A Timely Recognition of Immigrants' Contributions to American Arts and Sciences

Long before Dr. Jan Vilcek helped develop one of the best-selling pharmaceuticals in the world, he was an 11-year-old boy hiding from the Nazis in the countryside of then-Czechoslovakia. 

Thanks to the help of strangers, Vilcek and his family avoided capture during the Holocaust and survived the war. He went on to become a medical doctor and research scientist, still in his home country, but in the 1960s, he and his wife fled Czechoslovakia’s repressive communist rule, arriving in the U.S. with almost nothing. 

Since 1965, Jan Vilcek and wife Marica, an accomplished art museum curator, have made their home in New York City, becoming active philanthropists with wealth derived from Jan’s research career. 

I suspect the Vilceks would prefer that we not kick off a story about the latest Vilcek Prizes—which recognize art and science achievements by immigrants in the U.S.—by retelling their family history. But what the couple went through and what they achieved are such poignant reminders of how important immigration is to the American story. And it’s hard not to contrast it with the backdrop of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy currently cresting in the United States. But let’s celebrate the positive for the moment.

Jan Vilcek has authored hundreds of research papers in his long career, but saw a windfall from his work on the anti-inflammatory drug Remicade, prompting him to become a rare case of a scientist donating massive funds to his own research institution. In 2005, the couple gave $105 million to his longtime employer, NYU School of Medicine. 

A year later, through their Vilcek Foundation, they established the Vilcek Prizes, annual awards to immigrants who have made lasting contributions to American society through their work in biomedical research and the arts and humanities. Each winner receives $100,000. They also created spinoff awards in 2009, the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise, which award $50,000 each to young immigrants who have accomplished much despite significant early challenges. 

The 2017 winners were just announced, and they’re equally as inspiring as the couple behind the prizes. Nari Ward was born in Jamaica, now known for found-object artwork that confronts issues like race, immigration, and the Caribbean diaspora identity. Husband and wife team and professional collaborators Lily and Yuh-Nung Jan are Chinese-born immigrants who have made important strides in neuroscience, including identifying the genes and processes behind the growth of the dense neuronal networks in the brain and nervous system. Creative Promise winners include a Colombian multimedia artist exploring sexuality, identity and politics; and a young neuroscientist born in Jordan, who is making discoveries in how the brain filters sensory noise. 

Check out the full list of winners and details about past and future prizes here