President Donald J. Trump’s executive order barring travel to the U.S. by residents of seven Muslim-majority countries has turned the lives of many scientists upside-down.
Several chemists from Iran, home to most of the researchers affected by the ban, shared their stories with C&EN. The unexpected restriction has some rethinking the wisdom of doing science in the U.S.
The ban has had an immediate effect on bioorganic chemist Niusha Mahmoodi, an Iranian citizen who recently completed her doctorate at University of British Columbia.
Mahmoodi was far along in the process of securing an H-1B visa to do postdoc work at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. But after the order was announced, Mahmoodi got an e-mail telling her a scheduled visa interview had been canceled because of the executive order.
She was shocked and confused. Not only was the position an amazing career opportunity, but it would have put her closer to her husband, Philip Provencher, who in August began graduate studies in Erik Sorensen’s lab at Princeton University.
Mahmoodi says she is overwhelmed by the support from American friends and the staff at Albert Einstein. But the upheaval is profound. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what happens; I have lost,” Mahmoodi says. If the visa eventually comes through, “every night I will go to sleep fearful that maybe they’ll revoke something they gave me yesterday.” And, “if I don’t get the visa, again I’ve lost because I might not be able to be with Phil for another five or six years.”
While Mahmoodi is barred from entry, Ali Asghar Aghajani can’t leave. When Aghajani was granted a visa to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, just days before classes began in August, he was relieved. The year before he’d missed out on an undergraduate summer research program in Minnesota because of the lengthy visa review process.
Now, unable to get back into the country if he leaves, Aghajani is wondering when he’ll be able to see his family in Iran or if he can go to international conferences in his field, such as one he’d planned to attend in Brazil this summer.
Part of the appeal of studying in the U.S., Aghajani says, was the idea “that no matter who you are or where you come from, you are welcome and can research whatever you want.” But the executive order has cast a long shadow. He had assumed he’d stay in the U.S. for his postdoc, “but now, I don’t know if I want to do that. I’m considering other countries.”
Arsalan Mirjafari, an assistant professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, is worried that the travel ban will affect his ability to mentor his students. The restrictions will make it difficult to go to international conferences where he can expose his undergraduates—primarily underrepresented minorities with graduate school ambitions—to senior scientists in his field of ionic liquids.
Mirjafari is also anxious about his ability to maintain partnerships with other academics who help him with funding and instrumentation that his school lacks. “I’m from a smaller school, and I need collaboration to survive,” he says.
David Rahni, an Iranian-American professor at Pace University and cofounder of the ACS Iranian Chemists Association, worries about the lasting psychological effects of the restrictions. Foreign students will start looking to other countries to continue their education, and foreign-born faculty will lower their expectations of what they can accomplish scientifically, he says.