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Robert Neubecker

I evacuated my fieldwork site because of COVID-19. What now?

I sat in my apartment in Iquitos, Peru, facing a stark choice between my research and my well-being. I was there to collect data for my dissertation, but my work was on hold because the Peruvian government had declared a national lockdown 9 days earlier as the COVID-19 crisis took hold. At first, my plan was to wait out the pandemic in Peru. But then I learned the country’s airports and borders would be closed indefinitely. An evacuation flight for U.S. citizens was departing the next day. It would probably be my last chance to leave, given that Iquitos is a remote city with no road link to the rest of the world. So, in less than 24 hours, I had to decide whether to prioritize the research that means so much to me, or abandon my field season and evacuate.

One month earlier, I had said goodbye to my friends and family, given my dog a final hug, and set off to Peru. I’d spent much of the previous 2 years planning for the field season, and I was excited to finally get started. As the plane descended below the cloud cover and into Iquitos, I peered out at the endless expanse of trees and the winding Amazon River—the region where I planned to spend 6 months studying the mosquito that’s responsible for an ongoing dengue outbreak there.

The lockdown came just 2 weeks later. I weighed my options: If I stayed in Peru, my fieldwork would be delayed, but as soon as local restrictions were lifted, I could begin again. On the other hand, if I returned to the United States, I would be surrounded by my support network during a stressful time and could help my parents, both of whom are infectious disease doctors, if needed. But my fieldwork might be delayed by months—or even years—given that international travel restrictions would likely remain in place longer than local restrictions.

I worried about my timeline for graduating. I’m in the third year of my Ph.D. and my department only guarantees 5 years of funding. I felt the pressure of the ticking clock, and it weighed heavily on my mind.

My first impulse was to remain in Peru and get my fieldwork done at all costs. I was willing to make sacrifices to complete the project, which I viewed as important—both for my career and for public health in the region. But as COVID-19 news continued to stream in and the severity of the situation crystalized, my mindset changed. Eventually, I decided that I needed to get home, whatever the cost to my work. So, on the 10th day of the lockdown, I packed my supplies and took a bus with other evacuees to the airport.

It was a relief when I finally arrived at home in upstate New York on 27 March. But in the weeks since, I’ve been grappling with what my future might look like. My field season ended before it even began, leaving me with no data and little to show for the years of planning. I have no idea when I might be able to return to Peru. And I am trying to come to terms with the fact that my Ph.D. will take longer than I had originally planned.

I have no idea when I might be able to return to Peru.

Sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn’t have left. But then I look at my family and am reminded why I made this decision. I’m currently staying with my parents, which allows me to help with chores as they work with COVID-19 patients. It is a comfort that we won’t be half a world apart if any of us get sick. The situation makes it clear to me that my well-being, along with that of my family, is more important than my research. However, repeating this to myself does not erase the stress I feel about my graduation timeline.

My adviser has pledged to support me financially until I finish my dissertation. But other graduate students who are facing similar obstacles to their research may not be so lucky. Some institutions are implementing “stop-the-clock” policies for tenure-track professors. I believe that graduate students deserve similar protective policies—for instance, an additional year of guaranteed funding. Although such a measure would not erase all the anxieties caused by COVID-19, it would at least alleviate some of the financial and logistical stress.

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