Outlier, outlaw, outcast: The improbable scientific career of Tamer Elsayed

Some 2 decades ago, Tamer Elsayed arrived in California from his native Egypt on a 6-month tourist visa. He was 18, penniless, and looking for a world-class education in the United States. And he was willing to do almost anything to get one.

Over the next 7 years he pursued a strategy—misguided, he now admits—aimed at leveling a playing field he believes is unfairly tilted against immigrants such as him. In 2000, his behavior finally caught up with him: He was arrested for student loan fraud, for which he pled guilty and served 15 months in a federal prison.

But Elsayed didn’t let that derail him. He had always been an excellent student—he had his 15 minutes of fame after scoring fifth among all high school graduates on Egypt’s national college admissions test—and he was determined to succeed in academia. And for a while he did: Six years after being released from California’s Lompoc Federal Correctional Facility in 2002, he received a Ph.D. in computational mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The next year he was hired as a founding faculty member at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate research university outside Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that opened in 2009.

But his academic success would prove to have an early expiration date. In March 2013, KAUST officials confronted him about his past, and a few months later he was booted out of the country. His research in computational solid mechanics ground to a halt; his personal life was also put through the wringer.

Now 39, remarried, and living in Budapest, Elsayed has just self-published an autobiography, Inadmissible. It is not your usual story of a life in science. In frank and poignant prose, Elsayed recounts his tightrope walk through the U.S. immigration system and his improbable ascent into the academic stratosphere before crashing and burning. He describes how his criminal conviction makes it unlikely he’ll ever work again as an academic researcher. Even more painful, he writes, is the inspiration for the book’s title: a permanent ban on returning to the United States, where his young daughter lives with his ex-wife.

This story, in four acts, is drawn from several conversations with ScienceInsider and from his memoir, which Elsayed has given ScienceInsider his permission to quote extensively.

Act 1: Educating Tamer

“I was desperate to get financial aid, and decided that the only way I could do it would be to create fake documentation that would prove my citizenship.”

Tamer Elsayed was jet-lagged after a 24-hour flight from Cairo when his second cousin and a friend picked him up at the Los Angeles airport in December 1993. On the roughly 50-kilometer drive home to his cousin’s apartment, Tamer noticed that their freeway lane was practically empty while all the others were packed. The lane was reserved for Egyptians, his cousin explained. “It was only later that I learned we had been driving in what was called the carpool lane,” he writes. Welcome to America.

Tamer’s plan to get an education required supporting himself, which meant getting a job. Apply at the McDonald’s where I’m working, suggested an Egyptian friend of his cousin’s. Tamer already had a Social Security card, obtained legally after convincing officials he needed one to obtain a driver’s license and open a bank account during his supposed brief stay in the United States. But it was stamped with the phrase “Not Valid for Employment.”

No problem, said the friend, who knew someone in downtown L.A. Within a few hours, Tamer had a fake Social Security card. It wasn’t legal, but it was enough to get him hired to the first of a series of minimum-wage jobs.

After living in southern California for a year, Tamer was able to qualify for in-state tuition rates at Chaffey College, a community college in Rancho Cucamonga. He quickly settled into a routine: Attend classes during the day and work the graveyard shift at a Mobil gas station, where business was slow enough to let him do his homework. “The job also had other perks,” he writes, “among them being the vast number of girls whom I was able to meet.”

  	Tamer pumped gas at this Mobil station while attending community college.

Tamer pumped gas at this Mobil station while attending community college.

Courtesy of Tamer Elsayed

In April 1997, Tamer began what he describes “as a whirlwind romance” with an 18-year-old woman who was preparing to graduate from high school. He was even more excited when she said she would marry him “and that I deserved to be in the U.S. She knew that if I married a U.S. citizen, I would become a permanent resident and could stay in the U.S.”

Their passion soon cooled, however, and within weeks of their September marriage the couple separated. But Tamer’s academic career was flourishing. In May, he had graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average from Chaffey, earning his associate degree in physics and mathematics. The next step, he hoped, would be a bachelor’s degree in engineering from nearby California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), Pomona. But cost was a huge obstacle: Students who weren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents paid 10 times the regular price of tuition.

Tamer knew that he couldn’t afford the higher tuition. But he didn’t know how long it would take federal officials to act on his marriage-based U.S. residency application. So he took another step over the line.

“I decided to fill out an application for federal student loans,” he writes. “I was aware that the loans were handed out only to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. At the time, I was neither. But the online application process didn’t have any boxes I could check. … So I checked the box that said I was a U.S. citizen.”

The U.S. government actually gave him a chance to repent, writing to him that it “had been unable to confirm” his citizenship status and asking him to bring proof of citizenship to the university’s financial aid office. That’s when Tamer took the final, fateful plunge. “I was desperate to get financial aid, and decided that the only way I could do it would be to create fake documentation that would prove my citizenship.”

Tamer convinced his cousin to lend him his citizenship papers, which he had received while serving in the U.S. military, and Tamer meticulously substituted his personal information and photograph. “As I expected, they accepted it without question,” he writes. He began classes shortly after the first loan payment arrived.

