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A story of becoming a scientist in the United States

February 17, 2022


By Na Wei, PhD, Scientist, Evolutionary Ecology

Getting a PhD degree is never easy and perhaps more difficult for international students. One of the challenges that many international students face is obtaining visas, which grant legal status to study in the United States.

My story was perhaps more complicated as a Chinese student at the University of Michigan who conducted field work in the tropical rainforests in Central America (Panama) for dissertation research. While the PhD program was five years, the U.S. student visa was only valid for one year and had to be renewed every year if I needed to conduct field work outside the U.S. Renewing a U.S. student visa requires one to be physically outside the U.S. in another country, so my options were going back to China very year or going to Canada which was the closest. The cost of international travels for visa renewal was not trivial for a graduate student. To save money and time, during the 3rd year of my PhD program, I decided to renew my U.S. student visa in Canada instead of China. But, I had to get a Canada tourist visa to enter Canada first and then stayed there for one week to get my U.S. student visa renewed.

With a successfully renewed U.S. student visa every year, I finally was able to travel to the tropical rainforests in Panama. But this was not the end of the story. There was no diplomatic relationship between Panama and China, so I was kept at Customs for an extended period time when entering Panama with a valid U.S. student visa on my Chinese passport. Every time, my passport was taken for additional inspection, and I was asked to wait at Customs for a much longer time than most people. I was jealous that my American lab mates could travel nearly everywhere without such difficulties. When coming back to the U.S. from field work in Panama, I was often checked again for an extended period of time at U.S. Customs due to the student visa status and often missed my connecting flights back to Michigan.   

Figure 1. Tropical rainforests in Barro Colorado Island, Panama.

Was it worth it? Fortunately, yes it was. In the Barro Colorado Island (Figure 1), Panama, I had the opportunity to see amazing tropical rainforests and organisms (Figure 2) for the first time in my life. I worked in the world’s first long-term forest dynamics plot, where every single woody stem that was greater than 10 mm diameter at breast height had been identified, permanently tagged, mapped, and censused every five years since 1980. I learned how to collect leaves from very tall tropical trees (20–40 m) in order to understand their genomes (Figure 3). I also learned how to wait for howler monkeys and capuchin monkeys to drop the leaves for me, which certainly required a lot of patience for these unpaid ‘research assistants’.

Figure 2. Tropical tree Cavanillesia platanifolia
Figure 3. Na Wei conducted research at the Barro Colorado Island, Panama in 2012.

Recognizing the visa challenges, I chose to conduct field work only within the U.S. after my PhD during my postdoctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh (Figure 4). I also gave up the opportunities of invited talks, workshops, and interviews outside the U.S. to avoid the need to renew my visa and Customs inspection.

Figure 4. Field and laboratory work at the US Forest Service, Bend Seed Extractory, Oregon in 2016. Anna Freundlich (left), Dr. Na Wei (middle), and Dr. Tia-Lynn Ashman (right).

Now being a scientist leading the evolutionary ecology lab at Holden, I continue to face visa challenges. I could not obtain my adjunct Assistant Professor appointments at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University due to my visa status.

The path to becoming a scientist is never a straight line for anyone but perhaps extra circuitous for people on visas. And my story is perhaps not unique.

Na Wei, PhD

Na Wei, PhD


My research program seeks to elucidate the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that confer or constrain plant adaptation to environmental change. By leveraging the rich collections of wild apples (or crabapples) and the natural populations of wild strawberries at Holden, our lab addresses eco-evolutionary adaptation through the lenses of ecology, genomics, and microbiome. Currently, we are working on: (1) harnessing microbiome for disease resistance and stress tolerance; (2) examining the perks of genome size in a rapidly changing world; 3) investigating the emerging threats of nanoparticles to the evolution of plant–microbiome interactions; (4) exploring plant–pollinator interactions and their roles in microbiome assembly. To address these questions, we are using interdisciplinary approaches by integrating functional ecology, community ecology, microbial ecology, population genomics, phylogenomics, and quantitative genetics.

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