Zaosong Zheng, 29, was an accomplished Chinese medical student and a promising cancer researcher who last year earned a visa sponsored by Harvard University to study in the United States.
But on Monday, a federal judge in Boston ruled that evidence suggested Zheng had tried to smuggle vials of research specimens in a sock packed in his suitcase bound for China. Zheng is alleged to have stolen the materials from his lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, as part of China’s longstanding effort to acquire intellectual property from American colleges and universities.
His arrest reflects a wider crackdown by the US government in the past year on Chinese scholars and researchers suspected of espionage and scientific theft. Several Boston-based researchers have apparently been stopped at Logan as part of the enforcement effort.
In court on Monday, US District Court Magistrate Judge David H. Hennessy said that Zheng was a flight risk and his connections to the Chinese government, which gave him a scholarship, would make it easier for him to leave the country. Hennessy granted the federal prosecutors’ request to detain Zheng until his trial.
Beth Israel fired Zheng after his arrest on Dec. 10 at Boston’s Logan International Airport on a charge of making false statements. Beth Israel is a Harvard teaching hospital, and on Monday university officials said that Zheng’s educational exchange visa had been revoked.
The government is awaiting the test results from the vials and additional charges may result if they were stolen from the lab. Zheng’s former roommate, who also worked in the lab, told the government that the vials contained cancer cells, according to court documents.
“The defendant’s conduct reflects a serious breach of faith,’’ with Beth Israel and Harvard, Hennessy said from the bench.
Zheng, appeared in court on Monday dressed in tan prison garb and briefly nodded to about half a dozen supporters in the courtroom.
The FBI and federal agencies that fund health and science research at US universities have cautioned that the country’s open higher education system, which has for decades thrived on global research cooperation, is being exploited by foreign governments.
The National Institutes of Health has opened more than 180 investigations into potential violations involving foreign influence in US research. Last month, Congress held hearings about such conduct in scientific research and the academic recruitment efforts by the Chinese government. And earlier this month, the Justice Department announced it had reached a $5.5 million settlement with a Michigan-based biomedical research organization after it failed to disclose that two of its scientists received Chinese government grants.
Some university presidents and scientists, however, have chafed at the growing suspicion cast toward Chinese researchers and even American academics of Chinese descent. They have warned that these academics are unfairly being targeted for increased scrutiny at airport checkpoints and by funding agencies.
US teaching hospitals and medical schools are trying to balance the concerns of their scientists with that of the government, said Heather Pierce, senior director for science policy at the Association of American Medical Colleges, a trade organization.
But they are aware that this is a top priority for the US government, she said.
“Everybody gets it, everyone is taking it seriously,’’ Pierce said. “Whatever skepticism there may have been early on . . . is no longer there.’’
Beth Israel on Monday said it was fully cooperating with the government investigation.
“We are deeply proud of the breadth and depth of our research programs,’’ said Jennifer Kritz, spokeswoman for the hospital. “Any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care.’’
According to court documents, Zheng was arrested after customs officials discovered vials of an unknown substance, wrapped in cellophane and stuffed into a sock, in his checked luggage.
Zheng initially denied he was carrying any biological specimens but later admitted he had stolen the vials from Beth Israel, according to court documents. Some vials contained a colleague’s work he had replicated without the authorization or knowledge of the lab, Zheng told authorities, according to court documents.
Zheng said he planned to take the specimens to a lab where he worked in China, conduct further research, and publish a paper, and take credit for the work, according to the court documents.
Among his belongings, Zheng also had a laptop that belonged to another researcher at the lab who had already traveled to China. Zheng said he was carrying the laptop because the researcher didn’t have room in his suitcase. But FBI officials allege that Zheng and the other Chinese researcher worked together to smuggle work out of the lab and the country.
“Zheng’s appointment to [Beth Israel] was not an accident; he was knowingly gathering and collecting intellectual property from [Beth Israel] possibly on behalf of the Chinese government,’’ Kara Spice, an FBI agent, stated in a court affidavit. “This type of behavior is expected of Chinese nationals when they travel to the United States and rewarded upon their return to China.’’
Beth Israel officials declined to comment on whether other Chinese researchers at their labs took research and material without the hospital’s knowledge or if the institution has changed any security measures.
It appears that other foreign researchers studying in Boston-area hospitals and schools have been stopped at Logan Airport.
In an internal e-mail to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Paul Anderson, that institution’s chief academic officer, wrote earlier this month that three foreign researchers from the Partners hospital system had been stopped at Logan for failing to declare materials hidden in their luggage and that the government “intends to pursue a tough enforcement agenda,’’ according to the Boston news website Universal Hub.
The Brigham confirmed the internal memo but declined to provide a copy of it.
Anderson said in the memo that based on the hospital’s conversations with the FBI there have been about 18 interceptions at Logan Airport resulting in confiscation and visa cancellation.
In many cases, the biological materials were hidden in vitamin bottles, slippers, and socks, Universal Hub reported.
Mark Murphy, a Brigham spokesman, said in the memo, “the hospital reiterated the regulatory and institutional requirements for transporting biological and other research materials.’’
US Customs and Border Protection referred inquiries to the US Attorney’s office, which declined to comment, citing the ongoing Zheng case.