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A security review drags on, devastating a scientist and derailing cutting-edge work

“Basically, I lost everything here,” scientist Heng Zhu said of his year in diplomatic limbo. 
Photo by John Curtis
“Basically, I lost everything here,” scientist Heng Zhu said of his year in diplomatic limbo.

As a scientist, Heng Zhu, Ph.D., is used to dead ends, setbacks and roadblocks. But nothing prepared him for the obstacles he would encounter this past year when he tried to renew his expired visa and continue working as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.

“It screwed up my life totally,” said Zhu. “I wasn’t able to work for a year, and I lost my fellowship.” Without an income, Zhu also lost his apartment and car, and his credit rating was ruined. Because he was stranded in China for months, he and his fiancée broke up.

Zhu’s troubles began in March 2002, when he realized he had let his work visa expire. Returning to his native China to renew it, he wound up languishing in Beijing for a year while the State Department did a security review. He was finally allowed to re-enter the United States in mid-April of this year.

Zhu, 35, became mired in the quicksand of heightened security measures implemented after the September 11 terrorist attacks. His case drew national attention, in part because his delay was longer than most, but also because his work is groundbreaking and well-known.

“He invented a whole new technology that has enormous value for understanding basic biological processes,” said Michael Snyder, Ph.D., chair of Zhu’s department. Snyder said Zhu developed a method to study the function of all 6,300 proteins encoded in the yeast genome. Zhu’s work, likely to aid drug discovery efforts, yielded a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

When Zhu got stranded in China, Snyder and others circulated a petition, wrote to congressional representatives and called the State Department, all to no avail. The State Department doesn’t respond to questions about particular cases, said Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesperson Stuart Patt.

At Yale Zhu is not alone. According to Ann Kuhlman, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, about 20 foreign undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and faculty members experienced visa delays during the 2002-03 academic year.

Zhu finally renewed his visa and returned to New Haven—but not for long. Late in the summer, as his postdoctoral position at Yale came to an end, he accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins.

Although he’s back in the United States and his career is back on track, Zhu will never recover the time he lost at Yale. “I can’t turn back the clock—that’s the bottom line—which is a loss to Yale and the United States as well as to me.”