Skip to main content

A scientist’s guide to surviving shelter-in-place

Rachel Woods-Robinson, Graduate Research Assistant | June 18, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our first priority as scientists has to be to support one another and to take the time we need to process this tragedy and the transitions it has necessitated. “Productivity” simply cannot be our goal during a global pandemic. We are all grappling with loss. Most profoundly, we have lost loved ones and cherished members of our communities. We have also suffered smaller professional and personal losses—the loss of research projects, of routines that have kept us grounded. We must be mindful of our collective suffering; certain individuals and communities are heavily burdened right now, while some are hardly affected.

If you are overwhelmed with the crisis, the suggestions in this article may not be relevant for you. Take care of your needs!

But if the privileges of well-being, safety, and sufficient time permit, the COVID-19 crisis can provide the scientific community an opportunity to reexamine and strengthen our core values on three scales: personal, interpersonal, and societal.

Personal: Harnessing Adaptability and Rekindling Intrinsic Motivation

These are scary and uncertain times; every day is a dance of adaptation. But, as scientists, this ebb and flow is part of our nature: uncertainty and adaptation are at the core of scientific research. Conditions change, experiments get derailed, life transitions thwart progress, or results counter our expectations and leave us baffled. We have to plunge into the unknown, let go of what we thought was constant, and rechart our paths time and time again.

Due to COVID, life has changed unavoidably—unprecedentedly for some. Much is beyond the realm of our control. Yet there are still many elements within our control: our outlook, our attention, our motivation, and our intrinsic goals. How can we harness what’s within our control, and use this to grow our authentic selves during this time?

During this transition, we have a unique opportunity to step back and consider: What do I really care about? How do I really want my research to advance society? This will not be the last time in our careers that a crisis shakes things up. My physics training has taught me to think in terms of constraints—how can these new constraints on our lives enable creativity to blossom?

Perhaps we cannot do our normal experiments, but here’s one experiment that I am trying out, grounded in the scientific method (ish!):

  1. Hypothesis. Ask yourself which goals drive you, what you value, and what kind of scientist you want to be.
  2. Observation. Notice your constraints, what you “default” to in times of high stress and panic, and where you are sending your time, energy, and attention.
  3. Analysis. Ask yourself: is your default behavior and use of energy serving your goals?
  4. Conclusion. With your constraints in mind, chart a path forward to align your attention and intention more closely with your goals.

For me, giving up my work environment has been frustrating. I’m trained as an experimentalist, but COVID-19 does not give a hoot about that. But by abandoning the autopilot acceleration of the lab during quarantine and embracing the shift of pace, I’ve been compelled to zoom out and revamp my approach to my dissertation. My “hypothesis” is that I’m deeply motivated to find material solutions to climate change and renewable energy management challenges. However, my “observation” has made me aware of my own energy mismanagement (I tend to frantically context-switch between multiple research projects and get slurped into distractions like a zombie) and my “analysis” demonstrates that this has pulled me away from my grander goals. Rather than simply cranking out content, I want to strengthen my core understanding of the connection between energy and materials and society, using the incredible scientific resources I have access to (online trainings, lectures, courses), and focus more intentionally on what I value. To head toward my “conclusion,” I am now revisiting computational material science fundamentals, a task I’d previously procrastinated profusely, and am challenging myself to link these fundamentals to my goals. Being trapped at home with a computer and an inquisitive mind encourages this exploration.

Admittedly, this is a goal. Many days I am so anxious I can barely focus. I realize that is okay—in fact it is normal right now—so I’m practicing forgiving myself. How can we shift our outlook to prioritize mental and physical well-being before “productivity”? I know I must first pursue what gives me balance, joy, and energy; then I can better focus attention on doing effective and creative work. It is a delicate equilibrium. There will be productive days and unproductive days. It is important to acknowledge our emotions and give ourselves space and permission to grieve, but also to be open to and appreciative of “productivity” when it does come our way.

