A Heart for Science: Minority Scientist Arif Elvan

Do immigrants experience different career challenges in the Dutch research system than their fellow researchers of Dutch origin? At a symposium held last week in Utrecht, the Netherlands' Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) launched a brochure, "Colourful Talent" ( Kleurrijk Talent), telling the stories of 20 researchers with immigrant backgrounds. Next Wave publishes here a translation of the portrait of Arif Elvan, a cardiologist at Utrecht University Medical Centre.

From his first year at university, Arif Elvan knew that he wanted to specialize in the electrophysiology of the heart: It was an area that would embrace his two preferred subjects, medicine and electrical engineering. "I enjoy understanding the logic behind certain mechanisms. Measuring and analyzing complex processes is very satisfying to me," he explains.

The transition from Vaassen--his home since he migrated from Turkey to the Netherlands at the age of nine--to the medical faculty of Utrecht University was, at first, quite substantial. "You need to acclimatise to life in such a university town. And I managed that only after I moved into a student house," he says.

From the beginning Arif was more attracted to serious students than to revelers. "I've always been a keen student," he admits. This was a trait that had already proved beneficial several years previous, when he had to show that he was ready for the comprehensive secondary school, which prepares students for university studies (VWO). "With hindsight it seems strange that the school's advice was contradictory to my above-average admission test (CITO). But then, at that time, there where not that many immigrant children and for most of them, MAVO or LBO [two types of school education that prepare students directly for a professional training] were considered a real accomplishment. Possibly the fact that I had not yet mastered the Dutch language so well also played its part."


Arif is now a cardiologist in training at Utrecht University Medical Center (UMC). Looking back, he finds that what is most important for a successful school career is associating with well-performing peers, "Even more important than a good command of the Dutch language."

Accordingly, the young specialist is also convinced that a social network in academic circles is of great importance, especially for immigrant students, whereas it is often this group in particular that has to do without such networks. For that reason, Arif was active for a long period of time in the Sanitas foundation that coordinates the mentorship of hundreds of immigrant students by immigrant medical doctors and PhD students. "They are mentored in writing articles and are allowed to present their PhD research to a critical audience that gives valuable feedback. I believe that this approach is enormously stimulating."

To his regret, Arif has seen too many of his immigrant peers drop out. "They often try to participate, going clubbing during the first year, to be part of the group. But since most of them still live at home, they see the other side of the student life less often: cramming long nights for an examination. And once they are behind, the message they usually get from their home environment is that it would be better to choose a profession where they can make money right away."

Research has a negative image among immigrants, particularly because your financial future is insecure. The attractive parts remain underexposed. A pity, thinks Arif: "The entry of immigrant researchers might be a breakthrough in the biased view of immigrants. Additionally they can contribute to solving multicultural questions with their own research."


Due to his good study results, Arif got a VSB scholarship for the United States in 1993, where he wanted to do an internship. Soon after his arrival in the U.S., he won a competition organized by a renowned research journal with an "original and innovative paper" he had submitted. The subject of that paper also became the basis for his PhD research, which he finished in just two and a half years. "In the beginning my family was asking what I was up to, but when it all went so well, even our neighbours from Vaassen were proud of me." Arif developed a new treatment for cardiac rhythm diseases that is now applied in clinics. "With high-frequency radiation, a lesion is created in a certain tissue area. The little scar that emerges blocks interfering signals that disturb the heart rhythm."

"I don't think that I am so special, but I believe that I live in a special time. I could build on a series of developments and I have plenty of opportunities to discover new things. Additionally I had a top PhD supervisor. A professor with a good reputation and a matching network can have a strong influence on your career. Such a person has built up an enormous infrastructure and expertise that can be a useful leg up to a successful research career. My American professor was so busy that he outsourced several things: 'You might want to write this chapter for that book.' Already as a child I was urged to discover things and to shift borders. Research is addictive. However, I'm convinced that you need to have the internal drive for it. If it doesn't come from the bottom of your heart, you had better leave it."

"I don't deny that there is a certain barrier for minority scientists," Arif Elvan concludes, "but once you have overcome it, your origin doesn't matter any longer. Then you have to prove your worth as a scientist--just like everybody else."

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