Tamer excelled at Cal Poly and even did an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on a project to improve a synthetic aperture radar antenna. He knew that his good fortune was based on a series of lies. But he also felt that he deserved a chance to make it. “I knew that playing only the cards I’d been dealt—being an Egyptian citizen without the financial means to achieve what I know I was academically qualified to achieve—would leave me with nothing,” he writes.

Soon Tamer pulled yet another trump card from his extralegal deck. Blocked from renting an apartment because of his poor credit rating, he applied for and received a new Social Security card. With it he was able to rent his own apartment and buy a decent used car.

His luck ran out early one Saturday morning in November 2000—just 6 months after receiving a so-called green card that granted him 10 years of permanent residency status in the United States. It was also a few weeks before he and his new fiancee were planning to have a religious marriage ceremony in Cairo (pending a divorce from his first wife, which didn’t actually occur until 2006).

But the U.S. government had other plans for him. “I was sound asleep when federal agents stormed my bedroom,” he writes. “I was not wearing my contact lenses, and I could not distinguish between the various faces in the room.” Three hours later, “I was well and truly in custody” at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A.

Act 2: Behind bars

Despite missing final exams due to his arrest, Tamer passed all four of his courses that quarter after the chair of the mechanical engineering department persuaded Tamer’s professors to base their grades on what he had already done. He had worked so hard that he managed a B in three of the courses and his cumulative GPA dropped only slightly, from 4.0 to 3.93.

Once he was incarcerated, however, survival skills took precedence over book learning. He learned to endure all manner of random violence, including a no-holds-barred wrestling match with a fellow inmate who blamed him for being bad luck in a card game he was watching, as well as predatory staffers, inedible food, and the loss of one’s dignity.

Of greater import was what Tamer learned about the U.S. criminal justice system. After pleading guilty and accepting a plea bargain that he was told would lead to 6 months in prison, Tamer listened incredulously in court a few weeks later as the judge handed down a sentence that was three times longer.

The sentence also has dire implications for his immigration status. Its length and the size of the fraud—he was ordered to repay $31,980—subjected him to immediate deportation. In addition, student loan fraud is considered “a crime involving moral turpitude.” Such felons are inadmissible, that is, not eligible to receive any type of U.S. visa to enter the country.

Act 3: Dr. Elsayed

“It was a miracle! I’d been admitted to the mechanical engineering graduate program and was granted a fellowship covering my tuition and a monthly stipend of $1800 per month.”

On 15 March 2002, Tamer walked out of Lompoc determined to resume his academic journey. The mechanical engineering department at Cal Poly agreed to readmit him, and by the fall he was taking the five credits he would need to graduate.

But finding a job wasn’t going to be easy, he soon learned. His criminal record was enough to scare away most potential employers. (It had already driven off his fiancee.) A part-time tutoring job at Chaffey helped pay the bills, but he wanted more.

One day he saw a flier at Cal Poly advertising a “grad preview program” at Caltech. To his surprise, the online application made no mention of having to disclose any criminal records. He was accepted, and the 2-day event in Pasadena convinced him to take a shot at earning an advanced degree. He decided to apply to a half-dozen of the top graduate engineering programs around the country.

Tamer was sitting in Chaffey’s satellite teaching center in Chino when an e-mail arrived from Caltech. “It was a miracle!” Tamer writes. “I’d been admitted to the mechanical engineering graduate program and was granted a fellowship covering my tuition and a monthly stipend of $1800 per month.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California also wanted him. “The only school that said no was Stanford, and it’s the only school that asked about my criminal history,” he tells ScienceInsider. “I think it’s pretty clear why they rejected me.”

He said yes to Caltech, and in September 2003 he moved into graduate housing. That’s when he got another reminder about how hard it would be to shake his past: His probation officer announced she would be stopping by to inspect his living quarters.

Worried about what his roommate and other grad students might think if they knew about his past, Tamer waited outside the dorm for 5 days—fortunately, classes hadn’t started—to intercept her and make sure the coast was clear. After assuring herself that there were no drugs or weapons in his 8-square-meter room, the probation officer gave Tamer the good news that his graduate stipend met the definition of a paid job. “Life was about to enter a stage of cruise control,” he writes, “and I was planning to enjoy the ride for as long as I could.”

Like many first-year students, he found the workload staggering—four problem sets a week, each one taking 10 to 15 hours, along with attending class and working in a lab. But it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. His private life was also on a roll. He had met a young woman who was attending Chaffey and in 2004 they were married into his Muslim faith. (Their civil marriage took place 2 years later.)

In October 2004, Tamer learned that his appeal of his sentence had been rejected, making him subject to deportation. The nonviolent nature of his crime, however, made it very unlikely that the government would hunt him down. Instead, he learned that he would be picked up only if he was arrested for another crime or made himself visible by, for example, seeking a renewal of his green card beyond its 2010 expiration.  

The news stiffened his resolve to finish his Ph.D. and keep going. “I had 6 years left in the U.S. while living legally to accomplish everything I could before my time ran out,” he writes.

