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Open Letter to the U.S. Federal Government Regarding COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

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**************** The link for signing can be also found at the end of the letter. ****************

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For the attention of the U.S. Federal Government,

We, as immigrant and non-immigrant researchers affiliated with academic and non-academic institutions across the U.S., hope to highlight the current circumstances that put thousands of international students, postdoctoral scholars, junior faculty, and researchers at an unprecedented level of unease and discomfort.

In March 2020, at the beginning of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, former U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily banned non-citizens from entering the U.S. through a Presidential Proclamation. This order was originally set to expire in January 2021. Based on the immature scientific understanding and limited control of SARS-CoV-2 at that time, the travel ban was arguably a prudent act aimed at fighting the immediate public health emergency.

On January 21st 2021 the current U.S. President Joseph Biden signed Proclamation 10143 [1] perpetuating the entry limitations. The directive begins as follows (emphasis added):

 “The Federal Government must act swiftly and aggressively to combat coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).The national emergency caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States continues to pose a grave threat to our health and security.  As of January 20, 2021, the United States had experienced more than 24 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 400,000 COVID-19 deaths.  It is the policy of my Administration to implement SCIENCE-BASED PUBLIC HEALTH MEASURES, across all areas of the Federal Government, to prevent further spread of the disease.”

The proclamation then continues (again, emphasis added):

   “Suspension and Limitation on Entry.  (a)  The entry into the United States, as IMMIGRANTS OR NONIMMIGRANTS, of noncitizens, who were physically present within the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom (excluding overseas territories outside of Europe), the Republic of Ireland, and the Federative Republic of Brazil during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States, is hereby suspended and limited subject to section 2 of this proclamation.[…]”.

The list of countries affected in the same manner by other Presidential Proclamations also includes India, China, and Iran.

Since January, continuous and strenuous scientific and medical research efforts resulted in significant advances in testing, tracing, vaccine distribution, and a steady decrease in new cases, allowing for the safe reopening of international travel. Despite these changes, to date, the government has not provided either a specific date, nor a specific target (e.g. 70% of vaccinated individuals in the US) as to when these travel restrictions will be lifted. This is causing additional stress and uncertainty to the individuals affected by the Proclamation. 

Remarkably, such a “science-based” approach does not apply to certain categories of entrants, including U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and F-1 or M-1 visa-holding students (while it does apply, for instance, to J-1 students and H-1B Specialty Occupation Visa holders).

It has recently been estimated that 51% of the postdoctoral researcher population spread across 351 academic and non-academic institutions based in the U.S. are represented by non-U.S. citizens [2]. In a year characterized by strong movements founded on inclusion and diversity, and equality of rights, and with the inauguration of a President looking to reverse his predecessor’s War on Science, we believe that international scholars are disproportionately and unfairly affected by these restrictions and are facing a discriminatory situation. Successful vaccination campaigns are underway in many of the affected countries, with several of them at pace with, or exceeding, the vaccination rate of the U.S. Yet, while ever-more countries reopen their borders to the U.S., these freedoms are not reciprocated. Under the Presidential Proclamations, U.S. citizens or green card holders are now able to travel for leisure with few restrictions, and no constraints regarding re-entering the U.S..

Strikingly, students holding F-1 or M-1 visas are not subject to the proclamation and are therefore able to travel internationally. While we do understand the economic boon that international students provide for academic institutions, there is no scientific rationale behind their privilege which further discriminates against, for instance, international postdoctoral scholars or students holding J-1 visas. In the academic and non-academic research landscapes, international scholars contribute substantially to both academic and non-academic research output and prestige. Additionally, we provide mentorship to students, a strategic future asset for the country’s innovation potential.

The only solution we are offered to circumvent travel restrictions is to obtain a so-called National Interest Exception (NIE) from one of the U.S. embassies or consular posts abroad. As of today, few select categories of essential workers are eligible to be granted a NIE, posing the risk that current skilled researchers, granted a visa to work in the U.S., may even be unable to obtain a NIE to (re)enter the country. Even if deemed eligible, the NIE process is cumbersome. Currently, consular posts can take up to 60 business days – nearly three months in real time – to reply to an applicant’s request, the approval rate is highly uncertain, and the final outcome depends on the arbitrary discretion of a particular consulate. Additionally, some visa types are subject to further complicating restrictions; for example, most J-1 visa holders are not allowed to leave the U.S. soil for more than 30 consecutive days, with few exceptions. However, since a NIE request cannot be submitted until the applicant is out of the U.S., it is impossible to pursue the opportunity of obtaining it without endangering our work and related immigrant status. The inadequacy of the NIE process becomes even more evident if one considers that an average postdoc has between 15 and 20 days of holidays per year.

