Credit: Federico Gastaldi
When he left Canada for India in February, Varoon Singh thought he was just heading home for a brief visit before starting a postdoctoral position at Ghent University in Belgium.
Singh had just finished a postdoc at the University of Waterloo. He’d struggled in Canada to get a medical checkup required by Belgium, so he thought he would visit family in India and get his visa straightened out at the same time before moving to Belgium in March.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic halted travel worldwide. Now Singh and his wife have been stuck in Mumbai, where they’re staying with family, for almost 4 months. He has had his visa since early March, but he can’t get a flight.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left many international students and postdocs uncertain about their future. Caught on vacation or between jobs, they are unable to travel to their labs because of closed borders, canceled flights, and shuttered consular offices. And as restrictions continue, the fate of these trainees, their labs, and their departments are up in the air. The pandemic adds to concerns by US scientists that the country is no longer seen as a welcoming place for international researchers.
Singh is among hundreds of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars across the globe who are stranded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Closed borders and canceled flights have kept them away from their labs. Shuttered embassies and consulates prevent them from picking up visas or participating in interviews. And no one knows when the situation will improve.
“Research is a second job these days. My first job is to find out whether I can make it to Belgium or not,” Singh says.
The situation could have a devastating effect on the young scientists, who will have lost half a year or more of research and studies to the pandemic. The Donald J. Trump administration’s recent travel ban could make things worse for those still waiting for H-1B visas. And the fate of hundreds more new international graduate students who are not able to start in the fall is still unclear to many university researchers and chemistry departments.
In some ways, Singh is lucky—his Ghent advisor, Lynn Vanhaecke, arranged for him to start working remotely. They are writing grant proposals, and he’s participating in lab meetings. He’s writing up experimental protocols so when he does make it to Belgium, he hits the ground running.
But it isn’t ideal. His parents’ house doesn’t have internet access, and they haven’t been able to get it installed during the pandemic, so he connects using his phone. The power was out for a few days after a cyclone struck nearby. He needs quiet to work, so he stays up late while the rest of the family sleeps. “I’m struggling to do things that were very easy to do in Canada,” he says, or would be easy in Belgium.
Vanhaecke knows it’s not as efficient as if he had been able to start in person, but she was enthusiastic about getting Singh, who works on chemical detection, on board. “He really has specific skills that will come in handy,” she says. “I didn’t want to have the risk that he would find an alternative.”
So now all they can do is hope flights start soon so he can get to Belgium—and to work. “We are chemists, we need to be in the lab,” Singh says.
That frustration reflects the feeling of many international chemistry graduate students and postdocs who are either stuck away from their labs or haven’t been able to start new positions. In 2018, 36% of chemistry PhD recipients were in the US on a visa, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. In Europe, 20% of all graduate students in 2017 came from outside of the European Union.
Israeli organometallic chemist Or Eivgi was thrilled when University of California, Irvine, professor Suzanne A. Blum invited him to join her lab as a postdoc and even more excited when he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to pay for it.
“Since Professor Blum agreed to have me as a postdoc, all my life has been going in one direction, towards leaving Israel and moving to the US,” Eivgi says. “Suddenly, this took a weird turn.”
In March, the Fulbright Program announced it was pushing back the start date for all its fellows to January 2021. At first, Eivgi was worried that Blum wouldn’t still want him to come. But she quickly reassured him. “If I work with somebody, we develop an idea, and it looks like a good match—in this case, an excellent match—I am committed to making it happen,” she says. “This global pandemic isn’t his fault.”
While he waits, Eivgi had to figure out some way to make money until the fellowship starts—his wife, a soccer coach, also lost her job in the pandemic. Happily, his PhD advisor agreed to hire him back for now. “I’m trying to stay positive and hopefully things will improve,” he says.
Blum knows Eivgi and other postdocs in his position feel frantic. “Postdocs are at this critical time where they feel like they are launching their lives,” she says. “A 7-month delay is a pretty long time for somebody at that life stage.”
Vernon García Rivas got his PhD in December from the University of Bordeaux. He went home to El Salvador to get his visa before heading to Yale University to start a postdoc in neuropsychopharmacology.
“I expected to be here a couple of weeks, no more than 6 weeks,” García Rivas says. He got his visa in early March. “I was ready to leave. And then the emergency happened.”
García Rivas hasn’t had much chance to work—he’s been taking care of his parents, who are both older and whose routines were thrown off by the strict pandemic shutdown in El Salvador. A tropical storm also hit the country recently, further complicating his situation. “I couldn’t do much from here because of the constraints,” he says.
Yale has been “very clear and very supportive,” García Rivas says, so he feels secure that he can start his postdoc as soon as he can get to the US. But he is worried about Trump’s ban on more international visitors. He just hopes he can get to the US before anything worse happens.
