IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After protests, UC San Diego agrees not to fire Chinese postdoc who raised concerns

The case sparked a wave of activism from the scholar's peers while her visa was put in jeopardy.
Protesters gather in support of f Li Jiang at the University of California San Diego.
Protesters gather in support of Li Jiang at the University of California, San Diego.Student Researchers United-UAW

The University of California, San Diego has reached a settlement with Li Jiang, a postdoctoral scholar from China who said her contract was left to expire after she raised concerns about data methodology in her lab, potentially forcing her to return to China as she neared the end of pregnancy. 

The case sparked a wave of activism from her peers that culminated in an agreement reached last Friday. The settlement — negotiated by Jiang, UC San Diego, and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) — will allow Jiang to stay in the country, continue working at UC San Diego in a different lab under a new supervisor, who is the chair of her department, and keep her health benefits. 

In an email to NBC News, Jiang said that although she was grateful for the settlement and the support of her colleagues, her experience over the last few months has been “terrifying.” 

“I feared many things — losing my job, losing my visa and having to leave the country, and also for my career in general,” she said. “And as soon as I knew I was pregnant, I feared for my child and our future. I tried to work out how I would travel back to China alone, with no income and no health coverage, and have a baby.” 

Jiang said her case exemplifies the “leaky pipeline” of women in academia, pointing to research from the American Academy of Political and Social Science that shows that marriage and childbirth are some of the most significant barriers keeping graduate students who are women from achieving the highest levels of success in science-related fields. 

A spokesperson for UC San Diego said the university does not discuss individual personnel cases. In a statement to Inside Higher Ed this month, UC San Diego said that the “health, well-being and safety of our campus community members is our top priority” and that allegations of harassment are taken very seriously. 

Jiang, who has worked at UC San Diego for more than four years and whose contract has been renewed multiple times, said in January that she had questioned the integrity of some data and research methodology in a lab in the pathology department, after which she said her supervisor’s behavior toward her changed significantly. 

Jiang said her supervisor told her shortly after she voiced those concerns that her research appointment would not be extended again, but she could extend it for a few months if she produced “certain data on a short timeline.” 

“I worked very hard to produce this data, and tried to overcome all the obstacles that come with scientific research, especially while pregnant, but it was not possible within the short timeline,” Jiang said in an email to NBC Asian America. 

UAW filed a formal grievance on Jiang’s behalf on July 15, alleging that her termination violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the university and calling for Jiang to be reappointed, according to the settlement. That agreement is currently being renegotiated between the union and the university, with talks expected to wrap up sometime in the fall, the union says.

On Aug. 3, San Diego determined that no violation of the bargaining agreement had occurred. UAW objected to that decision, according to the settlement. On Aug. 7, in her seventh month of pregnancy, Jiang’s contract was set to expire, putting her visa in jeopardy. 

“Time was of the essence,” Adam Caparco, a UAW executive board member, who is also a postdoc at UC San Diego, told NBC Asian America.

That week, about 100 people picketed in front of the building that houses the pathology department. Some of them threatened to occupy the office of the department chair, according to UAW 5810, the union that specifically represents postdoctoral researchers in the UC system. 

“I had heard the term solidarity before, but my community and union gave me the chance to see it in action,” Jiang said in an email. 

The university finally settled last Friday, granting Jiang a bridge appointment with her current pay and benefits until Jan. 15, 2023, or until she can transfer to her husband’s visa. 

Jiang’s case is indicative of the challenges faced by many international postdocs, whose visa statuses are tied to precarious career situations that are particularly prone to workplace bullying and retaliation. 

A survey published in November 2020 in the journal Nature of more than 7,600 postdoctoral researchers in nearly 100 countries showed that three-fourths of respondents had observed power imbalances and bullying in the workplace. More than 40% reported observing gender discrimination, and 37% had seen racial discrimination or harassment. 

“It is clear that a power imbalance exists in academia, and women of color specifically pay the highest price,” Jiang said.