“I’m not scared to apply any more,” Dr. Brandy Piña-Watson says, after having completed a coaching group session with the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). Piña-Watson is an assistant professor of counseling in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech University. There she studies how the psychological and sociological factors that impact depression among Latinx adolescents and emerging adults, with an emphasis among Mexican Americans.
Until entering the NRMN STAR (NRMN Steps Towards Academic Research Fellowship Program) coaching group, she had minimal exposure on writing an NIH grant. She hadn’t received training on how to write an NIH grant application at Texas A&M University, where she received her Ph.D. in counseling psychology. The focus there was on how to obtain tenure, not how to write a grant, Piña-Watson says. And at Texas Tech there was a dearth of researchers winning NIH grants, leaving no one to mentor her on the process.
Like others finishing their doctorates in STEM fields, Dorn Carranza had to decide what to do with his Ph.D. His answer came when he was approached by representatives of Coalesce Corp., a biotech firm, interested in commercializing his bio-organic chemistry doctoral work at Baylor University on DNA-based enzymes. Now he too steers science and engineering students into entrepreneurship by helping them commercialize their research ideas in two different endeavors.
The image of the entrepreneur is likely embedded somewhere between the cowboy and the movie star in the American psyche. Talk of the small businessman is a common refrain among politicians. It fits the national narrative of a people who pride themselves on taking risks and being self-reliant.
But it’s also the reason many born elsewhere come to the United States. The story of the immigrant as an entrepreneur is also a well-worn trope. From Scottish-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to Russian-born Google co-founder Sergey Brin, this country has welcomed and nurtured businesses founded by its immigrants. According to the 2007–2011 American Community Survey, 17.3 percent of high-tech entrepreneurs are U.S. immigrants despite comprising only 13 percent of the overall population.
Yet in today’s hyperpolarized political culture, some see immigrants as a threat to native-born Americans and their jobs. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has echoed and megaphoned this xenophobia as policy with a special focus on Latinx immigrants. “For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries),” the Trump campaign site says. Yet even the Trump campaign website acknowledges the need for more professionals, even Latinxs, in STEM. That desire ends, however, when those STEM workers are not originally from the United States.
More than Just Stories
Here are some Latinx STEM entrepreneurs are actively disproving Trump’s assertions against them. They have established their entrepreneurial credentials in this country, overcoming this very prejudice and disproving its erroneous foundations.
Carranza didn’t want to pursue a career in a tenure-track academic position. Nor did he want to take a position in so-called alternative science career tracks, involving policy, industry, government, or even nonprofits. The Peruvian native found his entrepreneurial niche in helping others pursue theirs by first founding the company Curium, which integrates young scientists on projects to provide hands-on entrepreneurial experience, and now in his role as a program officer for the “E-team Program” at the nonprofit VentureWell. The E-Team program provides early stage support via funding, resources, and know-how to prospective student entrepreneurs — from undergrad to postdoc — to push their innovations from the lab to the marketplace.
“The three-stage program provides grant funding, experiential workshops, veteran coaching and a potential investment opportunity to help teams manifest their projects’ full commercial potential,” the E-team website says. “Our faculty grants support the creation of new courses and programs in which students develop ideas and gain the skills to bring them to market.”
Antonio Ulloa, who hails from Mexico, has gone through that experience having built and sold his custom-built learning applications. Now he leads a company that creates ever-more accurate simulations of human brain processes. Founded in 2012, Ulloa’s company Neural Bytes takes data from MRI scan studies to simulate normal-functioning human brains. He had studied artificial intelligence and neuroscience going so far as a postdoc before then becoming a stay-at-home dad to help support his wife’s high-powered law career. Looking to return to a career in science, he applied for a second postdoc, but suffered some professional and personal setbacks, including a cancer diagnosis. On the mend after a recurrence of the illness, Ulloa then developed a startup that created mobile apps to improve the English skills of non-native speakers and also learning apps for children. While these endeavors weren’t monetarily successful, they provided the professional momentum he needed to overcome the dread and inertia that were holding him back at the time.
Ulloa first seriously considered starting his own venture as he was finishing up his computational neuroscience Ph.D. at Boston University, but he was intimidated by the need to create a business plan to start his enterprise. But he learned what he could about starting a company, including registering and developing a business plan, from government and business websites and his accountant, ultimately creating a limited liability company.
“I don’t have to follow a company line because the company line follows me,” Ulloa says. Working irregular hours — sometimes starting at 3:00 a.m. — allows him the flexibility he needs to prepare his children for elementary school. While he finds bookkeeping and preparing taxes are tedious — it takes up about 50 percent of his work time — he has found creating a concisely communicated business plan to be the hardest part of having his own business.
