der Weg des Leidens. This phrase, written on a piece of dusty brown paper, is buried among thousands of archival records at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) in Maryland. Albert Einstein’s signature at the bottom caught my attention. Literally translated as “the road through suffering," Einstein wrote this German phrase in a 1947 note describing his belief that suffering was the only road to true human greatness.
This was one of the many gems I discovered while surrounded by old and rare scientific works, lined up in stacks that could fill football stadiums. With the scent of old paper constantly prickling my nose, I spent last summer visiting the NLM as a fellowship recipient in the history of medicine. But because of visa complications, I almost never stepped foot in the library.
As an international student, I came to the U.S. for the first time eight years ago, when I was 18, to study biology and math. In pursuit of education, I’d left behind family, friends, and more. In December 2017 — less than a year after President Trump issued his executive order banning extended visits from residents of predominantly Muslim countries — I went home to India to get my student visa renewed. Little did I know that my weeklong trip was about to turn into a three-month exile.
When my visa application was denied on unclear grounds by the U.S. consulate, for several days I could barely contain the nausea in the pit of my stomach. At a time when efforts to decrease legal immigration to the U.S. are rampant, that winter felt extra cold. Would I ever be able to resume my education?
Seeking comfort, I turned to the experiences of other immigrants who overcame obstacles to pursue science. As I began reflecting on life as a foreign scientist in the U.S., I came across a unique opportunity: an NLM history fellowship would allow me to learn about scientists’ struggles while being "outsiders.” This possibility intrigued me. To keep my intellectual faculties working, I applied.
To my surprise, I learned at home in India that I had won the fellowship. Despite missing much of my spring semester, I was later able to resume graduate studies thanks to heroic efforts from my mentors and support from the office of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. Fast forward a few months, and I found myself submerged in historical records. I resurfaced with a new outlook. From the past work of scientists like me, I learned that despite differences of nationality, culture, or academic discipline, three common principles drove much of their success.
First, focus on the rigor of your work above all else. Marie Curie lost her husband when she was 38, but her determination did not stop her from conducting pioneering work in radioactivity while raising two daughters. It is easy to feel lost in traumatic times, but such times often allow rediscovery of self. When I first came to the U.S. seven years ago, everything was foreign. But before I knew it, in nurturing mentors and caring friends, I had found a new family. Last winter, the fate of my physician-scientist training was hanging in the balance. Yet, intellectual adventures kept me going and led me to the NLM.
Second, be vocal when the situation demands it. I read through hundreds of letters exchanged between medical luminaries of the 20th century and noticed how clear communication can unite scientific thought across boundaries. This lesson helped me navigate linguistic diversity in my own lab, which hosts several international scientists. The NLM experience motivated me to discuss our different cultural backgrounds and struggles with my colleagues. We began interacting outside the lab, discussing the challenges international scientists face because of English’s dominance in the field. These conversations helped soften barriers between us; now my colleagues routinely translate jokes from Mandarin into English so I can understand, too.
Third, history holds a special place for scientists who continually push themselves. Some of the most famous scientists we’ve ever known, including Curie and Einstein, did their initial groundbreaking work outside English, in languages including French and German. Despite being mocked for their accents, these scientists, focusing on and advancing their scientific ideas, ultimately prevailed.
Without the barriers I faced last winter, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to visit the NLM and expand my horizons. My transitions in feeling “belonged,” going from being an outsider to creating symbolic families, have been slow and arduous. Despite the challenges, though, I’ve learned from the international scientists who came before me and were undefeated by the prejudice that came their way.