 2008, the University of Texas had sold an exclusive license for the vaccine to the pharmaceutical giant Merck.
Murthy says he has no doubt his vaccine, which formally received its patent in early 2011, has created many American jobs. The infusion of funds that came into UT-San Antonio labs as a direct result of the Merck deal allowed the school to hire four more research staffers, and when Murthy relocated to Midwestern University last year, he hired a lab technician so he could continue vaccine work. Merck, for its part, says it cannot pinpoint the exact number of scientists working on the Chlamydia project, but one spokesman said “easily more than a dozen” people are involved in the effort. For Murthy, that’s a point of pride. “My mentor, Dr. Arulanandam, once said to me, ‘If you give me your 100 percent, I’ll give you my 200 percent,’” he says, “It motivates me to know that I’m not just responsible for my own job, but someone else’s livelihood too.”
His visa issues:
Murthy, the inventor of the Chlamydia vaccine, saw firsthand the Kafkaesque complications that can result from the current J-1 visa system. Because of the urgent nature of his vaccine work, Murthy was able, after six months of petitioning, to obtain a letter from the Indian government saying it would not require him to return home for two years after completing his research – something lawyers say can be very difficult to achieve. After receiving that letter of support, however, and beginning to apply for a formal waiver required from the U.S. State Department, Murthy was told by the State Department that it was unnecessary and that his particular J-1 visa had never required him to return home in the first place.
With that knowledge, Murthy changed his visa to an H-1B visa in 2009. When he went home to visit his family the following year, however, Murthy was stuck there for a month due to confusion over whether he should have been subject to the requirement he return home. University of Texas officials pulled out all of the stops to help Murthy return to Texas, including calling a local congressman and convincing the U.S. State Department to reach out to the embassy in Chennai to insist that Murphy be permitted re-entrance. At that point, getting Murthy back to Texas for ongoing Merck negotiations was critical. “I joke with friends,” Murthy says, “that to deal with the U.S. immigration system, it helps to make yourself indispensable!”