Venezuela STEM talent overseas
In the 21st century, the intellectual capital and social capital are far more important for development than financial or monetary capital. Yet, within the past 30 years, and with trends increasingly accelerating in the last fifteen years, a small South American country like Venezuela has “exported” roughly 1.5 million people (about 5% of its total population). The majority of those who have chosen to leave the country for new lands are highly educated individuals. Thus, we can say that Venezuela is a country undergoing a sort of intellectual undercapitalization process – a national intellectual impoverishment.
Venezuelan emigration is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Venezuelan Community Abroad Project is a research initiative created to evaluate this new phenomenon. This project is being carried out by the Central University of Venezuela, the Observatory Hannah Arendt, and two French entities: the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and the École de Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Together, they have estimated the number of Venezuelan emigrants in 1.5 million. So far, using social media networks and other resources, they have been able to certify a total of 883,000 Venezuelan emigrants in 22 countries.
The infographic above shows the preferred destination of these validated emigrants – mainly to North America (US/Canada) and Europe (Spain/Portugal) – as well as their highest attained educational level. We can see that 58% have graduate degrees – PhD (12%) and Masters (46%) –, 36% have college degrees, 4% have technical associates degrees and 2% have only completed high school education.
Among these highly educated Venezuelan migrants, may are STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals who have met with uncommon success abroad. Yet, their success life stories are pretty much unknown. There are other studies that have estimated at more than twelve thousand the number of Venezuelan scientists, educators and technologists living overseas. There is a National Science Foundation study from 2001 –cited here– which estimated in approximately 9,000 the number of Venezuelan scientists and engineers living in the United States. Today, of course, this figure is much higher.
“Venezuelans are the 13th-largest population of Hispanic origin living in the United States, accounting for 0.5% of the U.S. Hispanic population in 2011 (259,000 people)”, this statement is from a Pew Research report. Yet, within the Latin and Hispanic communities in the US and Canada, their life stories are simply not known. Moreover, they are not even recognized nor celebrated as Latin/Hispanics with successful STEM careers. But it just happens that many of these Hispanics of Venezuelan origin are Ivy League university professors and research scientist or professors at other top Canadian and US universities, while many others are professionals carrying out important work for the US government or they work for information technology ventures, oil and gas companies, or international foundations and organizations.
Hispanics STEM professionals of Venezuelan origin – Tales of uncommon success
Why is it important to tell their life stories?
Here’s why these stories need to be more broadly known. Both in the US and Canada, Hispanics are poorly represented in science and technology (STEM) careers. Young Latino/Hispanics need to have a variety of role models to look up to and these scientists and technologists originally from Venezuela are excellent role models for Hispanic and Latino youth.
Let us then have a quick look at some of names behind these success stories. For example, few people realize that Rafael Reif, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a Venezuelan Electrical Engineer, or that Cristina Amon, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of Toronto, Canada, is a Venezuelan Mechanical Engineer. Among the scientists with highly cited papers in the scientific literature, there is one Venezuelan named Mario Vecchi with a paper listed (#86, according to a Nature report) among the 100 more cited papers in the history of the scientific literature. Mario Vecchi, who had a successful professional career, first, as an applied scientist with Bell Labs and, later, in the 1990’s, with Time Warners as a top business executive, early this year was appointed Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Another success story is Hugo Gaggioni, the current CTO of Sony Electronics who is also an electrical engineer from Venezuela.
There are many more. Up until a few months ago, the Senior Advisor on HIV Vaccines of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with responsibility for the establishment of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, was Dr. José Esparza, a biomedical doctor from Venezuela. Few people realize that, Andrés Gluski, the President and CEO of AES Corporation is also a Hispanic of Venezuelan origin, and few people know that, Pedro Pereira Almao the director of the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In Situ Energy (University of Calgary) is also a chemical scientist from Venezuela. At Princeton University, there is a world famous hydrologist, Professor Ignacio Rodríguez-Iturbe, winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, and a professor of civil engineering, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and grew up in the city of Maracaibo, Venezuela.
It is not widely known that among the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers there is a young Venezuelan physicist, Mayly Sánchez (Iowa State University), being recognized by President Obama for her contributions to the experimental research of the physics of neutrinos. Moreover, few people know that Venezuelan geologist, José Francisco Arata is the President of Pacific Rubiales Energy, an important Canadian energy company listed in the Toronto Stock Exchange, or yet consider that at Canadian universities and research institutes there are also many successful scientists and engineers from Venezuela in fields like Telecomunications and Computer Networks (Brunilde Sansó at Montreal Polytechnic) and Physics (Freddy Cachazo at Perimeter Institute). At Harvard University, Fernando Reimers, a Venezuelan psychologist and educator, teaches about the development of 21st Century skills. Ricardo Hausmann, the Director of Harvard’s Center for International Development, is an applied physicist and an economist from Venezuela. Few people have heard about Carolina Parada, a speech recognition and machine learning specialist, who directs the Hot Word Team of Google Inc. in Silicon Valley.
But not all stories are unknown. For instance, one Venezuelan, recognized in Canada as having an impact on society, is chemist Sophia Lavieri, Lecturer at Simon Fraser University, who was listed among the “10 Most Influential Hispanic Canadians” in 2014.
Sophie Lavieri came to Canada in 2000. She has a B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering (Universidad Metropolitana), a M.Sc. (Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas), and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry (Universidad Central de Venezuela) and with these credentials she was quickly hired at Simon Fraser University (SFU). She is the founder and director of Science in Action, “a free science outreach program that has, over the past 10 years, involved hundreds of volunteers and has reached thousands of kids, many of them from aboriginal communities and inner-city schools. Sophie has also secured over $4 million to build a science outreach centre and observatory that will rival Vancouver’s H.R. MacMillan Planetarium”.
The list of Venezuelan talents in science and technology is much longer. With few exceptions, they all have a common denominator: their migration and professional life stories are not known. How did they manage to get to where they are? What values and ethical principles helped them along the way, in their long journey to success
The VES Project
Last year, I started the VES Project in order to research and tell the life stories of about 50 people. VES is a Spanish acronym with a double meaning. When it refers to the emigration of Venezuelans overseas, VES means: Viajaron, Emigraron y Surgieron (they Travelled, Emigrated and Succeeded).
But this acronym has a second meaning. The scientific culture that produced all these STEM talents, now living in the US, Canada, and in other parts of the world, was, in great part, forged by European immigrant scientists and technologists who came to Venezuela– and by a few who came from Asia and countries of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay)– in the second half of the 20th century (1948-1978). They helped to build institutions and created a scientific culture in Venezuela from the late 1940’s onwards and were responsible for the training of many of Venezuela STEM professionals now living overseas. These, I believe, are another kind of stories also worth telling. Therefore, VES, when it refers to the immigration into Venezuela of scientists and technologists, means: Vinieron, Educaron y Sembraron (they Came, Taught and Sowed).
The VES Project is an independent research project. It needs funding to continue researching and writing life stories into 2015. If you like the VES Project and its life stories and want to support it, you can use PayPal to make a donation following this link below.
Proyecto VES is also in FACEBOOK
Slideshare (Presentation in Spanish)