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Stuck in Peru: Laura Jessup Shares COVID-19 Travel Ban Story

Many stories have been told about people effected by travel bans both foreign and domestic due to COVID-19, but FNR graduate student Laura Jessup was in the thick of it, locked in Peru for several days after attending a workshop when the country’s president Martin Vizcarra closed the borders on March 15.

The trip may have been doomed from the start. A workshop studying how plant traits are affected by climate change and fire, was originally slated to take place in Chile, then the relocated event in Peru was shut down a week early as the country closed its borders due to COVID-19 concerns, stranding Jessup, a PhD student, and 26 other members of her class. 

“The course was actually originally scheduled to be in Chile, but about the time they were finalizing the plans for it, Chile had real major political unrest, so they figured Chile wouldn’t really be safe anymore, so at the last minute they moved it to Peru,” said Jessup’s advisor Jeff Dukes, Professor of Forestry & Natural Resources & Biological Sciences and Director of Purdue Climate Change Research Center. “And then all of this happened. So, it was sort of a three-hour tour, if you get the Gilligan’s Island reference.”

Jessup, who is part of the ecological science in engineering interdisciplinary graduate program in addition to being an FNR student, first heard about the plant trait course from Dukes. 

Jessup research travel, mountain scene.

“The opportunity to get hands-on training in trait-based ecology was really exciting, as well as the opportunity to travel at the same time,” Jessup said. “Field work and travelling are two things that I love, so I was pretty immediately drawn to the idea of the class. The class wasn’t just field work, it was also learning how to do open science and learning how to analyze data and work with data and work with a team collaboratively. So, above and beyond just learning the measurement techniques in the field, I was very excited to learn how scientists work together over broad geographical areas. We had people from 12 countries there.”

The workshop fit soundly within Jessup’s research on carbon storage. The DeWitt, Michigan, native is especially interested in roots ecology, below ground ecology and how and why plants allocate carbon to certain organs – whether roots, leaves or stems. The course looked at leaves across an elevation gradient, kind of a climate change gradient. 

As you move up the mountain and climate change happens, the elevation will be indicative of future environmental changes, so we can see what plant communities are like at this elevation vs. this elevation and that might tell us how plant communities are going to change,” Jessup explains. “We were specifically looking at how plant traits, specifically leaf traits might change due to climate.” 

An ominous cloud began forming over the trip the day that Jessup was due to depart for Peru as an email was circulated from Purdue regarding the cancellation of university-sponsored spring break travel and study abroad trips. 

“It was kind of disconcerting receiving an email from Purdue the morning I was getting on a bus to head to O’Hare,” Jessup recalls. “I technically didn’t fall into those categories, but I thought, ‘should I?’ In the back of my mind, I knew that there was a possibility that something like this could happen, but I think I was very optimistic that it wouldn’t get that bad in three weeks or whatever so I would be able to return on time. I think a lot of the participants in the course said the same thing… they knew that it didn’t seem quite right to be traveling but they were optimistic that it was going to be ok.

“One thing that Jeff (Dukes) said to me when I was still in Peru is that this is a good exercise in exponential thinking. We are very familiar with the idea of exponential growth especially as it relates to the coronavirus, with its perfect exponential curve, but our responses to that need to be exponential as well. We need to anticipate exponentially. So, instead of being cautious when I left, I probably should have just cancelled the trip, which would have seemed extreme at the time, but looking back would probably have been the right thing to do.”

In spite of initial concerns, Jessup and 46 others made their way to Cusco, Peru, for the workshop and began their work in earnest, heading to a remote village three hours from Cusco in Manu National Park. 

 
Jessup Titter post, thanks for trait course.Jessup Twitter post, trip to Peru, field work in Wayquecha.
 
Everything changed on March 13 when word began to spread that flight between Europe and South America were closing, prompting the Europeans in the group, which accounted for nearly half of the class, to scramble to rebook flights with very little internet access and get back to Cusco with hopes of making it home. 
 