In contrast to Singh, Eivgi, and García Rivas, Khaled Al Kurdi isn’t waiting to start a position—he already has one, as a third-year graduate student working on the material applications of polymers at Georgia Institute of Technology. A trip home to Lebanon in March, however, left him trying to continue his studies remotely from a busy multifamily home with children running around. “It’s been slightly chaotic,” he says. “But I’ve been able to find some quiet corners and go and focus for few hours or just shift my work hours to awkward times so that they don’t coincide with family functions or dinner.”
Al Kurdi struggled with depression before the pandemic, and some of those problems resurfaced when he was stranded at home. “What I found more difficult than actually just working from home is that I just felt so disconnected,” he says. “I’m two continents away. And I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
He’s found comfort in talking to his adviser, Seth Marder. Marder says he tries to remind Al Kurdi and his other students that this won’t last forever. “Keep your eyes on the big picture,” Marder says.
Since the pandemic began, Marder is checking in more often with all his group members to make sure they stay focused. “Psychologically they will be better if they’re making progress,” he says.
Even students and postdocs without an ocean between them and their labs are stuck—or at least facing difficult decisions. University of Toronto graduate student Gabrielle Hoover has decided she won’t visit family in upstate New York because she could face a 14-day quarantine after entering the US and then have to quarantine again when she returned to Toronto. If she makes the trip, “I’m losing a month off of the degree that I’m trying to finish” this fall, she says.
Hoover had been awarded an internship in Germany for the summer, but that was canceled. And since she’s planning to graduate soon, she can’t try again next year. She had also planned to look for a job in Europe that would tie to her organic materials chemistry skills, but “it’s just not a good time to be venturing around the world.”
Abhinav Tripathi has been stuck twice, first in Singapore and then in his home country, India. In December 2019, Tripathi finished his PhD on battery chemistry at the National University of Singapore and was offered a postdoctoral fellowship in the UK. He planned to leave Singapore in January, right around the time that COVID-19 shutdowns started there—and ended up stuck without income in an expensive city. He had already given up his position in Singapore, but he couldn’t go to the UK because embassies were closed.
In March, he took a rescue flight offered by the Indian government to return home. Now, like others, he’s living with his family, waiting for embassies to open and flights to resume so he can go to the UK. At this point Tripathi is hoping that might happen in July. “My professor is quite helpful and he has given me a sense that he will be able to extend” the fellowship beyond its current March 2021 end date, Tripathi says. In the meantime, Tripathi been joining group meetings online and discussing possible experiments to make sure he can get a quick start once he is able to travel. He’s not getting paid for it, but it’s better than doing nothing, he says.
Ruitu Lyu moved from China to the University of Chicago to start a postdoc position working in chemical biology and bioinformatics in February 2018. In January 2020, he returned for the first time to his home province, about 2 hours from Beijing. He planned the visit to renew his visa and introduce his 11-month-old daughter to his family. But the embassy shut down before his visa was renewed, so he’s been stuck for 5 months and counting.
He can do some work remotely, he says, but he can’t do the lab work he would do in Chicago. He also doesn’t have childcare. “I need to spend some time to take care of my baby and also work from home. It’s not so good,” Lyu says.
Lyu is confident he can get a flight out as soon as he gets his visa, “but no one knows when the US embassy will open.” The waiting isn’t easy. One of Lyu’s fellow Chinese postdocs at the University of Chicago recently decided to give up his US position to just look for a job in China instead.
Lyu wasn’t the only researcher from the University of Chicago whose plans were derailed by the pandemic, says chemistry professor Chuan He, Lyu’s advisor. A potential postdoc from the UK had to cancel an interview trip. And several Chinese students who were going to work in He’s lab for the summer—part of an effort to convince them to go to Chicago for graduate school—were unable to make the trip.
For most international students and postdocs already committed to a position, schools are willing to keep the job open for whenever they can get there. But for those looking for jobs or postdocs now, He says, “This year, you pretty much can just delete it.”
The biggest dilemma might be what to do for international graduate students hoping to start their first year in the fall. Most students had already committed to a particular school when the pandemic hit, but they have not yet gotten the paperwork they need to make the trip.
Tina Rousselot de Saint Céran, director of international student and scholar services at Georgia Tech, says when the shutdown first began some students weren’t able to get transcripts or English language proficiency test scores sent to the school, and her office wasn’t able to mail documents to students.
Now the big problem is visas. “Typically in June, if a student doesn’t have a visa, we’re not concerned,” she says. But Rousselot de Saint Céran and her colleagues don’t know when embassies and consulates will reopen. Even when they do, there will inevitably be a backlog of applications, she says. The US Department of State hasn’t announced any changes that might ease the burden.
Georgia Tech is supposed to have 1,400 international students starting in the fall, Rousselot de Saint Céran says. “I’m really hoping for a miracle at this point.”
