Profile: Marina Protopopova

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1283
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1283

Country: Russia

Field: Chemistry

Workplace: Sequella Inc.


Fourteen years ago, organic chemist Marina Protopopova left her Moscow laboratory for a brief sabbatical in the United States—and never returned. “I was having such a good experience, and I kept saying: ‘I'll stay just a little bit longer.’” Three years into her extended absence, the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Zelinskii Institute cut her loose. “My mom was more upset that I was fired than I was,” she says. “I've had an awesome experience here.”

Born in Siberia and trained at Moscow State University, 44-year-old Protopopova now lives in suburban Maryland. Her journey began with an invitation from an American collaborator in San Antonio, Texas. “I came with $30 in my pocket, but everyone was incredibly supportive,” she says. Still, “the first 3 months were exhausting” due to language barriers. “I didn't even get a telephone because it was too tiring to understand [callers].”

What sold her was the scientific culture. “In Russia, we had these brilliant academicians, but they never gave open lectures like they do here,” she says. That openness outweighed the provincialism of some of the students. “They didn't even know there was an ocean between [the U.S.] and Russia,” she says in amazement.

After teaching and corporate chemistry stints in Illinois, Protopopova followed her husband—an American academic—to Maryland. In 1999 she joined Sequella, a Rockville, Maryland-based biotech company that is developing tuberculosis drugs. Now the firm's director of chemistry, she heads a multinational team that includes several Russians. There's “absolutely no way” she could do similar work at home, she says.

The mother of two young children, Protopopova has applied for U.S. citizenship. Her only regret is the distance from her parents and relatives. “Siberia really is on the other side of the world.”

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