The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 26, 2010

Medical programs, scientific research bring new immigrants to area

BY RANDY GRIFFITH
RGRIFFITH@TRIBDEM.COM

— When Hai Hu was looking for a new opportunity, his expertise in developing computer software to study molecular biology brought him offers from top universities – and Windber Research Institute.

“I thought it might be very difficult for me to achieve at a larger institution,” Hu said.

“Here it was starting from scratch. The others would have been more defined positions.”

The native of China had been in the United States for three years when he came to Windber in 2002, passing up better-paying jobs. He is the research institute’s deputy scientific officer.

A hundred years ago, opportunities at coal mines and steel mills brought new immigrants to Johnstown.

Today, it is leading-edge medical programs and scientific research.

Memorial Medical Center’s skilled surgical staff and modern facility cemented the decision to come here for Drs. Justin Boccardo and Maria Paula Jofre.

“There are brand-new, state-of-the-art operating rooms, the latest technology, and they are not afraid to spend money to get what you need,” Boccardo said.

He is a general surgeon and vascular surgeon.

His wife is an internal medicine specialist. Both grew up and completed medical school in Argentina.

It isn’t just the technology that impressed him at Memorial. Boccardo said the strength of the surgical staff’s background helps all patients.

“I’ve been very impressed,” Boccardo said.

“They make us all look good.”

Coming here 20 years ago to help set up Memorial’s heart surgery program, India-native Dr. Rajsekhar Devineni quickly found a new home.

“The people here are more appreciative of what you do for them than anywhere else,” Devineni said.

“It has been very easy to fit in.”

WRI’s unique mix of molecular study, information technology and clinical research fit the bill for both George Iida and Leonid Kvecher.

A native of Japan, Iida was working in melanoma studies at the University of Minnesota in 2007 when he saw an ad for the institute’s  staff.

“I wanted to change my field to move to a more clinical area and to breast cancer,” Iida said.

Kvecher has a degree in computer science with a minor in chemistry. He was working for a bank when he found his way to Windber.

“I like the potential of this company,” Kvecher said.

“In the previous company, I was more of a system administrator. This position is more combined, with lab work and clinical data.”

Windber Research Institute did not set out to build an international workforce, but its work has benefited from the diverse backgrounds.

“Our policy is to advertise vacancies on a national and international level,” President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Kurtz said.

“We just pick the best candidate.”

As a result, WRI’s staff of 50 includes scientists and technicians from half a dozen different countries.

“That really brings strength to the organization,” Kurtz said.

“The culture of the training and the way they approach problems are very different. We definitely benefit from the culture of diversity.”

Its workforce illustrates one of this country’s shortcomings, Kurtz pointed out. It is almost necessary to go overseas to find experts in bioinformatics, or the use of computer technology in the study of molecular biology.

“Science is being trained and valued more in other countries,” Kurtz said.

“There are no bioinformatics master’s degrees offered in America.”