‘Acts of God’ during research

I have been on maternity leave since May last year and I imagined my first blog post after a long hiatus would be about something like how I balance children and research, or how excited I was to be back at work, or even the financial burdens of being an international postdoc (£11,000 in visa fees this year alone plus £20,000 in nursery fees, all on a salary that changes with your fellowship!). Instead, we are all facing a potentially life changing global event and trying to figure out how we can continue as if everything is normal when it isn’t.

This isn’t my first ‘act of God’, as the insurance companies would call it. In the first year of my undergraduate, there were two major hurricanes in one year causing the university to shut down. In Australia, we were hit with the massive Queensland floods. Again, the university was shut down and it took weeks to recover. Right after my first maternity leave in Oxford, we were told in a department wide meeting that we would all leave our building at the end of the day and not return because of asbestos. Our department was dispersed, our social links disconnected, and our research capacity unknown for the foreseeable future. It took 18 months before I had a lab again.

For the shorter disruptions, academic endeavours were put on hold and we all just got on with the cleanup. While these events represented great tragedy for some, they were also an opportunity to see the good in people. I will never forget shovelling flood mud while strangers drove by in their ‘ute’ with homemade sandwiches and drinks.

But the longer events, those where the situation changes every day and there is no indication of when things will get back to normal, are much harder to adjust to. Some of the lessons I have learned from our building closure have been positive, others not so much. For good and bad, the consequences for me have been long reaching and even though it was three years ago, some things still feel fresh. When I was asked only a couple of weeks ago whether I was exited to come back from maternity leave, my answer was that I liked working, but I was anxious that something major would go wrong when I returned just as it had last time. At the time, I thought this was an unfounded anxiety and reasoned my way out of it.

And then disruption hit in a form I could never have imagined. Unfortunately I don’t have any pithy advice or silver linings to suggest in this post. What I will write about are a few of the issues that I found most difficult, in the hopes that others can try to avoid them before they become a large problem.

The first issue is that research was impacted and the impacts were unequal between scientists. Some will be able to work from home and be very efficient. Others will have caring responsibilities, or will find it hard to focus during a period of big social change, and get almost nothing accomplished. Differences in publication records and research output will feel disheartening, and it may feel like you will never be competitive again. More senior, tenured researchers will tell you to just do your best and that they will support you. While I don’t want to undermine their kindness, ‘just doing your best’ doesn’t always result in a competitive CV.  This is already a big cause of stress for early career researchers, and for many, the change in working conditions will exacerbate this anxiety.

The second issue I faced was interpersonal conflict. People are stressed when big changes occur. Students are looking for direction from supervisors who are also just trying to muddle through. Peoples livelihoods and long term career ambitions are at stake. This is a time when lab groups can come together and become like family, while others will fall apart and never recover. For individuals that don’t have a support group around them, especially while we are all social distancing, the inevitable conflicts will be destructive. Kindness and compassion from supervisors, but also students are paramount.

Finally, my research confidence took a battering. For several months, I continued to conduct experiments in really disruptive laboratory facilities. A lot of time was spent trying to get easy experiments done, and when they failed one after another, I felt lost as to what to do next. When I finally had a lab again, I found it took a lot of effort to take the plunge and start experiments and I subconsciously designed low risk experiments that likely wouldn’t lead to high impact publications. One rejected grant application comment I received during this period, was that I needed high impact papers, so this lack of confidence has already had an impact on my career.

The time without a lab wasn’t all negative and it won’t be during this lock down. The good collaborators will become really obvious and I found kind people once I learned to tell others what I was going through. I really improved my theoretical knowledge and developed a project I am really excited about. I finally learned R!

I almost ended this post with some pithy advice again, but I will stop myself. This is a time of change and uncertainty and hardship. We may get back to normal, or find a new normal – I don’t know. But in my experience, disruption happens in life and in research and to quote Frozen II, we just need to do the next right thing.