Cecilia Zumajo-Cardona learnt three key lessons as an international graduate student in the United States, and is optimistic about 2021.
Cecilia Zumajo-Cardona is a PhD student at the City University of New York and the New York Botanical Garden.


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plant seedlings on a windowsill

plant seedlings on a windowsill

When lockdowns caused laboratory closures, members of the plant-science lab where Cecilia Zumajo-Cardona worked took plants home.Credit: Cecilia Zumajo

As a Colombian–Spanish student on a joint PhD programme between the City University of New York (CUNY) and the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), I’m officially an ‘alien’, according to US customs officials and law. The term made me laugh when I first heard it, on account of its extraterrestrial origins, but it wasn’t amusing for long, and became increasingly serious as 2020 progressed.

In late February and early March, my colleagues and I, along with everyone else in New York, felt confused and frightened as the virus crept closer and many countries in Europe entered lockdown.

I started taking pictures of all my experiments and results, so I would have something to work with from home if a shutdown began suddenly, which it did. On 15 March, the NYBG closed to non-essential workers. CUNY followed soon after.

As members of a plant science laboratory, we all took plants home to continue our experiments. It was a scary but exciting step into the unknown.

Being an international PhD student, my social life and interactions are limited at the best of times. I’m often immersed in work, and live far from family and close friends. But lockdown meant I was also isolated from my colleagues and friends in New York, although we tried to keep in touch and keep things normal.

I had more time to video chat with my family in Colombia, but, as we all know by now (and as international students have known since long before the pandemic), after a while Zoom fatigue kicks in and it’s not always easy to socialize in front of a webcam. My family were worried about me and my health in New York, and I was similarly concerned about them. From more than 4,000 kilometres away, I attempted to organize a food delivery for my mother, so she didn’t have to leave her house and risk being infected with COVID-19.

In July, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency announced that where US universities were offering online courses, new international students would not be issued with visas, and existing students’ visas would be cancelled. ICE also said that if a university decided to adopt online courses, international students of that university who were not currently in the country would not be permitted to return to the United States.

As a fifth-year PhD student, I was not directly affected, because I am a full-time researcher working on my dissertation. But ICE’s stance alarmed me: I was afraid that, one day, I would be told that I was no longer welcome and had to leave the country, perhaps without much warning.

I stopped looking for postdoctoral positions in the United States and focused on opportunities in Europe instead. But I was encouraged by the quick legal action that universities took to reverse ICE’s edict. By 14 July, the government had dropped the policy, and the country now seems to be moving in a favourable direction as far as student exchanges and the accommodation of ‘legal aliens’ are concerned.

In terms of research work, I have been fortunate not to be too badly affected by the lockdown. It allowed me to focus on bioinformatic analysis work, which I could do from home and had been putting off for too long. I have also had the time to write my thesis throughout this year and I still have a couple of months to get it into better shape, which is uncommon.

Last year brought many changes that I couldn’t control, and, although my work was pandemic-proof, I was not: they all had an emotional impact, which made it hard to concentrate on my thesis work and difficult to maintain my motivation.

I’ve learnt a few lessons from the year. First, I’ve realized that a PhD is all about sustained effort, rather than short sprints: it’s been tempting at times to saturate myself with work, but, in the end, being organized and persistent was more important for both my health and my productivity.

Second, as an international student, I’ve found it crucial to build a good support network of friends in New York; they have provided opportunities for me to air my PhD frustrations, enjoy my life away from my family and take time to relax. Third, I have learnt that when a major political decision affects me, it is important to take a step back and accept situations that I cannot change, and to put my faith in the world that things will change for the better.

Finally, if you find yourself stuck between choosing to visit family or spending an extra few weeks working, pick your family: it will help you to recharge and you never know when the world’s airports are going to close.

It has, without doubt, been a difficult year for everyone. I thought that I would spend the last year of my doctorate running around the lab finishing up experiments or in a library writing. The vaccine brings hope of a return to normality and there are some habits we could take with us into our ‘normal’ lives. For example, the transition to a more virtual world of work might allow for better, more-equitable scientific exchange with participation from scientists all over the world. In all probability, after the pandemic ends, we aliens will all be able to continue actively contributing to science, no matter where we’re from.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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