 “The South Americans, North Americans and even one woman from South Africa, we were just biding our time and hoping that the same thing wouldn’t happen to us. In hindsight, we should have put it together that it was going to happen, but alas we did not,” Jessup recalls. “So, as that drama was kind of ramping up, people were leaving the station one by one to go back to Europe. And then (March 15) the Sunday before the ban was actually put into place, the President announced that he was closing the borders and there was going to be an internal travel ban as well. 
 
“We found out around 8 p.m. and we started packing up our entire field lab, which is huge amount of equipment, and we packed up all of our stuff, packed our busses and started driving out of the Andes on these crummy mountain roads, in the dark with tired drivers. It was pretty scary. We didn’t know what we were going to encounter. As soon as we arrived in Cusco, there was a mad scramble for everyone to contact their embassies and whatnot. That was the most dramatic and stressful part of the whole ordeal. That part kind of felt like a movie.”
 
Jessup Twitter post, travel ban placed in Peru.Jessup Twitter post, Peru closed borders for 15 days.
 
Once the group arrived in Cusco, they were housed in the same hotel and were able to eat together and watch movies together, and yes, still conduct research.
 
We had thousands of leaves and ideally all of those leaves need to be picked apart in very particular ways and weighed in a very particular way and scanned, and the thickness needs to be measured and the data needs to be entered,” Jessup explained. “We were able to finish processing the leaves that we had already collected, while we were in the hotel in Cusco, and we were able to write up a data documentation file, which states what data we collected, all of the units, what it was intended for, and what our hypotheses were. Those documents are really important for having open data, so that anyone can use it in the future and it doesn’t just sit in a hard drive somewhere.  So, we were able to get that done. Ideally, we might have been able to make some headway on analyzing our data and writing it up in a manuscript format that could be submitted to a journal. We did chip away at those sorts of things, but I think we would have made a lot more progress had we all been together and under much less stressful situations.”
 
Jessup Twitter post, still can't make it home, processing leaves.Jessup Twitter post, stx days in Cusco.
 
In addition to putting a monkey wrench in the research portion of the workshop, the travel bans also meant cancelling Jessup’s personal travel plans, which would have put her in Machu Pichu for her 27th birthday, after the end of the workshop. 
 
There is a silver lining there; I would have spent my birthday alone in Machu Pichu, which would have been cool, but I also got spend it with a bunch of people I have become really close to,” Jessup said. “The scenery was not as a good as Machu Pichu, but the company was better. That was definitely one of the highlights. It was initially the celebration of when the course was supposed to end. At that point we no longer needed to have lectures about inclusive teaching or R coding. We had music and dancing and the hotel made pizza for us. There was cake and ice cream. I really could not have asked for more. I am really glad that my birthday got lumped in with that celebration because on my actual birthday we found out that we were no longer allowed to eat together, which was a crushing blow. But, there were a lot of really happy times, despite the situation.”
 
Jessup Twitter post, celebrated bday in hotel quarentine.Jessup Twitter post, Day 8 no more group gatherings, alone.
The fact that they were in such a big group of people who had become close knit very quickly was the thing that kept them all going. Jessup said the group tried to keep things light and having each other was definitely a saving grace. 
 
“I firmly believe that it was the correct thing for the president to do,” Jessup shared. “He was protecting his country by closing the borders, even though that meant thousands of Americans and other tourists were trapped. I think we were comforted right away by the idea that ‘our suffering’ served a purpose and was for the greater good of everyone, even though at the time, it was kind of terrible.”
 
When word came down of the border closing, Jessup was only able to send a few direct messages via twitter to Dukes as internet connectivity was spotty and two-factor authentication was prohibitive. 

Dukes, in turn, informed university personnel and eventually University President Mitch Daniels about Jessup’s plight and that of several other Purdue-affiliated individuals. 
 