The majority of us international scholars have not been able to visit families or significant others for over a year due to these restrictions, with an indefinite wait ahead.  This situation is now impinging on this community’s mental health since many individuals are facing the choice between attending important personal matters (childbirths, weddings, and funerals of close friends and family) and the security of their job and immigration status in the country where they have established their lives. We can leave the country but have no guarantee of being allowed to return to our careers, in roles that significantly contribute to the research, teaching, and service mission of our U.S. institutions.

As stated by the CDC, fully vaccinated people, regardless of their citizenship or visa status and still respectful of current safety guidelines, are less likely to pose additional risk in the spreading of COVID-19, even in the event of international travel.

Furthermore, through the implementation of the safety guidelines and the successful vaccination campaign, a majority (if not all) universities are resuming normal activities: faculty, students and postdoctoral scholars can freely and safely return to campuses. Nevertheless, research efforts are being put at risk as many colleagues and mentors are forsaken overseas.

With this letter we hope to draw attention to the plight of noncitizen researchers trapped in the US or stranded abroad, uniquely and unfairly constrained by current U.S. entry restrictions.

What is the scientific basis of forcing international researchers to choose between their loved ones and their careers?

We appreciate and thank you in advance for your time and availability, and hope you will help us in advocating for our rights as lawful individuals.

Yours truly,

The Tufts Postdoctoral Association with the participation of the undersigned international postdoctoral scholars / researchers / Postdoctoral Associations and Principal Investigators.

(All individuals below have signed this letter as private individuals and not on behalf of their institutions)

[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/25/proclamation-on-the-suspension-of-entry-as-immigrants-and-non-immigrants-of-certain-additional-persons-who-pose-a-risk-of-transmitting-coronavirus-disease

[2] McConnell S.C. et al., eLife 2018;7:e40189 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.40189

SIGN THE LETTER HERE

It’s National Postdoc Appreciation Week!

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Check out all of the exciting events coming to campus this week.

Mental Health Seminar + Yoga and Bubble Tea

Wednesday – September 18

Learn about the mental health resources available at Tufts University. Follow this up with bubble tea and a relaxing yoga session while overlooking the Boston skyline! Register here.

CV Building Workshop with Scismic

Thursday – September 19

Learn valuable tips on how to strengthen your CV for industry and find out about the resources that Scismic offers for postdocs on the market for an industry position in the Boston area! Food will be provided. Register here.

Thirsty Thursday

Thursday – September 19

Come enjoy a casual social hour after work with your fellow postdocs at Abigail’s Restaurant.  Someone from the PDA will be there with a sign.  Come on out and grab a drink or just to hang out! PDA will provide appetizers.

Annual Tufts Postdoc BBQ

Friday – September 20

Let’s finish out celebrating National Postdoc Appreciation Week with our annual postdoc BBQ Party!  Join your fellow postdocs at a beautiful venue with a gorgeous view of the Boston skyline, while you eat delicious BBQ food and mingle.  Vegetarian options are available.  Families are welcome!

Sign up here! For this postdocs on the Boston campus, if you need transportation to Medford, please fill out this form.

Communication Skills Workshop with Sarah Cardozo Duncan

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Written by Miles Duncan, Career Development Co-Chair

Thursday, Feb 22nd, 2018 4:30-6:30pm in Jaharis 508, 150 Harrison Ave, Boston MA. 02111

On February 22nd, 2018, Tufts held a communication skills workshop lead by Sarah Cardozo Duncan. Sarah, a Boston-based career strategist, is a sought after speaker and workshop leader committed to helping and mentoring young scientists. This workshop centered on helping Tufts students and postdocs determine their own personal communication style and how to identify and best interact with people using other styles.

            Following a brief introduction, Sarah split the 30 attendees into four groups based on communication traits; direct vs. indirect, and thinking out loud vs. thinking internally. Each group brainstormed the top five words to describe their conversation style, how they like to receive communication, and how one might recognize them in a meeting. Next everyone shared their results, and the groups had the opportunity to ask each other questions about their contrasting communication styles.

