Alexander Lund Nielsen

My name is Alexander Lund Nielsen and I am a final-year Ph.D. student at the Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology at University of Copenhagen. In early 2020, I travelled to La Jolla (near San Diego), California to pursue 6-months as a Fulbright Visiting Research Fellow at The Scripps Research Institute.

My Stay in the US. During a Worldwide Pandemic

During my Ph.D. program it has always been my desire to go abroad and especially to one of the best places doing medicinal chemistry. Thus, I had setup to work with Professor of Chemistry Kim D. Janda working on developing vaccines against opioid addictions that would allow me to try and work in a world-class competitive laboratory in the US. while also having an impact on the opioid crisis in the US.

(Article continues under picture)

Fulbright Grants

Each year Fulbright Denmark awards grants to top Master and PhD-students wanting to study in the U.S.

Learn More

" It has always been my desire to go abroad and especially to one of the best places doing medicinal chemistry. Here I am (to the left) with my lovely lab mates Lewis and Lucy with whom I worked closely with in the lab."

- Alexander Lund Nielsen, Fulbrighter 2020

When I was awarded my Fulbright grant in May 2019 I was extremely excited – not only from the financial aid provided from Fulbright to cover the (many) expenses related to moving to an expensive part of the US, but even more from the prestige and the doors that Fulbright helps to open.

I first got to experience the hospitality of Fulbright before even going to the US. I was originally going to the US in Fall 2019, but a few days before my stay (already with an approved visa in my passport) I had to realize that I had to postpone my stay due to medical complications. However, Fulbright and Scripps were very supportive and after successful surgery and recovery, I was quickly issued a new visa at the embassy and was finally ready to go to the US. in start of February 2020.

At that time, the first whispers of the Corona pandemic had already started – but not in the Western world yet. I clearly remember flying to the United States and looking at the 2 persons on the plane wearing masks, not having any clue that a few months later, all of us would be wearing it in California.

Quickly after moving into a shared house in La Jolla, I was lucky to join an amazing Fulbright Enrichment Seminar and meet with 100+ other “Fulbrighters” from all around the world. Shortly thereafter my stay was greatly affected by the COVID19 pandemic, as everywhere else in the world. After about a month of being in the lab, and by following the Danish news media back home, Denmark suddenly went on complete lockdown. But at that time it was still portrayed as a “European” problem and like US. was completely exempt of cases – which turned out to be an illusion. It was only around 1 week later that the severity of the pandemic also hit California, which shut down the state.

I must admit that is was the hardest part of my stay in the US. First of all, I was not sure whether or not I was allowed to stay in the US. Secondly, I was unsure about how long the lab ,that I worked in, would be shut down. While I saw a lot of international students leave the US. at that time, I was persistent and thought I would wait it out. At that time I had already postponed once going to the US., so I decided to only fly home if the lab was not to re-open before my departure date in August 2020.

However, once the first week of uncertainties, the quarantine turned out much greater than expected. Scripps Research quickly became one of the leading institutions (worldwide) in COVID research and thus it was quickly announced that they were aiming for a safe reopening along with a free weekly COVID19 test-platform for all employees. At the same time, I had to change the original topic of my stay to instead focus on working on designing small-molecule inhibitors of botulinum neurotoxin – a potential bioterrorism reagent; as it would be easier to fit working hours on such a project, as that would not require working with animals. The weeks of lockdown gave me time to read up on the topic literature, while breaks were spent on wonderful long runs along the beach or riding my bike in the wonderful surroundings; and after 6 weeks of home-office, I was suddenly back in the lab – now with mandatory face mask.

(The article continues under picture)

"It is a unique opportunity, and even with more things being virtual rather than in-person, I would still recommend experiencing studying in the US at top-research institutions and universities"

- Alexander Lund Nielsen, Fulbrighter 2020

With around 3.5 months left at my stay at that time, I dedicated most my time working extremely hard in the laboratory. As the project(s) I was working on seemed to work very well (that’s not always expected in science!) my motivation was high, which makes it easier working long hours – and doing so efficiently. I was also extremely happy to find myself at Scripps, as breaks from work could be spend with wonderful friends and colleagues ocean swimming, running or playing golf at the wonderful Torrey Pines Golf Course right next to Scripps overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

And suddenly, the last months went by, and in the beginning of August I suddenly realized that I was soon to end my stay. At that time, a bit of home-sickness was also slowly arising as neither friends or family had been able to visit me in the US. due to the pandemic.

When leaving Scripps, most people felt sorry for me being in the US. under this pandemic. I ended up not feeling that way at all. I had an absolutely wonderful stay – academically the stay turned out even more successful than I had anticipated beforehand and my first co-authored peer-reviewed article from my stay was already published last month in the academic Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

I learned to work extremely focused and determined, and got to do a lot of cool chemistry with a group of very talented colleagues. Secondly, I got to meet a lot of wonderful friends at Scripps that I surely hope to re-visit whenever the US. border opens again and when the COVID pandemic is under control. So I could not have wished for a better stay given the situation(s) I was put in before and during my stay.

A Few Words of Advice for New Fulbrighters Embarking for the US.

The future months and/or years will likely be affected by the on-going pandemic, but do not let that stop you from having a good academic and social time in the US. It is a unique opportunity, and even with more things being virtual rather than in-person, I would still recommend experiencing studying in the US at top-research institutions and universities – and I am thankful for Fulbright Denmark for giving me the opportunity and for the support throughout my stay