Covid-19 and PhD-Plan B: How to keep swimming amid pandemic wave hit

As a lab, what can we do to minimise the impact of this pandemic on our research work? At the same time, doing the best we can to defend our health against this looming pandemic wave?

By reading this, you should be familiar with Covid-19 : a respiratory infection caused by coronavirus SARS-Cov2. This respiratory infection causes substantial morbidity, in some cases fatal, despite “most affected in the population showed only mild or moderate symptoms”, as reported by CNN here. Tracing its emergence back to Wuhan, China – the first city locked down due to this contagious virus spread on 23rd January 2020. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 as a pandemic on 11th March 2020. Eleven days after, at least six countries are in full or progressive lockdowns in effort to curb the spread of Covid-19. No one could accurately predict when the pandemic will be over. Still, for sure, we are all on the fight against this new strain of coronavirus.

Having to be doing a PhD during this pandemic outbreak is the last thing that most of us would have expected. The rise of this pandemic definitely has its impact on research institutions, staffs and students are advised to minimise their entry to labs. Some labs decided that the best way forward is to cease its operations temporarily. While others adopted a “team-splitting system” as a way to comply with social distancing in an effort to minimise the virus transmission. The emergency measures taken cause some level of anxiety and stress to early career researchers and PhD students, as discussed in these Science journal article here and here.

As a PhD student in a lab based in Australia, our lab principal investigator (PI) and all members have been closely following the development of Covid-19: both globally and nationally. I understand the measures aimed to “flatten the curve” as demonstrated by the simulation model in this Washington Post article. As a lab, what can we do to minimise the impact of this pandemic on our research work? At the same time, doing the best we can to defend our health against this looming pandemic wave? And if the alternative to keep things going is to work from home?

I believe every challenge is an opportunity. And the tweet below is beautiful evidence of that:

As I am writing my “Plan B” as part of the lab’s contingency plan facing this global health crisis, I am also writing it as a blog. Hopefully, this writing would spark some ideas and hopes that amid this hardship, we can still keep the game strong.

  1. Put your research data into writing

Have you always find it challenging to sit down, find a quiet space to sieve through the data and think what all these actually mean? We can all be obsessed with the whole experiment, and sometimes it became a rabbit’s hole chase until we forget what the original big picture was!

If you have to work from home because of the pandemic, I think it is an excellent time to start reviewing all the data you have, and start writing! Whether it is for a thesis chapter or publication, this strategy makes sure you are progressing towards something.

2. Prioritise your on-the-bench experiments, save data analysis for later.

If you are a bioinformatician or a computational biologist, a well-set-up computational system and connections all set up, you are ready for the work-from-home mode anytime.

Lucky and also unlucky, this year, I have got some wet lab components up my sleeve, besides my usual data analysis.

While I will still have some time left before any changes to the workplace take place, I have been trying to work on my wet-lab experiments as much as I can. Keep some brief notes on these work to help you keep track on where you are at with your work. If circumstances do not permit you from working in the lab anymore, at least the work can still go on. These including updating your lab records, detail analysis of microscopy images and etc. while being away from the lab.

3. Keeping up with the literature

I have also decided that this would be a good time to do some good reading on some recent findings within or outside my current research field. Often when major experiments are going on, it can be quite challenging to fork out attention and time to read research papers. If you have to work from home, this will be a great time to catch up on all the exciting research findings and methodologies you have missed. Learn the components of the chemicals in the protocols, why are the steps essential and why are they essential. Extensive reading on relevant works of literature opens up a whole depth of learning that most of us would not have time for on regular days.

4. Review, reflect, and revise your experiments

My mentor/ PI has always told me to take a step back at times whenever I get too deep into a project. Often, being too focused on the current problem creates a tunnel vision as I have previously mentioned, especially when you are in a research field with fierce competition. There are not many chances in life; you get a chance to stop and reflect, and I think this moment is one of those precious chances that you get a chance to do so.

A few questions to ponder would be: How could I improve my current method? Is what I am doing relevant to the questions I am asking? Are there better approaches to solve the current problem I am facing?

5. Learn new skills online

I would strongly encourage people to take this chance to learn some new skills online. Through platforms like Udemy, Coursera, and DataCamp, you can pick up a new skill easily by just following through these well-structured courses. Ranging from coding, data analysis, machine learning, statistics, isn’t this a fascinating time to start adding new tools to your research tool kit?

6. Online conferences, network,and science communication?

Last but not least, this could be a great chance for you to get involved online. As a lot of conferences are moving towards online streaming due to the pandemic hit, why not take this opportunity to explore a conference that you have always wanted to attend (but could not because of time and funding restrictions)? Or start communicating your research online through blogs and twitter, sharing some exciting perspective of yours from your field of research. Connecting online could help you make some new connections while being in self-isolation, but not socially disconnected. Who knows who you might meet, and what new connections might bring?

I hope this shed some light of hope in times like this. Keep going and stay positive. Together, we shall make it through this and start sprinting once we have claimed victory in our battle against Covid-19.

Photo by Dimitri Karastelev on Unsplash

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