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Albert Korir: Immigrated from Kenya to Pursue Molecular Research

http://ozarkspub.vo.llnwd.net/o37/KSMU/audio/mp3/albertkori_3954.mp3

Albert Korir was born in a town in western Kenya. He was one of eight children, and he walked four miles to school each day…and back again.

"Football was one of our favorite sports. We had to make it ourselves from polythane bags and plastic bags," he said.

In the summertime, he and his siblings would retreat to the family farm, where he helped his grandmother and cousins take care of the cows, goats, and sheep.

"We didn’t have water on our farm. So either you had to dig a well or go to the river and fetch the water. So we would take our cattle to the river to have a drink of water. That never used to be a problem to us. It was just part of the excitement of being there," he said.

It was when he entered high school that he discovered what would become his passion in life: chemistry.

So, young Albert began to dream of molecules, of finding cures for diseases and of trying to sequester tiny amounts of matter for research. But he soon realized his dreams would not become a reality if he were to remain in Kenya.

"We have very good science teachers at the high school level. I’m talking about Kenya. but as we get to the university level in Kenya, we’re very limited. For example, in chemistry, you need instrumentation. And mostly, these instruments are very expensive. And in a nutshell, you don’t get to do the research you’d be interested in," said Korir.

So, Korir set his sights on becoming a chemist—one who could use his knowledge and skills to make a difference in society. Now, all he needed was a venue.

"Back in Kenya, we know the United States as the 'Land of Opportunity.' So, this is a place I knew would give me an opportunity to look for the school I wanted, to look for the program I wanted, and to choose a career that I wanted. And I didn’t have enough money coming here, but I had been told about scholarships—that if you did well, you could get scholarships," he said.

Eventually, he ended up at the University of Kansas.

He said at first he felt far behind everyone else—his computer skills and experience with tools were lacking. But a mentor in the Chemistry department at KU took him under her wing.

“And so she said, ‘If you are determined, you will make it.’”

Several years later, he did make it--he earned his Ph.D. And now Dr. Korir has just completed his first semester teaching chemistry at Drury University in Springfield.

The National Science Foundation says about one in every six scientists and engineers in the United States is an immigrant. Immigration-rights groups often cite this aspect in their efforts to ease the naturalization process in the US, which as of now can take anywhere between six and twenty years to become a US Citizen.

Meanwhile, immigration-reform groups have expressed concern that foreign-born scientists and engineers may be taking jobs away from US citizens, who may not be as accepting of the long hours and strenuous working conditions some jobs require.

After his class at Drury one day, a couple of students approach Albert Korir and ask if they can help him with his research next semester. His research will focus on a group of molecules in the body—important sugar molecules that are known to bind to proteins, where they facilitate different processes. One of those processes is the spread of cancer.

Korir aspires to understand how those sugar molecules interact with the proteins. But to know that, he has to first understand the structure of those molecules. And that requires tiny amounts of material. In the realm of Chemistry, keep in mind, a milligram is a lot.

"What we’ve done in my research previously is to build what we call probes. They’re called micro-coil probes. Small scale—that can analyze quantities that are 100 times less than you would typically analyze," he said.

Long term, Korir hopes to use his research to develop medicine that would ultimately prevent the spread of disease, including cancer.

"Best case scenario that everything goes well is for me to be able to specifically identify that this is the part of the sugar molecule that interacts with what they call chemo-kinds. And to know the exact structure, because that would then allow you to engineer a drug that has very little side effects. And that would be a major contribution to society," he says.

Korir says his experience in immigrating to the United States has made him grateful for his opportunities, and he wants to pass that along.

"I’m very thankful to my blessings, and this is a way of really giving back. I hope in the future, someone will be thankful that they learned something from me. So, I’m paying back for that scholarship," he says.

Korir’s seven siblings are all still in Kenya. The last time he went back to visit them was in 2003. And for old times’ sake, he drove out to the family farm, and led the cattle back to the river.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community, I’m Jennifer Moore.