But can we let go of measuring self-worth based on “productivity” alone, and instead acknowledge that we are so much more than our output and we deserve to prioritize our well-being? Can we let go of what is not within our control, and instead harness what is within our control and redefine what inner growth means to us? Let us use this time to reconnect with these intrinsic qualities, and work toward becoming the scientists and people we truly want to be.

Interpersonal: Cultivating a Supportive and Sustainable Work Environment

Another element very much within our control is the way that we support each other. What if this is a collective opportunity for scientists to practice how to be there for one another as human beings?

Academia can be an isolating and emotionally turbulent edifice; this has only been compounded by this crisis. Work contexts that could once be handled with neutrality may now give rise to new, confusing emotions. As scientists and supervisors, we do not have much formal training in how to manage human relations.

We are or will be confronted with loss and grief; wherever you are in the world, you or your group members or your collaborators may lose loved ones or experience traumatic life disruptions. We need to be aware that groups of people typically underrepresented in academia may be facing compounded trauma: people of color are dealing with overt racism; immunocompromised and disabled individuals are dealing with the stress of increased health risk; members of low-income communities are struggling to meet their basic needs. The scientists and engineers deemed “essential” must grapple with the task of putting their lives in danger on a daily basis; others facing furloughs and firings are struggling with financial insecurity.

For those of us like me lucky enough to be employed from home (a privilege of being a Ph.D. student during COVID), our professional work has collided with our personal lives. Some of us are home with children and increased responsibilities; some do not have stable or comfortable living conditions; some are quarantined completely alone. We may be struggling with increased irritability, dissipated focus, or swings in energy levels. Unfortunately, mental health issues are still commonplace in academia; those fighting disorders such as anxiety and depression are likely facing extra barriers.

It is therefore more urgent than ever to express empathy and gratitude for one another. During a crisis, we may have to overcompensate in terms of the support we offer our colleagues. Of course it is important to maintain personal boundaries, but this sudden merging of our home and work lives is perhaps a chance to be there for each other in ways we have not before. It is time to establish strong support structures. If you are in a supervisor position, make it crystal clear to your students that it is okay to not be producing at maximum output, that it is okay to slow down and feel the feels. Pandemic or no pandemic, your students are a valuable member of your team for who they are as people, not just because of their research output. Please check in with your students regularly. Set up a platform where students can feel comfortable being honest. Ask yourself: how can we advocate for one another?

Of course, at some level, this has always been the case; every day before COVID, each of us faced our own demons, many of which were invisible. Now there is a visible demon, but invisible ones are still lingering and likely growing stronger, hiding over Zoom as we put on a face to demonstrate that we’re “fine.” Just because your student shows up to Zoom does not mean that everything is fine. Some folks are struggling silently and grieving privately. Can we practice patience, assume that we’re all trying our best, and give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt? Can we then continue this practice afterward?

Unfortunately, rumors are spreading that some group leaders in the scientific community are unfairly chastising students for treating this time like “vacation,” demanding the same output as before the pandemic, and threatening students who are unable to deliver it. There are even rumors that some are pressuring students into bringing lab equipment home! We need to make it emphatically clear that this is not acceptable behavior—especially in a modern workplace, especially with regards to structural power imbalances, and especially during a pandemic

Lastly, I could not pass up the opportunity to squeeze a corny science analogy into a science journal editorial. If you study solar cells like me, you know that the efficiency of a solar cell is only as good as its weakest component. Same with arrays: if just one cell in series breaks, the entire array is compromised. Our research community is like this too. We are as strong as our most vulnerable link. Can we connect now to lift each other up? Can we center the voices of our community that are heard the least, and raise them up too?

So, during this time let us ask ourselves: what extra steps can we take right now to create a strong and compassionate support structure for our colleagues and those who we interact with on a regular basis? How can we transform our research environments and institutions into sustainable, inclusive, and empowering systems that will outlive the crisis?

