COVID-19 and Staying Sane

We are living in an insane time. Within the past month, a lot of the world has been put on lockdown, toilet paper is a rare commodity for some reason, and a new virus is sweeping across the world. For many researchers such as myself, this pandemic has shut down a huge portion of our lives since labs are no longer open. Terrifyingly enough, we now have to get used to doing all our work cooped up in our homes. 

When working at home, it’s extremely easy to beat yourself up for not being as driven or productive as you would like, but here is the most important thing for you to remember: NO ONE IS EXPECTING YOU TO BE AS PRODUCTIVE AS YOU WERE BEFORE. This pandemic is unprecedented, and it is causing everyone’s lives to go haywire. Adjusting to such big changes is hard, and it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect you to maintain the same level of productivity during these crazy times. 

For many researchers, lab work is a huge portion of time that is suddenly gone. At least for me, filling the hole that the lack of research has left has been challenging. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to keep working and building research skills while social distancing. Here are a couple of things: 

  1. Learn a new programming language. Codeacademy is giving away Pro memberships to the first 10,000 people to sign up with a .edu email address because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Codeacademy is meant for absolute beginners, it does provide a good jumping-off point into further work with programming. Aside from Codeacademy, Datacamp has courses in data analysis languages as well, covering Python, R, Command-Line, and more. 
  2. Brush up on your bioinformatics. There are some really great resources available online tutorials and example datasets to practice on. Bioconductor, for instance, has a huge list of online resources and example data sets to practice using R as a biologist. There are also many tutorials online for using the command-line in bioinformatics, one of which can be found here
  3. Use your social media as a scientist. Now more than ever, Twitter is the perfect place to read about the newest advances in science and jump in on the discussion as well. Even on topics unrelated to COVID-19, scientific discussion is thriving now more than ever. 
  4. Work on your writing skills. While this is probably obvious to any researcher, I still feel like I should mention this. Take this time to write a new review, finally write that Materials and Methods section, or just finish up anything that might be waiting on your to-do list. 
  5. Find out more about something random that interests you by reading a bunch of literature. Whether this is just catching up on a huge backlog of papers you need to get around to reading, or diving headfirst into a completely new field, 

But what can you do outside of work to stay sane? One great thing you can do to fill this new time is to find a new hobby! Baking bread is weirdly popular now, with my coworkers sharing recipes and pictures of the masterpieces they made (if you’re looking for a neat recipe, check out this one). If you’re also looking to contribute to stopping the spread of COVID-19, you could do something simple like sewing face masks as well.

One of the most important things you have to do during this time is to take mental health days. This could be as simple as just taking one day a week to not think about work and focus on relaxing. These breaks can go a long way in reminding you that work doesn’t control your life, even though it might seem like that now more than ever. 

This is a difficult time for everyone, and learning how to adapt to a life without physical work is extremely challenging. By taking small steps, we can all learn to adapt and come out of this pandemic as stronger researchers.

Longing for the lab

I’m a final year PhD student, studying the relationship between gut bacteria and colon cancer using a benign cell line model. Last Tuesday, the UK government announced a lockdown, and those institutions that were still open, closed their doors.

So, like a batch of fresh samples, my experiments have been put on ice. It’s a scary time for a lot of fledgling researchers, with no contingency plan for bursary or lab time extensions currently in place. Many PhD students, like myself, will find themselves attempting to write thesis chapters a lot earlier than they had planned.

I’ve witnessed first hand, as my peers have battled through the ordeal, that tackling the big beast of thesis writing can lead to all kinds of delirium. In my recent writing-induced malaise, I’ve found myself longing to be back in lab. Surprisingly, I’m even finding myself reminiscing about some of the more tedious tasks, such as:

  1. Passaging cell lines. Looking after cells, particular benign or primary cell lines, is like having a child. They always need something, and if you dare to upset them, pray for your lab results/sanity. Shared tissue culture facilities also pose their own problems, and I’m sure most cell biologists would admit to a small level of constant paranoia: Are my cells ok? But, what I wouldn’t give for the simplicity of easing myself into a busy week of lab work by splitting a flask of cells on a Monday morning.
  2. Visiting the liquid nitrogen freezer. Liquid nitrogen freezers are scary. Lab managers just love to regale fresh inductees with horror stories as a way of teaching the importance of appropriate eye protection. They’re also usually kept somewhere out of the way and with good ventilation. In my experience, this is almost exclusively a damp, cold, cellar-like room somewhere far, far away from where you actually conduct your lab work. There is, however, a sort of tranquility about lifting the lid off of the freezer, and watching the gas silently flow out like the world’s quietest volcano.
  3. Transporting samples between labs. As part of my work, I’m lucky enough to work with some foul-smelling anaerobic bacteria. Fortunately, the university moved on from anaerobic jars long before I started, and we have a rather high-end anaerobic workstation. The problem, however, is that this workstation is not in the main microbiology lab, but a smaller lab approximately 3 feet down the corridor. We have no open lab zone, so this means painstakingly sealing, bagging and boxing all cultures, in order to, for example, read them on a spectrophotometer that’s a mere 20 paces away. Come to think of it, maybe I don’t miss this so much.

Perhaps the biggest challenge many of us are facing right now is that of isolation. The hustle and bustle of a busy lab is gone, supervisors are more distant, and there are no fellow researchers to complain to about a failed experiment (or a cantankerous lab manager). Hopefully by facilitating discussion and keeping connected, we can make getting through this difficult time a little easier.

What are you missing about science? Comment below!