The Dalai Lama helps Eric Lander (right) and Yama Chopel (left) prepare mouse DNA. Credit: G. RAMSAY

Nyime Norbu has not seen his homeland, Tibet, since he and his family fled from there 30 years ago. So he was greatly moved last week when he came face-to-face with the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, thousands of miles from their mutual home. What did they discuss? DNA sequencing, of course.

Norbu runs DNA-sequencing machines at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, and is one of about 20 Tibetans who work there. The centre has one of the largest communities of Tibetan workers in the Boston area, which is part of the reason for the Dalai Lama's visit on 13 September during a trip to Boston.

The centre's director, Eric Lander, hired the first of the Tibetans in 1991, when the centre was preparing to sequence the mouse genome. “We needed somebody who had some scientific background, who was also very careful,” he says. He ended up hiring a Tibetan refugee who was both an artist and a former inspector at a milk factory.

He in turn recruited more Tibetans throughout the 1990s, making them the most strongly represented ethnic group in the Human Genome Project: although Tibetans make up only 0.1% of the world's population, it has been estimated that they represent about 10% of the project's workforce.

“Many of our Tibetan colleagues are refugees who have learned enough science and molecular biology to become extraordinarily valuable members of our team,” says Lander.

Most of the centre's Tibetans escaped the country in the face of repression by China. “To have the Dalai Lama in front of me was a blessing — we were thrilled,” says Norbu. “I have no words to explain how I felt.”