Dr. Seyed Saravi and Dr. Thomas Michel

Iranian Doctor Arrives In Boston To Do Research After 8-Month Travel Ban Delay

October 5, 2017

Barbara Howard: The Boston medical community relies on overseas talent for research breakthroughs. Last week, after an eight-month wait, Dr. Seyed Saravi arrived at Logan Airport. His visa had been suspended shortly after President Trump took office in the wake of the first travel ban. Saravi was to work on the effects of diabetes on the heart in the lab of Dr. Thomas Michel of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. And Dr. Michel is with me here in the studio. Thanks for coming in, Dr. Michel.

Thomas Michel: It's my pleasure.

Howard: So tell me about the work Dr. Saravi was being brought in to do.

Michel: Well he has particular expertise in understanding the factors that control the contraction of the heart. Specifically, studying the heart muscle in rats, and his expertise and the interests of my lab coincided very nicely. And when he sent me an e-mail requesting an appointment as a post-doctoral fellow, we began a long dialogue that ultimately led to his being accepted as a post-doctoral fellow in my lab.

Howard: Well, then there was an eight-month delay. He only arrived last week. Did that delay complicate things for your lab?

Michel: Without a doubt. And I think that there's a broader issue here, which is the whole effect of the suppression of interest in coming to the United States to pursue training and to have international scientific communication, which is a consequence of the travel ban and other statements made by the administration, which I think have a chilling effect.

Howard: Are you finding fewer people willing to come?

Michel: I think that that is beginning to be perceived. There has been a decrease in the applications at the collegiate level for students to come to study at U.S. universities, concerned about the current climate for foreign nationals, particularly those of color. And I think that it's only a matter of time before the shift in preeminence of American science away from these borders to other countries will be seen. And I think the impact will be very profound. American bio medicine traditionally has relied upon an exchange of ideas and of individuals across borders. Science knows no boundaries. There are, of course, issues of security, to which I'm not insensitive, but I think that their pursuit of knowledge and in the interests of health, is something that really should be an international endeavor.

Howard: Well you yourself, though, in your lab – how has that had an effect on you?

Michel: Well I think that it’s had, principally, a negative effect, and that the foreign post-doctoral fellows in my lab, some of whom are European and look like anyone else you might see, are actually themselves frightened that something may happen where their ability to pursue training might be undermined.

Howard: Are they less inclined to travel?

Michel: Without a doubt, anyone who's coming from a country that is affected by the ban is unable to travel. I know of several examples where students have chosen to go to other universities in other countries rather than come to the U.S. and perhaps be precluded from traveling home to see their families.

Howard: Now there were some other Iranian researchers who were mentioned who allegedly had connections to various militia and that sort of thing that seemed to have shut down their visas, but this wasn't true for Dr. Saravi.

Michel: Dr. Saravi had already undergone a very extensive vetting process before he even got his visa. It was eight months of background checks and of very thorough investigations by federal agencies. Indeed for Dr. Saravi, the actions of the courts served to, I think, in part result in the restoration of his visa. I also contacted my congresswoman, Katherine Clark, and senators Markey and Warren, and their offices were involved. I don't know exactly with whom and when. I also know that the publicity that this case brought when it was first made public that Dr. Saravi was going to be unable to come because of the suspension of his visa led to several lawyers and law firms offering pro bono services, and he was part of a class action lawsuit that helped restore his visa.

Howard: Tell me what it was like when you were at Logan Airport, when he finally stepped off the plane.

Michel: Well he had been anticipated by my lab and several other colleagues and we knew that it was going to be a bit of a delay from when the plane was expected to arrive and when he'd stepped through the doors into American territory, as it were. I brought along my accordion and we played patriotic songs and some Iranian songs. So it was a very exciting and upbeat time, and all the while I was keeping an eye out on the door to see when he might come through, because I'd never met him in person. We had had hundreds of emails and Skype conversations over the last year and a half, but I'd never met in person, so it was wonderful to see him.

Howard: So how is he doing now?

Michel: He is elated. He's excited and he's ready to go.

Howard: OK. Thanks so much for joining us, Dr. Michel.

Michel: Thank you.

Howard: That’s Dr. Thomas Michel. He runs a cardiovascular lab affiliated with Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Last week, after an eight-month wait, he was able to greet an Iranian doctor who was slated to do work in his lab, Dr. Seyed Saravi, at Logan Airport. 


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