Saly Romero-Torres also enjoys the benefit of controlling her schedule. While at Pfizer, she was often traveling internationally, which took her away from her husband and young son. These days, she still travels frequently to meet with her customers, but it’s different now, she says. “I call the shots. I can say yes; I can say no.”
Almost two years ago, she decided to found a data-analysis startup called Bio-Hyperplane after having been a scientist at pharmaceutical powerhouses Merck and Pfizer. “I’ve always been business-oriented,” she says, so the decision to start an entrepreneurial endeavor was more of an evolutionary step than a revolutionary one. While pursuing her doctorate in analytical chemistry from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, for example, she took a two-year fellowship at the university’s Innovation Realization Lab, where she learned about intellectual property and entrepreneurial training. She also took courses specifically for scientists and engineers to earn what the university calls a “mini-MBA,” and while at Pfizer she did some business development work.
Romero-Torres came to the mainland to earn her doctorate after getting a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. She’s been living in the mainland ever since. Even when born here in the United States, Latinxs are not always seen as such. While U.S. citizens since 1917, Puerto Ricans occupy an odd landscape since they are often not seen as such. In a Economist/YouGov Poll taken this year just 41% of those surveyed believed Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Having already overcome initial feelings of inadequacy and culture adjustment when first arriving on the mainland, starting a new business still made Romero-Torres nervous. She worried about the responsibility of succeeding being solely on her shoulders. But the opportunity for independence drove her forward, and she doesn’t regret her decision. “Even though so much responsibility may sound scary, it is very empowering to know that you do have the control and full accountability on your work,” she says.
But there is not just one way to exercise scientific entrepreneurship. The bench scientist turning his or her research into a commercial application or venture is just one among many pathways available for someone considering entrepreneurship.
“Being an entrepreneur is a state of mind,” according to Marga Gual Soler. “If you don’t like your reality, change it.” She focuses on what she calls “intraentrepreneurship.” This involves developing a personal brand and finding value in soft skills — in her case being bilingual and “bicultural.” If you don’t yourself, others will define you, she says. Soler advocates self-invention, including writing your own job description.
The Spanish native felt isolated counting cells for days on end during her doctorate training as a cell biologist. Looking to get away from the lab, Soler sought out and secured entry into programs mostly foreign to scientists: the UN’s Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development and Georgetown University’s Global Competitiveness Leadership Program.
She is now project director for the Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS. If this sounds like a made-up job, that’s because it is. She created her own position. Solar uses scientific exchange to improve relations between the United States and less-than-friendly nations, like Cuba.
Soler believes the science community often operates from a position of privilege when it needs to make scientific knowledge more accessible to the public. The idea originated from a friend who hosted a poetry slam in her native Spain. So she hosted several “science slams” in Spain, Mexico, and Uruguay at museums and even a farmer’s market.
Disproving the Rhetoric
But what do these stories mean if Trump is elected president with his proposed strongly anti-immigrant policies? While his policy positions remain murky and mercurial, his feelings at least on immigration are clear. “The influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans — including immigrants themselves and their children — to earn a middle class wage,”according to a white paper entitled “Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again”
According to Forbes about 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies have been started by immigrants or their children. The business publication goes on to talk about a negative trickle-down effect taking a hard-line stance against immigrants would have on the U.S. economy. As risk-takers, immigrants are more likely to start businesses that add job opportunities to native-born Americans, not take them away.
But there has been little to parse about Trump’s stance on scientific issues, let alone how immigrants and foreign-born scientists would fit into his immigration plans, other than his statements about the H-1B visa. He stopped just sort of saying he’d end the program altogether, arguing it provided a cheaper alternative to U.S. workers. The Trump campaign site rails against the temporary pass provided for so-called highly skilled to work in the United States: “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
Trump’s incendiary rhetoric may be stirring but it’s far from true. The numbers themselves don’t add up. While there is no direct way to account for the numbers of foreign-born Latinx STEM entrepreneurs, some relevant numbers are. In 2009, 20 percent of STEM workers is foreign‐born, of which 36 percent are Latinx in 2009, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report. Latinxs made up 15 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2011 and seven percent of the STEM workforce.
No matter what you think of Trump’s intended immigration policies, rhetoric is at least misleading if not outright deceitful. When you dig into it, if he becomes president he would make the country less competitive scientifically and economically.
In the process of deciding what career path she would pursue, Karen Thickman, a full-time lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, participated in many informational interviews as a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. During one such interview a staffer at a scientific journal told her that people don’t get doctorates to work nine to five jobs. Despite that flexibility it’s not always easy to find that ballyhooed work/life balance.