Friday, January 5, 2018

Do you tell law enforcement that you work in chemistry?

Via Twitter, an interesting anecdote from a chemistry professor about an incoming postdoc crossing the border into the United States from Canada: 
Received a call from my soon to be Canadian postdoc today from Toronto as he tried to fly to ATL. He was denied entry bc his offer letter packet “was not thick enough”. Seriously???
This started a pretty interesting conversation regarding chemists at the border, including this amusing suggestion from a professor in Spain:
Never ever tell you’re going to a Chemistry conference. Always scientific conference.
I've never dealt with this, mostly because I don't cross international borders very often. I imagine in these days of fears about terrorism, saying "I'm a molecular scientist" seems a little less likely to get the notice of a Customs and Border Protection officer than "I'm a chemist." Anyone else have stories of crossing borders and what that's like as a chemist? 


  1. I'm Canadian and went to grad school in the USA (around the 9-11 era). I occasionally got some probing questions when returning to the US from trips home, centered on the nature of my research. They were generally satisfied with my answers. Of course, it helped that I'm a white guy -- my fellow Canadian students of Middle Eastern origin had a much much harder time.

  2. I've been to several conferences in the US and also applied successfully for a work visa. I always honestly check yes for the ominous "do you know anything about explosives" question. Then there is a comment box where I write that I am a chemist by trade. It's never been an issue, but like the poster above, I'm white and with a "trustworthy" passport, so it's probably less important what I write in these.

  3. One time, as I was going from Canada to the US for Pittcon, I was asked if I had a Gas Chromatogragh in my bag. Ummmm, NO!

  4. Coming through the Philly/NYC airports as an F1 & J1 Chemist has never been an issue for me - but I'm also a young white female. I guess a lot of pharma folk come through there.

    Had a nice chat with one Border Control guy at Newark who told me his father had worked at Dupont/Dow as a bench chemist, amassing a lot of patents for his research. They aren't all hostile to chemists. ;)

  5. Chemists at the Indiana State Institute of the Sciences (ISIS) must really have a problem.

  6. I had an immigration agent at Gatwick ask me the name of the industrial process for producing ammonia. After digging a little in the old noggin slowed by surprise and jet lag, I came up with the Haber process. He let me in, even though HE thought it should be called Haber-Bosch

  7. Reminded me of an anecdote from a former colleague who used to work at a startup that was developing liposomal topical formulations of some old COX inhibitors. When their extremely unpopular CSO entered the US on a trip to a conference and was asked about his profession he truthfully respond that he was an expert in drug delivery. A deep search and much hilarity back home ensued...

  8. I once answered a border office that I was a chemist. He said "like in Breaking Bad, right?". My response: "No, but as far as I can tell, the chemistry on the show is pretty good.".

    Not my brightest answer.

    But he did let me in. (again, white, US passport)

  9. Heard a story about an indian researcher trying to enter the US. Courtesy of the gentleman in charge of the whole VISA business at a well-known research institute. The foreign researcher answered the question "What are you gonna do in the US?" truthfully and got promptly sent back. His reply was: "I work with anthrax."

  10. I learned early in life that "chemist" and "chemistry" are words one should not brag about in embassies and when crossing borders. Never had a bad experience myself but heard from others. As a theoretical chemist, I prefer to say in such cases that I work with computers and that use them to model molecules. Also, I'm not white.

  11. International graduate student here. We have a list of buzz words we do not use during visa interviews and at the border: Chemistry, chemist, drugs, physics, therapeutics, molecules, DNA, chemical biology, radiation, therapy, nuclear....... I can go on and on, but this is the sad state of affairs. Anyone who has played the game 'Taboo' would understand how difficult it is to communicate what you want to say without actually saying the words and staying truthful.

    I personally never had an issue with visa interviews or at the border. Being a computational chemist and going to a top-10 school helps, but I have tons of stories where my friends were denied visas or delayed in the visa issuance process. Here are some:

    1. Third year graduate student boasts he works in high energy physics, promptly gets his visa denied. Applied once again, received a 221-G (aka the pink slip), ends up missing nearly half semester, gets taken off the payroll, ends up spending for rent and livelihood expenses for the remainder of the semester out of pocket. Payroll office, international students office and graduate school says the student cannot work for the remainder of the semester (because he doesn't have an appointment), but adviser asks him to 'spend some time' in the lab. Whose advice does the student take?

    2. Graduate student goes home, gets married to his childhood sweetheart, the partner gets her visa application denied, tries again several times to no avail. After two years, their marriage almost ends up in a divorce but thankfully he gets done with his PhD and finds a postdoc position in the UK, they are now happily living there for the past few years.

    3. Top student with multiple scholarships from a top-5 university goes home, applies for visa, gets the pink slip (a month-long painful wait, which usually ends with good news). Waits for 1 month, no update, contacts the consulate, consulate says passport lost in transit, reapplies for passport, reappears for visa interview, finally gets her visa after a little over two months. One of the conditions for renewal of the scholarship she receives is her continued attendance without any break during the year, faces a few minor issues, but finally manages to get it renewed.

    I can tell more, but you can see the pattern clearly.