Life at the bench during the coronavirus pandemic: a series

During the pandemic, I found myself searching, applying, and interviewing for jobs in science (more on that in another post). Throughout the experience, I had the opportunity to speak with several scientists, from aspiring graduate students, to postdoctoral fellows, to tenured professors. Men and women scientists alike had strikingly unique stories to share, recounting how their lab work shifted during the past year, how they continued to mentor students (remotely), and what experiments they had to give up. Among the unique stories of challenges and successes I’ve heard, a common thread was that people didn’t really know what to expect next. Everyone just kind of improvised.

Think back to last year, around the 1st week or so of March 2020. Our offices, labs, buildings, suddenly closed down. We were told we might come back in a couple of weeks. We were then told we might come back in a couple of months. Then we kind of stopped trying to guess when we might come back. At that time, I worked a job that was completely uninterrupted by the transition to remote work. In fact, my team actually received an influx of work, and the demand for our services was high. We were lucky. Most scientists, as many other working professionals, who were not working on “essential” research, had to reduce or stop their work. They had to shut down their labs and reduce their ongoing experiments. They had to re-prioritize their work while trying to minimize interruptions to progress. At stake were grants and fellowships with ticking clocks, graduate students who were finishing up projects and almost done, and animal colonies that needed to be maintained, among many others.

For early career scientists, the pandemic can put productivity and even job prospects at risk. We as a community (the scientific community & the general public) need to recognize that each person has his or her own unique set of challenges. We need to support each other now more than ever. For some of us, the pandemic may mean we are unable to take a real mental break. Maybe we can’t visit our loved ones, maybe our work was completely disrupted, or maybe we had to completely change career paths due to hiring freezes. Once normalcy does return, we need to make sure there are resources available to help us get back on track with our lives and our careers.

To that end, I aim to share a few unique stories of inspirational scientists I spoke with during the pandemic. I aim to describe how their work and life changed since the start of the pandemic. My goal is to raise awareness of challenges and successes that scientists have faced this past year. Some stories reveal gender divides we continue to struggle with in science (and, really, just the workplace in general). While others show the simple pleasure of having some data to analyze at home.

Even though our stories may be unique, we are not alone. We need to continue to support each other. We are connected in our desire to make the world a better place. Why not improve our own scientific community?

-Zhannetta

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Zhannetta Gugel

Scientist with interests in ecology, public health, and neuroscience. Former biotech patent analyst. PhD in neurobiology @ Caltech.