And so he plunged ahead. After passing his oral exams and earning a master’s degree, Tamer began a project that models the behavior of soft materials such as polymers and biological tissue. The work went relatively smoothly, and on 8 October 2007 his adviser, Michael Ortiz, walked out of the room in which he just completed his defense, stuck out his hand, and said: “Congratulations, Dr. Elsayed.”

  	Tamer receives his Ph.D. degree from Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau (and now president of KAUST).

Tamer receives his Ph.D. degree from Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau (and now president of KAUST).

Courtesy of Tamer Elsayed


Act 4: KAUST and bust

“The [KAUST] job was my ticket out, and the money I would make would be enough to secure my family’s future.”

To the average academic, moving to KAUST meant placing a bet that a $20 billion investment and the promise of academic freedom could produce a world-class research university. Some say the bet has paid off handsomely, while others rue the day that they tossed in their chips.

Tamer was in a different situation. For starters, he didn’t really have any other attractive career options. He assumed that his criminal record would disqualify him from most jobs—either he would be asked to disclose it or a background check would reveal his conviction. And besides, he couldn’t stay in the United States legally after 2010.

In addition, KAUST’s offer of an assistant professorship was very attractive financially. Along with a $2 million research package over 5 years, Tamer would receive a $250,000 sign-up and relocation bonus and a tax-free annual salary of $180,000, plus free housing.

Those factors made KAUST the best available route to a successful scientific career. “The job was my ticket out, and the money I would make would be enough to secure my family’s future,” he writes. “I knew I could publish in reputable journals in my field and build a strong research group regardless of how the university functioned, unless they interfered with my professional space.”

In retrospect, Tamer writes, he never believed that KAUST would succeed. “It had a very noble cause: To bring back the science renaissance in Islam the way it had been from the 13th to the 16th centuries,” he writes. “[But] the idea of having an independent little utopia within the boundaries of an undemocratic monarchy was simply utter nonsense.” Still, Tamer says he remains extremely grateful to KAUST for offering him the chance to do science.

  	Tamer poses with his research group at KAUST.

Tamer poses with his research group at KAUST.

Courtesy of Tamer Elsayed

In return, Tamer built up a productive lab. He published more than 20 papers in peer-reviewed journals and won additional funding from KAUST in internal competitions designed to keep faculty members’ grant-writing skills sharp. He also served on several university committees that dealt not only with the usual problems of a startup, but also with the fundamental tensions between the king’s vision and the political and cultural realities in the kingdom. Those tensions also put a strain on his marriage. (He and his wife separated in 2011 and were divorced a year later.)

In March 2013 came a bolt out of the blue. Tamer was called to the main administration building to meet with two top KAUST officials. “They asked if there was something in my past that I needed to tell them about,” he writes. “I told them everything.”

Even as he spoke, he later learned, his ex-wife—who was a teacher at the elementary school on campus—was being fired “because she had known about my criminal past but had not told them.” After hearing his tale, the KAUST officials praised him “for what I’d been able to accomplish despite the hardships I’d experienced,” he writes. The meeting ended with a warning to keep quiet while the university considered its response.

A month later, he was called into another meeting and asked to resign. The reason? “Your presence in this country has become a threat to you,” one of the officials explained, “because you have had relations with local women.”

That was the final straw. The next month, Tamer gave up custody of his daughter and she and his ex-wife returned to L.A., and on 1 June he left the country. KAUST had offered him a 1-year, extendable adjunct professorship to continue supervising his Ph.D. students, he writes, but in December that contract was terminated. The school, he writes, also denied him access to all of the computer codes he had developed in his research program.

Coda: Budapest and beyond

Courtesy of Tamer Elsayed

Last month Tamer’s wife, a lawyer in a prominent Budapest law firm, gave birth to a baby girl, and Tamer says his U.S.-born daughter is looking forward to meeting her and being a big sister. But he says his academic career is on indefinite hold because of his record.

“I can’t go to Germany because they usually only hire from within,” he tells ScienceInsider. “I’m inadmissible in Canada as well as in the U.S. And it would be a hassle to get a visa to somewhere in eastern Asia, like Hong Kong, or Australia.” The quality of the Caltech faculty and the resources of KAUST have spoiled him, he adds. “I wouldn’t go to a medium-ranked university. I’m accustomed to a state-of-the-art research environment.”

In the meantime, he hopes that his book will educate the public about what he regards as “the flaws in the American justice system that mark felons for a lifetime of discrimination and the immigration laws that rip apart families.” Those policies exert a heavy toll on individuals who still have much to contribute to society, he tells ScienceInsider.

“Despite my accomplishments, no matter what I try to do, there’s a stigma that I’ll never be able to erase,” he says. “I’ll never get a decent professional job. Getting into science or engineering is very, very tough to begin with. And you’re putting these people in a corner and telling them: ‘You’re stuck there for the rest of your life, no matter what.’ ”

The book is also a form of self-therapy. “I want to get this load off my chest, and be free of having to live in secrecy and shame,” he writes. “If you want to know who I am and why I did what I did, read this book. And if you still want to judge me, then there is nothing more I can do.”