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Being a Scientist During the COVID-19 Era and Beyond


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

December 2020

As a result of COVID-19, virtual contact is becoming a necessary aspect of our daily lives. Distance learning, virtual meetings, and working from home are slowly becoming the norm. However, while the effects of the virus are being felt across borders and communities, social distancing is having a unique effect on the scientific landscape. Being a scientist during an era of isolation has its set of obstacles, but great challenges spark innovation and growth. We will look at some of the ways social distancing restrictions are affecting the scientific community and provide some ways to survive and thrive in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.

How COVID-19 has affected the scientific community

Social distancing restrictions have proven to be a catalyst for change. Specifically, education has undergone a massive overhaul. Earlier this year, we conducted an interview with an educator to explore these drastic changes. Students are not only stressed about the virus but also burdened with the difficulty of learning content in a virtual medium. Educators, too, are caught in a web of recording, live discussions, and explaining difficult concepts without labs and reagents. Fostering engagement has never been more difficult

Aside from education, the virus is affecting our ability to perform research. In October, Nature published an article touching on this topic, showing that scientists are suffering from staggered in-lab time and reduced access to materials and funding. Fieldwork has also been severely hamstrung by restricted travel regulations, as those collecting data in remote locations have been forced to cancel their plans. While access to physical studies may be hampered, online testing is becoming increasingly beneficial for some fields that survey large populations. Ultimately, however, the tools we have at our disposal are vast in scope but limited in their practicality—the Internet can only get us so far.

Finally, conferences, normally a significant part of presenting and engaging in scholarly discourse, have been relegated to virtual formats. This has understandably been a challenging experience for attendees, but a recent survey conducted by Science found that participation in conferences has increased since switching to an online-only format. This is likely due to the ease of access and reduced costs of attending. However, increased engagement is exchanged for reduced production value, limited one-on-one interactions, and a disjointed, contrived feel to the event. Before, going to a conference was a multi-day experience. A symposium would involve all the formalities of travel, navigation, and local amenities. Today, that experience is shortened to just the event; most of the external aspects that promote networking are lost in transition.

Taking advantage of the current situation

Researchers may lament the restrictions imposed by social distancing, but with every crisis comes opportunity. Here are a few ways you can improve your communication now and come out ahead on the other side of this pandemic.

1) Be open to new ideas. It is easy to stick with the way we have always done things, but it is important to communicate with your peers by whatever avenues are convenient and effective, even if they are different. Leadership roles need to provide robust solutions for the challenges we face, but this could be an opportunity for you to create or adopt new protocols for success, which will be useful even outside of the quarantine

2) Prepare for funding opportunities. Institutions are facing a significant reduction in student enrollment for the 2020–2021 academic year, which translates to a monetary deficit for university-funded research. The good news is that grant applications for COVID-19 research are being approved at record speeds. This quick turnaround could translate to rapid grant approval once the pandemic subsides. While immunology and infectious disease research is the current focus, well-developed grant proposals could go a long way once the floodgates open for new research.

3) Upgrade your equipment. First impressions are everything and having a nice setup for online meetings will do wonders. It is reasonable to assume that the quality of your audio and visual presentation should not affect your ideas. This is true, but implicit biases are inevitable, and technical issues may be interpreted as incompetence or simply worsen the experience for others. Simply put, you do not want anything to come between the audience and your data. We attend in-person gatherings to present the best version of our research; the same rules apply for online meetings. Further, upgrading your setup will put you in a good position to do anything online even after restrictions are lifted.

4) Show you can thrive under pressure. Hiccups are going to happen in the digital world. Audio may cut out. Screenshare may not function correctly. A stray house pet may wander across the camera. The first step is to minimize difficulties (e.g., test your equipment and lock the cat out of the office). The second step is arguably more important. Show that you can handle the unexpected and adapt. Building this confidence now when it is necessary primes you for the ever-increasing cultural shift to digital meetings.

5) Be self-disciplined. Not having the daily commute is beneficial in many ways, but it can be difficult to use those precious hours wisely. Distractions abound in quarantine, so it is highly beneficial to schedule everything you can. Scheduling is important because it allows you to commit yourself and stay engaged, and these habits will be invaluable as work outside the lab and office becomes more commonplace.

6) Stay connected. A natural reaction for some during this time is to unplug from the world. Without seeing colleagues or students in the day-to-day routine, it is easy to seem disconnected from the entire experience. Therefore, it is important to collaborate and keep yourself in the loop. Reach out to your peers!

Regardless of how we handle our temporary situation, virtual engagement has been on the rise since the beginning of the millennia, and it is not going away. Once life returns to normal, online meetings and virtual conferences will still be widely practiced. Thus, learning to embrace our always-online present will benefit our futures.

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