News - July 2, 2020

Stay or go back? Researchers abroad

Coretta Jongeling

A lot of Wageningen research takes place abroad, so the coronavirus outbreak faced many researchers with a choice: should I stay or should I go? We talked to one PhD student who stayed, one who came back, and one who set off abroad in spite of the outbreak. What is it like to do research during a pandemic?

I just went’
Lan Nguyen, PhD student in Development Economics

‘I do research on the health and economic status of an ethnic minority in northern Vietnam. I come from Vietnam myself, but I’m doing a sandwich PhD at Wageningen. At first I wanted to postpone my trip until the situation is normal again, but it’s hard to say when that will be. So I just went. I took one of the last flights out of Europe.

‘On arrival, everyone had to go into quarantine. There were 40 of us sleeping in bunk beds in a dormitory. Everyone was tested for coronavirus, but we weren’t told the results. It turned out that all the test results were published in the newspaper before we had heard them ourselves. The dormitory was boiling hot and there were no chairs or tables. I got very little work done there. Now I’m at home, close to Hanoi, and I’m going into voluntary quarantine for two weeks, which is very similar to the lockdown in the Netherlands. Later I hope to travel on to the north to make a start on my research at last.’

‘I couldn’t check on my camera traps’
Michelle Kral, PhD student at Wildlife Ecology & Conservation, Botswana

‘I work in the Kalahari desert and coordinate the research at Cheetah Conservation Botswana. There are a lot of livestock farmers here, and there are frequent conflicts between humans and predators. We hope to find out more about the behaviour of cheetahs, so that we can facilitate peaceful cohabitation by humans and animals.

‘It is a remote and thinly populated area, and was one of the last places on earth to be infected. Botswana did go into lockdown for seven weeks, though. No one was allowed out of the house, so I couldn’t check on my camera traps. I occupied myself doing literature research and making research plans for next year. Everything seems reasonably normal again now, although you have to wear a face mask, and your temperature is taken if you want to go into a shop or an office.

‘I do a lot of my research on private land, on commercial ‘game ranches’ and large livestock farms. Now the lockdown is over, most people are pleased that I’m back doing research!’

 ‘In Bangladesh everyone laughed it off, too’
Sjoukje de Lange, PhD student in Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management

‘I was in Bangladesh, which is famous for its vast delta, doing research on the shape of river beds. We left in early March. There was awareness of coronavirus but no measures had been taken yet in the Netherlands. Of course we wondered whether it was a smart move to go, but everything was planned and people weren’t too stressed at that point. In Bangladesh, too, people laughed it off, saying ‘There are worse diseases here.’

‘When we got back to the modern world after a time in a remote area, we were overwhelmed with messages saying, ‘You must come back now!’ It turned out the last flight was that very night, and the airport was a 21-hour journey from where we were. Miraculously, we made it.

‘Luckily, we were able to collect some data, so I can work on that now. We hope our Bangladeshi colleagues will be able to take some measurements on location. At some point I really do have to go back, and I hope it will be possible this year.’