‘Fish out of water’: The Iranian PhD student suffering without a lab

japan's travel restrictions
"Many scientists (including Japanese ones) have reported that the Omicron variant is mild and there are very few cases in the country (below 100 a day)," Hana says. Source: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP

Hana (name changed upon request), an Iranian student enrolled in a university in Hokkaido, Japan, feels like a fish out of water. Japan’s travel restrictions have shut its borders on students for over a year — turning Hana into a researcher without a lab.

“It’s actually affecting my mental and physical health,” the PhD student says. “So much so, that I’ve had to see a therapist.”

We caught up with Hana to learn more about how she’s coping with Japan’s travel bans:

Walk us through your PhD studies and where your interest in your course came from.

I’ve always wanted to be a researcher. When I was a veterinary student in Iran, I did a lot of research on a type of cattle disease and I was motivated to advance in the topic. 

After I graduated, I found a position through my uni to study in Japan. My supervisor has very advanced knowledge on that specific disease which made me apply for a PhD. 

What then made you choose to study abroad in Japan?

Hearing about how amazing the lab facilities are at Japanese unis and their high-ranking professors, drew me to the country. I have a very scientific mind so I want to study and research in Japan because I’m sure I would excel. 

With Japan’s travel restrictions, what difficulties are you facing with your studies?

The first thing everyone would mention is the online classes that take place at night but I’m actually okay with that — classes at night and working during the day with little sleep. What I’m not okay with is not being able to do my research which needs to take place at a lab facility on campus. 

Keeping a researcher away from their lab is like keeping a fish out of water. It’s actually affecting my mental and physical health. So much so, that I’ve had to see a therapist. 

I’ve gotten top marks with all the theoretical work from my online classes but unfortunately, research is not something that can be done remotely.

What do you think needs to be done for those affected by Japan’s travel restrictions?

The only thing that would help stranded students affected by Japan’s travel restrictions is letting them back in the country. Especially research students because our education is not sustainable online. 

Many scientists (including Japanese ones) have reported that the Omicron variant is mild and there are very few cases in the country (below 100 a day). I really hope they open the borders as soon as possible. 

What about your uni? Are they supporting you?

Yes, my uni in Japan is very supportive. The staff and my supervisor are doing everything they can to help me continue my education.

What backup plan do you have if Japan’s travel restrictions continue?

I really hoped and planned for my education to be solely in Japan. For eight to nine months, I designed my research plan ready to enter the lab. 

I love my research subject so I will wait a while longer but I’m very much afraid they won’t open the borders at all. With this, I’m trying to search for other opportunities but also hope that Japan’s travel restrictions will lift. 

Any words of advice for students who want to study in Japan?

A lot of students on Twitter have asked me what I think about studying in Japan and I advise them to forget about it during the pandemic. This is sad because Japan is a great country and student destination but I don’t want these students to be in my situation because it takes a mental toll.