Exchange Student

Opinion: Without foreign exchange students, we lose a vital transfer of knowledge

Mark Lautens is a JB Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto.

As we all know, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on travel and tourism. Perhaps less appreciated is the dramatic change to scientific exchange programs. Basically, they stopped completely.

Should we continue to discourage or even prohibit students coming from abroad when they offer so much to the Canadian scientific research effort? Some are pushing to follow that path. I hope not.

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While Zoom meetings are useful for sharing data and having a discussion, they are clearly not ideal for actually doing science in the laboratory. The hands-on experience of experimental work is vital to the transfer of knowledge. Lab work was halted in the early days of the pandemic, but is now possible, with restrictions.

In the past months I have welcomed several students who travelled considerable distances and followed all the rules without a peep of complaint. In fact, they are grateful to be here doing research in Canada. Despite the challenges, the newest members of our community are showing what they are made of.

Let me briefly tell their stories.

Each year my laboratory typically hosts five visitors from abroad. Most are graduate students looking to explore a new field of research – one different than their doctoral projects back home. The best exchanges involve those with complementary skills that lead to a win-win for them and my group members.

They spend four to 12 months doing research, working shoulder-to-shoulder with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and undergraduates. Shoulder-to-shoulder has a very different meaning these days, but the fact remains they have to work with others, though at a distance and with all safety protocols in place. It is a challenge.

The pandemic put an end to these visits for months and months. Many universities were hesitant about having students abroad and called them home at considerable cost and inconvenience. Safety first.

But the itch to gain and share knowledge is powerful. The only way to scratch the itch was to see if there was a safe way to host visits from abroad. Fortunately, our university set up detailed quarantine protocols to make it possible. Initially it meant being taken directly from the airport to a hotel and having all their meals delivered over a 14-day quarantine period. Not exactly a warm welcome but absolutely necessary. More recent rules include a three-day hotel stay at the airport, followed by a 14-day quarantine and PCR tests.

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Are they a risk to others? They wear masks for hours at a time in well-ventilated laboratories. They stay two metres apart all day long. They work shifts to reduce crowding in the laboratories. They have taken all reasonable precautions.

I have had young scholars from Germany and Switzerland undertake this voyage, and both are now working in our laboratory. Unlike what some may imagine of student exchange visits, they agreed to visit knowing they could not do a grand tour of Canada before or after their exchange. No trips to Banff and the Rockies. No weekend fun and games.

Sadly, so little is permitted that their life is the lab, their apartment and the walk in between. Yet they are smiling. Ear-to-ear smiling. One requested to extend her stay as she is enjoying the research so much. Who would have imagined this outcome?

The great songwriter John Prine once said that if you write a story song, you either need a strong ending or a moral. So here is the moral: Young people are getting a bad rap. They are not irresponsible, any more than the rest of us. Most are living lives so different than we did at their age. It sucks. Totally sucks. Those in university have hardly had the blast many of us did back in the day. But they are finding a way to be productive and to continue their educational journey – and doing it without complaint.

It is really worth remembering in these dark days. A little light when we need it most.

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