Photo of Charlotte Hacker

Duquesne Fulbright Scholar in China Takes Long, Winding Road Back to Pittsburgh

When Fulbright Scholar Charlotte Hacker left Beijing in mid-January, she had no idea she wouldn't be returning, that she would need to abandon her work researching snow leopards in central Asia and that she would find herself on an adventure that would include extended stays in India, Thailand and a variety of airports before returning to Pittsburgh with only the clothes on her back - all the result of restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite such detours, Hacker is grateful for all the support she received during the past few months, both in China and from Duquesne University, where she is a biology doctoral student at the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences.

"I'm normally an on-the-go person. Being forced to stop and look around for a while has given me a chance to investigate other opportunities," said Hacker, who has been studying snow leopards since 2017 and moved to the Qinghai province of China in June 2019. "Now is a good time to reflect and work on other things."

One of those opportunities is a virtual speaking engagement through the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens website on May 7, where Hacker will discuss her research into the world's most mysterious cat, the snow leopard, and the global efforts needed to conserve them.

While Hacker's research was done outside in a remote region of China, her lab was located in Beijing. Like many people in China, she left the country during Chinese New Year, a major holiday, to work and visit with colleagues in India. With the coronavirus spreading quickly, the Fulbright Student Program informed Hacker she couldn't return to China, even to pick up items in her apartment.

"Fortunately, I had packed everything I needed to get around, such as my identification and laptop," she said. "At first, I was hopeful of returning to China, but it became apparent in just a matter of days that it would be impossible. Most of my belongings are still in the apartment."

After her India trip, Hacker visited a friend in Thailand, where she lived in quarantine for two weeks. Finding flights to return to the U.S. during a pandemic was difficult, but she managed to piece together three flights over three days that eventually got her back to U.S., where she faced differing reactions.

"Some friends were very happy to see me and hug me," she said, noting that the U.S. had not instituted social distancing at the time. "But there were people who kept their distance, given what was happening in China. It was an unusual experience."

After visiting family in South Carolina, Hacker returned to Duquesne hoping to continue her work, when the pandemic shut down most activities on campus.

"I've been lucky to have such great support from my faculty and friends here," Hacker said, noting that friends have given her clothes and a place to live. "I could be in a much more precarious situation if it weren't for them."