5 Immigrants and Refugees Who Changed U.S. Science

The U.S. has a long history of providing safe haven for scientists and has welcomed immigrants who wish to contribute to the U.S. commitment to the pursuit of scientific truth. 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #224

The U.S. outspends all other countries, as well as the entire European Union combined, in total dollar amount put toward research and development. The U.S. also produces the most scientific publications of any country and is home to many of the top-ranked universities for the study of science and engineering. This reputation has been and continues to be due in large part to the contributions of immigrant and refugee scientists.

For example, in 2016, there were six scientists from the U.S. who won a Nobel Prize and all six were immigrants. Sir Fraser Stoddart, originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”. David Thouless and Michael Kosterlitz, both from Scotland, along with Duncan Haldane of England, earned the Nobel Prize in Physics “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Oliver Hart of England and Bengt Holmstrom of Finland “for their contributions to contract theory.”

According to the National Science Foundation, 49% of mid-career scientists and engineers in postdoctoral research positions who obtained their doctorates in the U.S. immigrated from other countries. In a separate report, NSF determined that, as of 2013, 18% of the STEM researchers and engineers in the US are immigrants. This total includes nearly 3 million scientists from Asia, over 800,000 from Europe, over 300,000 from Africa, and over 1 million from Canada, the Caribbean, and Central or South America. Immigrant scientists and engineers are also more likely to have earned an advanced degree than their U.S.-native counterparts.

Let’s look at five immigrants and refugees who have left their mark on the study of science in the U.S..

Hedy Lamarr

Born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, Hedy Lamarr was well-known for her work as a film star from the 1930s to the 1950s. In 1938, Louis Mayer of MGM studios, offered her an acting contract in the U.S., which she accepted in part to escape her very controlling first husband. In the U.S., Mayer promoted Lamarr as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” She was also an inventor.

Together with the composer George Antheil, she developed a frequency hopping technique that would prevent the radio signals guiding Allied torpedoes from being jammed (and thus redirected) during World War II. By continuously changing the torpedo guidance signal at regular intervals, the Navy could prevent those signals from being intercepted. Lamarr and Antheil patented their spread spectrum technology in 1942, but it wasn’t until the 1960s when the U.S. Navy officially adopted their invention during the Cuban missile crisis.

In her controversial autobiography, Lamarr suggested that her first introduction to military technology came from attending meetings with her first husband, an ammunitions dealer who had ties to Mussolini and the Nazi government in Germany. In her movies, she was often typecast as the exotic beauty with only few lines and so was rumored to have taken up inventing to relieve her boredom with such simple roles.

Lamarr’s spread spectrum technology is now used in modern wi-fi, CDMA (code division multiple access), and Bluetooth systems. Lamarr and Antheil were both inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Elon Musk

Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Elon Musk reportedly taught himself computer programming at the age of 12. After starting his degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Musk transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 where he soon earned Bachelors of Science in both Physics and Economics.

Musk is an entrepreneur, an inventor, and an engineer who is perhaps best known for being the founder, CEO and CTO of SpaceX and the co-founder, CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors. SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, aims to advance the field of rocket technology and has achieved such firsts as the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to put a satellite into Earth orbit (Falcon I), the first commercial company to launch and berth a vehicle on the International Space Station (Dragon), and the first time the first stage of an orbital rocket has returned to land back on the launch pad. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have replaced the now retired U.S. space shuttle, and NASA has awarded contracts to SpaceX to develop the capability of transporting U.S. astronauts as part of the Commercial Crew Development program.

Many of Musk’s designs are aimed at mitigating global warming through sustainable energy practices, including the electric car. His company Tesla motors has worked to improve the range limitations and affordability of electric cars. To encourage other automobile manufacturers to also engage the electric car market, Tesla also shares their technology patents. Musk has earned many honors, including the Royal Aeronautical Society’s highest award, the gold medal, and the 21st spot on Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people in 2016.


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.