International Office Offers Guidance to Scholars, PIs

By Mika Ono

When Aravind Somanchi, research associate at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), went to the East Coast for a conference, he thought it would be a perfect opportunity to see a famous North American landmark, Niagra Falls. He arrived at the falls early in the morning. Wanting to get a good view, he traversed a small bridge, barely noticing that he crossed a slim line flanked by two unobtrusive flags, one U.S. and one Canadian, on the way.

It was only later, when Somanchi tried to return to his car, that he realized that he had inadvertently left the country. The only way back was through a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office. A citizen of India, Somanchi was carrying no passport, no visa, and no immigration documentation.

Somanchi left an urgent message with TSRI’s International Office.

“The INS officer said the only way I could cross back into the United States would be to have my workplace produce papers to show my status,” says Somanchi. "Within half an hour of opening, the International Office had faxed over not only employer’s papers, but also copies of my passport and immigration documentation!"

Somanchi was free to re-enter the United States and to return to his postdoctoral position in TSRI’s Department of Cell Biology.

The International Office offers guidance to the 800 to 1,000 international scholars that TSRI hosts each year and the prinicipal investigators they work with. The office helps select a visa category appropriate for each international scholar’s type of appointment, family situation, immigration history, and plans for the future. The office also double-checks documentation upon the scholar’s arrival, notifies scholars of upcoming visa deadlines, and routinely helps with emergencies such as Somanchi’s Niagra Falls crossing.

"We keep in mind that people come to us with issues that impact their lives," says Lina Quinsaat, director of the International Office, whose staff includes Administrative Specialist Lisa Rohr, Administrative Assistant Nancy Dorman, and Administrative Assistant Pamela Nitzling.

When a scholar first arrives on campus, Quinsaat sets up a one-on-one meeting to review documents and discuss the legal requirements of the stay. "A group orientation just isn’t effective enough," she says. "There is a lot of diversity among TSRI international scholars—in languages, nationalities, and visa types (which are each regulated by a different set of laws). When I meet with someone individually, I get a much better sense of whether he or she really understands the confusing but extremely important information I am presenting."

In addition to attending to legal requirements, the International Office offers international scholars help adjusting to life and work here. The office sends an orientation packet to scholars before they leave for the United States. Once scholars arrive on campus, further guidance is provided on such issues as finding a place to live, applying for social security, obtaining a driver’s license, buying insurance, arranging for a spouse to work, or helping to select or change a child’s school.

The office also offers organized programs, including:

  • An annual tax workshop where speakers from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the Franchise Tax Board give relevant information on filing tax returns;
  • English-as-a-second-language classes;
  • A support group called the Society of International Spouses, which offers the spouses of international scholars a chance to make friends, go on outings, hear speakers, and attend cooking classes.

Quinsaat, who has been with TSRI since 1978 when she worked as an assistant to TSRI’s founder and then-director Frank Dixon, understands from her own experience what some of the scholars and their spouses are going through. "I immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when I was seven," she says. "I remember what it was like." From that experience stemmed a childhood ambition to join the Foreign Service, a goal which Quinsaat feels she has met on her own terms through her work in TSRI’s International Office.

Many scholars are grateful for the International Office’s help years after they leave TSRI. Cornell University Assistant Professor Brian Crane, a Canadian alumnus of TSRI, notes. "Between my wife (who is French) and I, we’ve now had experience with the international offices of four different academic institutions. TSRI’s was the only one to remind us about visa deadlines and lay out potential immigration problems so we could prepare for different contingencies. I still rely on Lina’s sound advice."

Some principal investigators also see the International Office’s impact as long-term. "Lina and her staff are terrific," comments Molecular and Experimental Medicine Professor Francis Chisari. "They enable me to tap a reservoir of talent in Asia, Europe, South America, and Australia, despite the complicated requirements of the INS. They have also successfully resolved immigration issues so that some scientists who came to TSRI as postdocs could remain here as faculty members. The International Office helps the institute fulfill its mission—excellence in basic research."



The staff of the International Office—(from left to right) Lisa Rohr, Lina Quinsaat, Nancy Dorman, and Pamela Nitzling—provide practical advice to TSRI’s international scholars and their prinicipal investigators.















"The International Office helps the institute fulfill its mission—excellence in basic research"

—Francis Chisari