International students traveling to Germany don’t face those US visa issues. Nevertheless, at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Faculty Graduate Dean Fritz Kühn says the school is considering postponing the start of its fall semester from October to November. “We hope the later it starts the better chance that countermeasures are in place,” whether such measures are vaccines to prevent or medications to treat COVID-19, Kühn says.
Regardless of when the fall semester starts, the TUM will continue offering graduate classes online. The classes will be prerecorded videos so students can watch them any time, no matter their time zone. “I think both students and professors are surprised about the advantages of online teaching,” says Kühn, who also leads the school’s international exchange programs.
The biggest problem is fitting everyone into lab classes, which are continuing with social distancing in place. To accommodate everyone, Kühn says those practicums are being spaced out throughout the year. “We will try to switch those who cannot come back yet to a later group,” he says.
And the university will allow international students to take some classes out of order if they aren’t on-site to take the labs that are required. “What we need now is maximum flexibility,” he says.
National University of Singapore chemistry instructor Fun Man Fung says his school is starting to open up after being online since March, and it is hoping to start online classes as normal in the fall. Singapore’s government isn’t allowing everyone to travel there, but students get priority. “We welcome back our students and colleagues who have been stuck overseas,” Fung says. “But no tourists and no short-term visitors yet.”
The school will allow incoming international students to start as soon as they can arrive, complete a 14-day quarantine, and be tested for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Fung says. The school is also extending funding for PhD students for 6 months to give them time to finish despite any delays caused by travel problems or social distancing restrictions in labs.
In the US, University of Iowa chemistry department chair Leonard MacGillivray says that the department plans to allow any graduate students who can’t make it for the start of the fall term to defer entry to the spring. “We have enough flexibility logistically to accommodate that situation,” he says.
The University of California, Davis, Department of Chemistry also plans to allow students to defer entry, although it expects that most international students will want to start on time, says Emily Atkinson, the department’s graduate coordinator. “They applied to graduate school, they got in, and they want to come,” says Atkinson, pointing out that 20 of the 50 incoming chemistry graduate students are international. Some have already secured apartments.
If they can’t make it, though, it’s unclear whether UC Davis’s chemistry graduate classes will be available online, says Andrew Fisher, the department’s vice chair of graduate affairs. The faculty’s instinct is to try to do classes in person, he says. And many of the smaller classrooms they normally use don’t have video capabilities that would allow a professor to hold an in-person class while also streaming or recording it.
“But we have to think about how this is going to impact all students, including international students who might not be able to come back,” Fisher says. “It’s still a very fluid situation.”
Whether Iowa, UC Davis, and other schools will scramble for teaching assistants because of postponed graduate student arrivals remains to be seen. Most universities are still working out how many undergraduates will return to campuses, and which classes will be held remotely. Possibly, teaching assistants could work remotely as well.
Sarah Al Abdullatif is still waiting to hear what will happen at Emory University, where she is scheduled to start as a chemistry graduate student in the fall.
In March, Al Abdullatif committed to going to Emory, but as soon as she reached out to the US embassy in Saudi Arabia she learned that it had suspended all regular visa activities. “I panicked a bit,” she says.
Al Abdullatif is still hopeful. Emory could request an emergency visa for her, but she’s been told they haven’t decided to do that yet.
If she can’t be there in person, “I would feel a little bit sad that I didn’t get to do my rotations” to check out different chemical biology labs, she says. “I worry about not being able to find the ideal match for me.”
In the meantime, she’s been taking online classes and writing up research from her master’s degree. “I’ve been checking the embassy website every single day,” Al Abdullatif says.
Delays in incoming student arrivals could have the most impact on early-career faculty, who are still trying to fill their labs. Weixin Tang joined the University of Chicago Department of Chemistry in September 2019, and so far she has one graduate student and one postdoc working with her.
More established labs can have students work on theses, manuscripts, or grant proposals during the pandemic, Tang says. “But for us, the options are limited. We haven’t really produced the data to analyze yet. We don’t have manuscripts to prepare. And for most of the grants, they require preliminary data.”
The time she’s spent during the pandemic isn’t wasted, however. She has applied for a few grants specifically for early-career scientists. “It does give me an opportunity to think through a lot of the projects,” Tang says. “I won’t say that it’s useless to me. It’s just that I wish the time can be spent more efficiently.”
Tang was hoping to bring on several more graduate students this year. The university did a good job recruiting students interested in chemical biology, her area of expertise, but “it looks less and less likely that they can arrive on time,” she says. In addition, postdocs that Tang had recruited have been delayed. One has already not been able to come at all. Another is currently working in Germany and would have to return home to China to get his visa and then travel to the US.
“It will take forever,” Tang says. “I don’t have the luxury to wait for someone for a year.”