Every fall, winners are announced for prestigious awards like the MacArthur Foundation Fellowships (colloquially referred to as “Genius Grants”) and the Nobel Prizes. The lists of recipients each year highlight a well-spring of talent based in the United States. They also highlight just how often global mobility and immigration play a role in sustaining this stellar track record of accomplishment.

The 2011 MacArthur Fellows, announced on September 20, are a cross-section of talent based in the United States from all sectors – exemplary scientists, scholars, researchers, writers, artists, composers and other creative professionals. Recipients receive $500,000 each, no strings attached – a remarkable award, particularly considering that the recipients do not know they have been nominated until they get the call that they have won. As in prior years, many of this year’s winners are either children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, such as:

  • Jad Abumrad, co-host and producer of the nationally-syndicated radio show, Radiolab (WNYC Radio), is the child of Lebanese immigrants and grew up in Tennessee.
  • Shwetak Patel, an assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Washington, is the child of Indian immigrants and grew up in Alabama.
  • Markus Greiner, an associate professor of physics at Harvard University, was born and raised in Germany before coming to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow in 2003.
  • Elodie Ghedin, a biomedical researcher and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was born and raised in Canada before coming to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow in 1998.
  • Dafnis Prieto, a jazz percussionist, was born and raised in Cuba before coming to the United States in 1999.
  • Yukiko Yamashita, an assistant professor in developmental biology at the University of Michigan, was born and raised in Japan before coming to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow in 2001.
  • Ubaldo Vitali, a fourth-generation silversmith, was born, raised, and educated in Italy, before moving to the United States in 1967 and founding his own workshop.

This year’s Nobel Prize recipients, announced earlier this month, also showcase the positive impact of immigration and global mobility:

  • Ralph Steinman, co-winner of the prize for medicine (who passed away just prior to the Nobel announcement but will receive the award posthumously), was born and raised in Canada before coming to the United States to study medicine at Harvard University in the mid-1960s . At the time of his death, he was the Henry G. Kunkel Professor at The Rockefeller University and a senior physician at The Rockefeller University Hospital, both located in New York City.
  • Daniel Schechtman, winner of the prize for chemistry, is an Israeli national and a professor of materials science at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, but it was while on sabbatical during the 1980s at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards and Technology in Washington, DC, that he made the discovery that won him the Nobel. Shechtman also spends part of the year as a professor and researcher at the Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University.
  • Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president; peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia; and Tawakul Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner from Yemen, shared this year’s peace prize. Sirleaf earned an accounting degree at Madison Business College, in Madison, Wisconsin, a degree in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Gbowee earned a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. And Karman is a recent alumna of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, participating in an investigative journalism project in 2005.
  • Brian Schmidt, co-winner of the prize for physics, was born in Montana and raised in Alaska but lives and works in Australia.

The recipients of the MacArthur Fellowships and Nobel Prizes illustrate the point that America’s “talent” is not only homegrown, but also global and mobile. Global talent mobility is the norm in this century, yet too often our national policies do not reflect this. We need education policies that prepare young Americans to succeed as part of a global workforce. We also need immigration policies that attract the international talent necessary to sustain the social, intellectual, and economic strength of our nation.