Some takeaways:

People who think out loud, and may “talk too much”, do so because they are uncomfortable with silence. They might not realize when they are rude.

People who favor a direct form of communication are task oriented. They don’t mind small talk in an appropriate setting, but never in an important meeting.

People who favor an indirect form of communication like to build consensus and include everyone’s opinion.

People who think internally need a lot of information before making a decision, but will never miss a deadline. They may appear disengaged, but thrive when asked questions.

Recap of the National Postdoc Association Meeting – April 2018

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The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) Annual Meeting is the nation’s largest conference dedicated to the postdoctoral community. Attendees included postdocs, administrators, faculty, and various representatives from societies, industry and businesses all with the common goal of enhancing postdoctoral training, professional development and advocacy. The meeting provided a unique opportunity to network and discuss best practices and innovative programming ideas with key leaders in the postdoctoral community nationwide, including institutional and regional PDAs in New York, Chicago, Michigan, Texas, the Midwest and California.

In addition to networking, participants also attended workshops focused on enhancing postdoctoral training through individual skill and career development as well as workshops focused on  support of postdocs at the institutional and national levels.

The Tufts Postdoctoral Association (PDA) was fortunate to have several representatives attend and proudly showcase the accomplishments of Tufts University and of the Tufts PDA. Travelling to Cleveland for the 2018 NPA Annual Meeting were co-presidents Sarah Dykstra and Tony Cijsouw, Career Development co-chair and incoming PDA co-president Erin Lewis, and Dan Jay, interim postdoc officer and Dean of the Sackler School.

The Tufts PDA, in addition to providing support to Tufts postdocs, also serves as one of 17 institutions involved in the Boston PDA (BPDA). The BPDA’s primary goal is to foster a community and create career and professional development programming for postdocs in the Greater Boston Area. Thus, Tufts PDA representatives wanted to not only encourage other regions with large populations of postdoctoral scholars to share resources and engage in larger networking structures, but also to learn from other PDAs how to enhance programming efforts to best support local postdoctoral scholars.  

Throughout the meeting, the following topics were highlighted as key pitfalls in postdoctoral training nationwide. The Tufts PDA plans to focus efforts in these areas to improve postdoctoral life and career development. 

1. Developing strong mentor/mentee relationships

Strong mentorship is a key component to successful postdoctoral training. Conversations focused on how to develop a mutually beneficial relationship between mentors and mentees. Postdoctoral scholars are still in a transition step in their career and rely on mentors who can provide essential support for research, career and professional development. Finding a good mentor can be challenging, but it is often incumbent on the postdoc to find a mentor that adds to their training experience.

Rafael Luna from Boston College spoke on his experiences in transitioning from the bench to institutional leadership through mentoring and shared governance in higher education. He mentioned the importance of building relationships, not only with mentors who help the mentee follow a similar path but also with advisors who help the advisee find their unique career path.

Lisa Kozlowski from from Thomas Jefferson University presented on multiple approaches to mentoring and their value to trainees. Her proposed mentoring strategies included not only their postdoctoral fellowship, but also non-traditional mentoring strategies such as Thomas Jefferson University’s Mentors in Motion and American Women in Science (AWIS) mentoring circles.

Both speakers also referred to the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which provides different mentoring models and resources. Also recommended were resources from Joanne Kamens on mentoring for scientists.

2. Postdoc benefits and advocacy

On the forefront of issues faced by postdocs are the challenges with benefits and advocating for the needs of postdocs. Last year, the BPDA presented a poster of comprehensive comparison of benefits and salary offered at a multitude of Boston area institutes (The Perks of Being a Postdoc in Boston – Creating Transparency in the Benefits Landscape), and this year in Cleveland we were regularly approached by members of other PDAs who expressed that  it inspired them to start similar efforts in their region. 

Regarding specific benefits, childcare was a topic that was often discussed between sessions, and childcare and spouse and partner support for the postdoctoral community was discussed by presenters of UC Berkeley. UC Berkeley sets an excellent example of family support by providing career and professional development counseling as well as family resources to the partners and spouses of postdocs. As  postdoctoral positions can be a substantial time commitment and internationals bring their families with them to the US, it would be great to see other institutes follow this example.