Societal: Practicing Communication and Strengthening Community

As scientists, I believe we all want to create a better and more inclusive future. To this end, since we are all collectively struggling, let us pursue endeavors to connect with and strengthen our communities. Although “action” looks different these days, the way we interact with society is still very much within our control.

First, let us again acknowledge that certain communities are heavily burdened, while some are virtually unaffected. Ask yourself where you individually lie on this spectrum, and which issues concern you most. Second, science is being challenged every day. Can we stand together as a scientific community and demand policy based on science and social justice rather than speculation and biased agendas? People in power are going to take advantage of this crisis to oppress, as we have already seen with the spreading of harmful and hateful misinformation, eschewing of science to reopen the economy too early, and loosening of science-based environmental regulations. We must push back against this.

We cannot individually do everything and help everyone, but each of us can do something. With this in mind, what unique strengths and assets do we each possess currently? What actions are within our own realm of possibility? Some of us have research skills directly applicable to COVID that we can offer (check out Covid19Sci—some of you have already made amazing contributions!), but this route is not appropriate for scientists like me who are not experts in relevant fields. We can seek other ways to help.

Here’s just one example of a space where scientists can take tangible action. Overnight, over 3 million overworked and undervalued K-12 educators in the USA (and millions more outside the USA) have had to adjust to a new way of teaching, and fish up “virtual” curriculum content for over 55 million students. Meanwhile, we scientists are at home, many without experiments to work on, but many with science content buzzing through our brains (bzzzz!).

I am mortified of public speaking, but I realize that to be an advocate for renewable energy I must overcome this fear. I cannot practice “public” speaking in the usual way, but I can practice translating my jargon-heavy projects into narratives digestible to nonscientists. In fact, this is critical right now. How can the public trust scientists if we cannot cohesively explain what we are working on? To this end, I challenged my tongue-tied self to give a five minute general-public pitch of my solar materials research as part of a “TED@Home” symposium in April.

Additionally, with my own outreach organization Cycle for Science and Berkeley’s Community Resources for Science, I am creating a hands-on video about how to make dye-sensitized solar cells from blackberries and other common household ingredients (here’s the lesson plan!). I aim to make this a resource for K-12 teachers and families, a demonstration of how solar energy conversion works, and an introduction to my research on solar cell contact materials.

There are incredible STEM education organizations to volunteer with during COVID, including Skype a Scientist, which connects you directly with students; you could also try recording a hands-on lesson, or a short video like mine explaining what you do as a scientist. If science education is not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other creative community-facing actions you can take. Here is one resource with action ideas for scientists. You can write to your representatives, join a Union of Concerned Scientists campaign aligned with your interests, or get involved with the National Science Policy Network. Another good place to start is with local mutual aid groups, where you can volunteer to exchange resources and services (for example, here is the San Francisco Bay Area’s mutual aid wiki).

We have many options, and contributions of all scales are important: big and small, long-term and short-term, public-facing and behind-the-scenes, etc. But it is equally important to honor that if you are not in a headspace to focus on contributing—whether financially, physically, mentally, or emotionally—that is absolutely okay. In these times, it is critical to put your own self-care first, so please check in with yourself before taking action.

If you are in a place to give, I challenge you to ask yourself: What unique contribution can I bring to the table, in order to connect with and strengthen my community right now? How can I act as an ally? What kind of world do I want to enable with the science that I do? Consider these questions, then act accordingly.

Call to Action

Our integrity as scientific leaders and community members can emerge during this crisis. As the barriers of “normalcy” and “precedent” crumble, we can step forward with creative intention and remind ourselves of why we really do this work. This time is traumatic, weird, and uncertain. Stepping back and focusing on healing is important, too, if that is what you need. But if we are able, let us harness what is within our control on the personal, interpersonal, and societal scales, and work together now to create the supportive and sustainable science community we aspire to become.

Cross-posted from The Chemistry of Materials

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *