Trials & Tribulations of International Travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Trials & Tribulations of International Travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Phoenix Rogers

Around this time two years ago I first heard about the opportunity presented by LOREX to travel abroad and collaborate on an international research project. I was at the 2019 Society for Freshwater Science annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah sharing my research ideas, connecting with colleagues, and learning more about the work being done in our field. Conferences always give me so much inspiration and remind me why I choose to become an aquatic ecologist. However, it’s very easy to get burned out with events like this considering the amount of social interactions and the information overload from all the presentations. After the third or fourth day I took a short break to decompress and reset. During this time, I was still filled with energy and inspiration, so I took to the internet to explore ways I can continue expanding my skills as an aquatic ecologist. It was here that I came across the LOREX program and was immediately interested in the opportunity it presented.

For anyone unfamiliar with the LOREX program, it’s a chance for U.S.-based graduate students in the fields of limnology and oceanography to engage in an international research project. The program provides logistical support, workshops focused on preparing students for their project, and financial support for food, travel, and lodging expenses. The program was limited to a few countries: Canada, Sweden, Israel, and Australia. I had an initial idea of creating a project centered around the impact of climate change on Arctic streams, so Sweden seemed like the perfect location for me to look into. The next step was to identify a researcher in Sweden who would be willing to collaborate with me and serve as my mentor on this project. I eventually stumbled upon Dr. Ryan Sponseller at Umeå University. Dr. Sponseller was involved with some very intriguing projects and seemed like the right person to connect with for a collaboration.


A small stream flows through a small valley in Stekenjokk, Sweden.
Figure 1. One of the many streams we collected samples from in the Stekenjokk, Klimpfjäll, a remote and mountainous area in north-central Sweden. We sampled a total of 7 lakes and many of their inlets over the course of 9 days in the field – a feat that wouldn’t have been possible without the use of helicopters to transport between our sites!


What are the odds of coming across someone like that to collaborate with to later find out they worked in the exact same lab I’m currently in? Well, that was the case with Ryan, who previously held a faculty position at the University of Alabama where I’m currently studying. And now his lab is the one I am currently working in and writing this blog from. I’m still a little embarrassed about not knowing that before reaching out to him. Dr. Sponseller and I exchanged ideas until we came up with a project that would investigate how future climate change would impact Arctic streams by using a space-for-time approach. I built and submitted my proposal for LOREX from this idea, hoping that it was enough to get me into the LOREX program.


I was going to Sweden in the summer of 2020 – or so I thought.

Little did I know a global pandemic was about to change all that.


Fast forward a couple months and I was overcome with excitement when I got the email that my proposal had been accepted! I was going to Sweden in the summer of 2020– or so I thought. Little did I know a global pandemic was about to change all that. Before the country shut-down due to COVID-19 I was in the process of tweaking my project in order to add to some planned work by Dr. Sponseller and one of his colleagues, Dr. Pär Byström to look at what’s driving brown trout ontogeny in Arctic systems. This was a big shift from my original proposal, but it gave me the opportunity to join a larger group of researchers on a really interesting project so I was ecstatic to join them on that endeavor and add to their planned work. However, in the wake of COVID-19 I was not able to join the team in Sweden during the summer of 2020. Much of that summer was instead spent quarantining at home, daydreaming about what could have been. I wasn’t sure if the world would ever go back to ‘normal’ again, allowing me to go to Sweden for the project I had been developing and tweaking for months. I didn’t want to give myself false hope about participating in the program down the road. It wasn’t until late in the spring of 2021 that I began to think that things might improve enough for me to be able to safely travel to Sweden this summer.

Before I could ever travel to Sweden, there was an array of things that needed to be done beforehand. I needed to receive approval to travel from both my home institution and Umeå University, where I would be hosted. My collaborators in Sweden were able to acquire approval for me from Umeå University, but for my home institution the process took a bit longer. I had to request and submit an international travel waiver, and this ended up taking a while to put together. My travel waiver then had to be approved by an international travel committee and the University of Alabama Provost. Waiting for the decision was nerve-wrecking to say the least, but also so uplifting and exciting when I received full approval for me trip! I felt one big step closer to making this trip to Sweden a reality.

Preparing for an international research trip is hard enough without also dealing with a global pandemic, but I made all the necessary precautions and I’m very pleased to say I safely made it to Umeå, Sweden on June 18th, 2021! Seeing Sweden for the first time, meeting my collaborators in person, and working in this new environment has me feeling very grateful to be here. Our first trip to the field was particularly rewarding since I was finally able to see my research project come to life after all the work I put into developing it. What started as a more independent endeavor to investigate the impacts of future climate change on insect communities in Arctic streams, became a team effort to better understand the drivers of brown trout ontogeny in Swedish lakes and streams.

I’m looking forward to sharing more about my research project in my next blog, but here’s the broad research question I was trying to answer: is the flux of invertebrate drift from inlets into lakes supporting brown trout production? To address this question, I measured the flux of invertebrates drifting into lakes and will later be analyzing the gut contents of lake-living brown trout to determine if and how much they’re consuming invertebrates drifting into the lake.

The journey to where I am now was filled with trials, tribulations, and many changes from what I had initially envisioned, but after an exciting first few weeks it’s clear that the experiences and memories I’m making here have been worth the effort. It’s a long list of people who helped me get to this point and I can not thank you all enough for your help and encouragement. My Swedish collaborators have been especially great hosts, making me feel very at-home and welcomed! I’m eager to make the most of my remaining time in Sweden and excited to share these experiences with you in future blogs.

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