Stem Cell Researcher Leaves Country

Helen is a 32-year-old postdoctoral fellow who worked in bioengineering assistant professor Adam Engler’s stem cell and bioengineering lab for two years before being fired on Jan. 6. In response, Helen filed an appeal stating that her termination was based on false allegations — which have not been disclosed, as the investigation of her termination is ongoing.

Helen wanted to schedule an arbitration hearing to appeal her termination through a neutral third party. But labor relations advocate Belinda Hein did not agree on the three arbitrators who were available for a hearing during the week of Feb. 21.

“I am being denied due process solely because I’m an immigrant worker,” Helen said in a statement.  “The university’s position is discriminatory toward me and all international postdoctoral scholars.”

Members of United Auto Workers Local 5810 — a union representing 6,000 postdoctoral researchers in the UC system — will continue with the arbitration process.

The university released a statement on Feb. 25 claiming that Helen will have the opportunity to have her grievances heard before an arbitrator, even if she is not in the country.

“Dr. Helen will still have her hearing and the university has offered that she may participate through teleconferencing or other available web media that is convenient for Dr. Helen,” the statement read. “We continue to be open to discussions with the union of alternative methods to ensure that Dr. Helen’s grievances will be heard.”

On Feb. 23, about 45 students, researchers and workers were threatened with arrest after occupying the Chancellor’s Complex, where police officers were present. The protesters called on Chancellor Marye Anne Fox to direct the UCSD Labor Relations office to schedule a hearing before Helen was scheduled to leave.

According to UAW Local 5810 representative Scott Clifthorne, police came in to remove supporters who waited in the Chancellor’s office for 15 minutes.

“We had a rally to ask Chancellor Fox to make the right decision,” UAW Local 5810 President Xiaoqing Cao said. “We were there for 15 minutes and we were asked to leave by the [administrators and then] police.”

Protesters then left at Helen’s request. Fox — who said the week before that she would not be involved — was not present at the time.

Two days before, on Feb. 21, the Graduate Student Association passed a resolution in support of Helen’s case and condemning the lack of proactive effort by UCSD administrators.

A.S. Council then passed the same resolution on Feb. 23.

Since filing her appeal, Helen, supporters and union members attempted to pressure Chancellor Marye Anne Fox into forcing the UCSD Labor Relations office to agree on an arbitrator. In addition, the union contacted political representatives such as Congressman Bob Filner, D-Calif., and California State Assembly Speaker John A. Perez to extend her stay.

The union also contacted UCSD Director of Labor Relations Kerry M. Donnell to restore Helen’s record on the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System — which let Helen stay in the U.S. legally as an international scholar. But, according to UAW 5810 representative Neal Sweeney, Donnell refused to do so.

On Jan. 25, Helen found out her SEVIS record was deleted, which meant her J-1 would be invalidated within 30 days. However, Helen had 10 days to leave the country by Feb. 5.

With the help of Filner — who contacted the Department of Homeland Security — Helen received a last-minute extension to stay in the country for 22 additional days.