the first DACA Rhodes Scholar

Congratulations to Jin Kyu Park, who was named last week as the first DACA immigrant to become a Rhodes Scholar. The Rhodes Trust changed its rules because of him. Previously, only US citizens were allowed to apply for the Rhodes. In the spirit of DACA, it seemed like Dreamers should also qualify, and Harvard encouraged him to apply last year to force the issue. Though that application was rejected as non-qualifying, the Rhodes trustees subsequently voted in favor of changing their rules to allow DACA recipients to apply, and he was invited to reapply this year, this time successfully.

I was proud to co-write one of his letters of recommendation both times. Jin, a Molecular and Cellular Biology major, took my course MCB 112 Biological Data Analysis, and he also took Elena Rivas’ course MCB 111 Mathematics in Biology. Elena and I wrote a joint rave review letter to the Rhodes. It started with something like ‘he is one of the most impressive individuals we have ever encountered in our careers’ and ended with something like ‘we hope to have the chance to vote for him for President someday.’ What with his DACA status, the latter would require one of the Articles of the Constitution to be amended, but we didn’t say any of this lightly.

I am writing this at my parent’s kitchen table in rural western Pennsylvania, with my large family gathered for Thanksgiving. I just noticed that Breitbart has picked up the story. Both the Breitbart headline [‘Harvard-Backed Illegal Alien Becomes First DACA Rhodes Scholar’] and the comments are what one might expect. Well, I’m one of the supposedly effete Harvard liberal professors who backed Jin’s application. But I grew up here in rural coal mining country. My values are western Pennsylvanian values.

It’s true that the Harvard faculty skew left and affluent. I’m frequently conscious of being somewhat out of place on the faculty. (I’m sure there’s plenty of us faculty who feel out of place at Harvard for one reason or another.) Not just at Harvard, but amongst science “elites” in general, I have certainly experienced some “liberal professor” caricatures occasionally. I’ve had more than one sleek, affluent, private-school-educated colleague tell me that the problem with this country is that rural working Americans are stupid. This sort of crap pisses me off as much as it would piss off anyone else from a place like Creekside, Pennsylvania.

I was raised to treat people as individuals, with honor and respect. Jin Park is an extraordinarily talented and hard-working student. I believe that regulation of legal immigration is a core function of government (yeah, and I believe in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a strong military too) but Jin wasn’t responsible for the decision to come here from Korea; he can’t help that his parents brought him to this country illegally when he was 7. He grew up here, pretty much like I grew up here. I was given the opportunity to rise through the system, with some things working unfairly for me (white male) and some things working against me (didn’t grow up affluent, no fancy private school education, will never ever be sleek). Jin’s illegal immigrant status is something that’s working against him, but he’s worked damn hard to succeed. He worked his butt off in my class, and in Elena’s. He’s a nice guy too. He deserves every chance to rise in this country, as much as any of us. If we help him, like we would help anyone as extraordinarily well qualified as him, our country will be better off for it.

Because of where I came from, I consider it one of my jobs on the faculty at Harvard to look out for rural Americans with backgrounds like mine; and because of my values, I also consider it one of my jobs to look out for stars like Jin.

Graeme Mitchison

Astronomy began when the Babylonians mapped the heavens. Our descendants will certainly not say that biology began with today’s genome projects, but they may well recognize that a great acceleration in the accumulation of biological knowledge began in our era.

Graeme Mitchison wrote those opening lines of our book¬†Biological Sequence Analysis¬†in Richard Durbin’s parents’ house in London. We four coauthors had borrowed the house for a month to write together, knowing that we had to get Richard out of the Sanger Centre or no progress would be made. The living room looked like a spy ring’s safe house, drapes drawn and full of improvised desks, computers, printer, and papers. We paired off in warring alliances to write, to cook, to argue, and to take long walks on the Hampstead Heath to cool down. At one point over a late dinner and wine, Anders Krogh proposed that one could make a hidden Markov model to recognize each of our writing styles. Richard proposed that mine could be recognized trivially by a high emission probability of the word “simple”. I recall snapping something back. I was struggling to draft our introduction and feeling defensive. At some point Graeme took it from me and in a few strokes replaced my clumsy efforts with the chapter that began with the beautiful lines above.

Continue reading →

In memoriam.


Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.

— Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

I regret to announce the untimely death Monday morning of Michael Farrar, principal software engineer for the Eddy lab. Michael was a critical part of our lab and an extraordinarily talented colleague. The lab is stunned. He is greatly, greatly missed. This will of course impact the HMMER3 development roadmap and our lab’s plans for the future. I will discuss business at some later time. Our thoughts now are with Michael’s wife and his three children.