“She was able to get occasional tweets out but wasn’t able to do email or web or anything from the field station,” Dukes recalls. “When they got down to Cusco we were in contact every day in one way or another. In the meantime, the deans were getting concerned and lots of people were following her saga. Our federal relations team in Washington D.C., got involved and started working with one of the senators and then of course there was a letter from the university and several universities. It sounded like there was a bit of a diplomatic back and forth with Peru about letting citizens out from both countries. Laura was communicating with me and also some with Tim Filley, a professor in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, who is part of a large Purdue-Peru program there at a university in Arequipa. Tim and I were in touch with a whole bunch of deans and everybody on up to the president’s office was kept aware of what was going on. 
 
“I can imagine that it would have been incredibly disconcerting to be in her shoes. In the grand scheme of things, we can count her and ourselves to be incredibly lucky compared to a lot of what is going on in the world. It will be great to have her back.”
While things were done on her behalf in the states, Jessup took solace in finally being able to reach her family and friends once in Cusco. 
 
“I wasn’t able to email my family or get in contact with them, I was only able to send messages to Jeff. That was really hard,” Jessup stated. “Upon arriving in Cusco when I could send as many emails or messages that I wanted, I was able to talk to my brother and my dad. Having that contact was really important. I hope that is one thing that gets taken away from this whole isolation ordeal that everyone is going through, is the importance of human connections. In academia, sometimes people are so focused on work that they forget about the people behind the work.”
 
For several days, Jessup and others in Peru had no contact with the U.S. Embassy, but eventually they began receiving emails saying that work was being done to set up repatriation flights. For about a week, the group would have a daily update meeting to see where everyone stood as far as getting to their respective homes. 
 
"There was so much uncertainty that I would almost have preferred them to say, you aren’t going home until the travel ban is lifted. (which at this point it has been extended to April 12). The uncertainty was the hardest thing,” Jessup notes. “I didn’t know if I could do my laundry, if it would have enough time to dry, or if I was going to have to pack up in the middle of the night and go.”
Group members finally received an email at around 9 or 10 p.m. on March 25 stating that they needed to show up at the airport around 9:30 a.m. the following day for repatriation. 
 
“We got there at 7 to wait in line outside the airport,” Jessup remembers. “We stood in line outside the airport for a long time but the weather was nice so we were happy to be outside. We had to sign a promissory note that we would pay back the U.S. government, but we weren’t told how much we were going to have to pay. It was a situation where we had to sign it or stay indefinitely. It wasn’t much of a choice. There was a large military presence, there were riot police and K-9 units, but none of it every became necessary because it was very civilized. We flew from Cusco to Lima, where we refueled but noone got off the plane. A lot of the airport employees, flight attendants and people working at the airport in Lima would come onto the plane and take pictures of us. They got a really big kick out of it.”
 
From Lima, the group flew to Miami and when the plane touched down in Miami, everyone cheered. After a quick trip through customs, it was off to a hotel for the night. 
 
“When we arrived in Miami, there was a curfew,” Jessup said. “We hadn’t eaten all day because there was no food on the repatriation flights. So, when we got to this crummy little hotel outside the Miami airport, the only thing that was open and would deliver to us was Papa Johns. I have never tasted Papa Johns that was so good as what I ate on the floor of that hotel. We were very happy to be there. 
 
Jessup Twitter post, Day 11 start our way back to U.S.Jessup Twitter post, Day 12 made it to hotel in Maimi.
 

The next morning, Jessup flew back to O'Hare and then, to minimize her contact with people, she rented a car instead of taking one of the shuttles and made her way back to West Lafayette.

After giving herself time to process the saga and return to daily life, albeit once again in quarantine, Jessup has returned to science. 

 
Jessup Twitter post, working from home.Jessup Twitter post, leaf processing skills coming in handy.
 

She has been in daily contact with those from the workshop and the subgroup she was working with in Peru is hoping to write up a manuscript for a journal on the specific question how interspecific variability in leaf traits changes over an ecological gradient.

"At this point, I kind of miss them," Jessup retorts.

Jessup continues to keep her sense of humor as she retweets articles detailing her saga and those of many others still seeking to return home. Follow @lauraseesplants on twitter for more. 

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