The unique challenges faced by international postdocs was a returning theme at the NPA meeting, not surprising as ~50% of postdocs in the US are international. A well attended session on ‘Meeting the Challenge of Being an International Scholar in the U.S.’ discussed  funding opportunities for internationals, cultural adjustments, and immigration options.. The latter theme inspired us to publish a comprehensive blogpost on the Green Card and other immigration options at the bostonpostdocs.org website. The NPA also provides an ‘International Postdoc Survival Guide’ on their website.

The results of the 2017 NPA survey focusing on workplace sexual harassment among postdocs were presented at the NPA meeting. The numbers were, as in other fields, shocking to hear. Thirty-five percent of respondents reported to be sexually harassed as trainees, and 53% reported to be harassed as graduate students. While the perpetrators are varied, it is clear that the training as a scientist represents a time in which clear power differentials exist and trainees are vulnerable.

The NPA also published its ‘2017 NPA Institutional Policy Report’, which generated a lot of discussion. One of their first recommendations was that at the heart of every strong set of institutional postdoc policy and program sits a vital and vibrant postdoc office (PDO) and postdoc association (PDA). At Tufts, we are fortunate to have both a PDO and a PDA which provide vital support support to the postdoc community. Other major findings from the report were that postdoc-specific policies are essential, that majority of institutions have a minimum stipend for postdocs but do not require annual stipend increases, and that when postdocs are awarded an individual fellowship they often lose access to or receive lesser health insurance. Fortunately, Tufts offers the same healthcare insurance to all postdocs regardless of source of funding. Some remarkable findings were that only 9 percent of institutions report that they track postdocs from disadvantaged backgrounds, and less than half of institutes administer a exit survey mostly because institutes do not know when a postdoc is leaving. It is obvious that within institutes postdocs need to be better tracked on a variety of fronts.

Altogether, the NPA meeting provided a good overview of current challenges and potential solutions facing postdocs, specifically regarding salary and benefits, family resources, and a diverse and safe workplace environment. The Tufts PDA aims to incorporate the lessons learned into the events and advocacy efforts that we will organize in the future.

3. Postdoc Programming

 

The NPA Meeting was an excellent platform for PDA representatives to meet and discuss program initiatives. Attendees had opportunities to talk about successful programs developed by their PDA or institution’s administration and share strategies for successful event and program planning. Many institutions have created series of events in a similar vein, and packaging related events as a series often appeared to promote better engagement. While a large portion of the conversation centered on career development programming, focus was also given to planning social events aimed at increasing the sense of community amongst postdocs.

The Gladstone Institute presented a session on their innovative programming for postdocs and graduate students. Their programs focused on larger themes related to career development, such as exploring career opportunities beyond the bench, mentor training, developing technical scientific skills and scientific support.

A session led by the Washington University PDA discussed strategies for increasing participation in PDA leadership and events. It was recommended to increase community engagement by creating a presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter) or a blog! Other initiatives centered around increasing visibility within the institution and holding social events such as ice skating to form relationships outside of the lab. It was clear in conversations with other PDAs that although Tufts may be small compared to other institutions, our programming and structure is advanced.

Overall, the NPA Annual Meeting was an invaluable opportunity to meet and network with postdocs, administrators, faculty, and industry representatives across the nation. We are optimistic that by working collaboratively we may address common issues faced by the postdoc community at large, and build strong advocates for postdocs within institutions. Building a community of PDAs, both regionally and nationally, and sharing resources, planning ideas and advocacy efforts is mutually beneficial for the success of individual postdocs, PDAs and the institution.

Reminder about Postdoc Dental Clinic Benefits/Services 2018

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We wanted to remind everyone of this e-mail that was sent out back in May:

Effective July 1, 2018, services will no longer be covered at the Tufts University Pre-Doctoral Dental Clinic.

Postdocs who choose to receive treatment at the Tufts University Pre-Doctoral Dental Clinic will be responsible to pay full Dental Clinic rates. For more information regarding the Tufts University Pre-Doctoral Dental Clinic and rates please visit http://dental.tufts.edu/patient-care/.

A voluntary dental insurance plan is also offered to postdocs through Delta Dental. You are not enrolled at this time, you will have to wait until November 2018 to sign up during Open Enrollment. More information can be found on the following website, http://viceprovost.tufts.edu/postdoc/handbook/.