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The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Early Career Researchers

Nano Letters Early Career Board Member Nicolò Maccaferri

The COVID-19 pandemic emergency has affected many young researchers’ lives at the early stage of their careers, impacting an already quite fragile personal life/work balance. Nevertheless, we think that we have learned a lot from this situation in the past months. We genuinely believe that what we are going through will make us stronger in facing future challenges. In this post, we would like to share our experiences and opinions on what is happening to us as human beings and scientists, hoping that our experience will help others see the glass as half-full and not lose hope.

During the first lockdown, we tried not to fear what could happen to us in the future and instead focus on the present. Adapting to the “new normal” with peace of mind meant concentrating our efforts on what we could do at that precise moment rather than on what we couldn’t. This mind-set helped us realize the important things in our daily work and, most importantly, in our lives. Even if we faced a drop in our productivity, we could create new routines and set new boundaries between our work and private life, enjoying more time spent with our partners and kids.

Nano Letters Early Career Board Member Po-Chun

We also had more moments of self-examination, realizing that, despite the terrible events, we were not losing our motivation. If we kept doing our activities to the best of our ability, that motivation would not drop at all.

Of course, we all felt frustrated that social distancing was hurting many opportunities for collaboration and shared equipment access. For experimentalist groups, locking down slowed down our progress, but we were, nevertheless, able to focus on computer-based work, which gave us a bit of breathing room. We could spend time developing computational skills, focusing on literature research, analyzing data, writing articles and theses, putting together reviews, and planning future activities and experiments with more imagination than before because all of us had more time to think about new ideas.

Nano Letters Early Career Board Member Nikolay Kornienk

Some of us also started to organize online conferences and workshops. This positive attitude fostered many new ideas and collaborations since we could share our latest findings with our colleagues without moving from our homes or offices.

Moreover, the possibility to share more quality time with our families was one of the best outcomes of this situation, since we all realized how beautiful life is (and short it might be). Spending more time with them allowed us to understand how important the awareness (and the power) of loving and to experience a life worth living.

We also think that this pandemic, although not automatically providing the general public with an immediate awareness of the importance of science, will undoubtedly increase this awareness in the long term. Hopefully, soon politicians and society as a whole will listen more to scientists about potential threats, not just about epidemics but also on other issues like climate change. We also feel that a lot of research fields might change and evolve. Many researchers with different backgrounds working on various topics have jumped into studying COVID-19 and how to fight it from other points of view.

Nano Letters Early Career Board Member Fiona Li

This threat has also united many scientists in realizing that we can address these types of challenges only if we build a scientific community that is in service of all of humanity. We also think that we have to continue doing fundamental science since there is plenty of significant fundamental research without imminent applications. Fundamental research is meaningful not just for short-term goals but also for long-term goals that could benefit society.

At the time we are writing this post, we are facing a second lockdown, at least in many western countries, but we believe we are capable of meeting these next waves with more determination.

In this Q&A, Nano Letters Early Career Board Members Nicolò Maccaferri and Sophie Meuret interviews their fellow members Po-Chun Hsu, Nikolay Kornienk, and Fiona Li.

Nano Letters Early Career Board Member Sophie Meuret

How did you face the lockdown period?

  • Po-Chun: Try to be a “glass-half-full” person and adapt to the new normal.
  • Nikolay: Agreed fully. I focused on what I could do rather than what I could not and take advantage of wherever I can.
  • Fiona: Face it with peace of mind and try to adapt to the situation.

Are you still in a lockdown situation? In either case, how are you organizing your group activities? As usual or with restrictions?

  • Po-Chun: Duke has reopened (partially) since early June, but the style is very different because of the social distancing.
  • Nikolay: No lockdown in Montreal, but we are operating at partial capacity and taking all possible precautions (masks, social distancing, online meetings, etc.)
  • Fiona: Dartmouth reopened partially. My group members are doing shifts so that most of the time, only one person is in the lab per shift (with masks and social distance).

Is it hard to continue doing your daily job when you are not as free to move as before?

  • Po-Chun: For me (and many early-career researchers), the challenge mainly comes from the juggling of work and parenting.
  • Nikolay: Certainly, adapting to less available time and additional responsibilities was a challenge. I have had to temper my expectations of what I could accomplish.
  • Fiona: It is very hard to work as efficiently as before, especially need to balance between parenting and work. This is especially hard for early-career women faculties with kids. I recently read an article published in Nature Human Behavior, talking about this issue.

Did you share more quality time with your family during the lockdown?

  • Po-Chun: Yes!
  • Nikolay: Of course, that was really a positive aspect of this whole situation. On the other hand, extended family members from abroad could not visit so we do our best to stay in touch virtually
  • Fiona: Absolutely!

Do you think the scientific world will change after this situation? Will there be more awareness of science’s importance? Do you think people will look at us with different eyes? Do you believe that we will have to re-formulate our priorities as researchers?

  • Po-Chun: I think this pandemic itself may not automatically provide the general public with more awareness of science’s importance. But should certainly use this opportunity to engage social media and to make a broader impact.
  • Nikolay: I think awareness will certainly increase, and hopefully, politicians and the general public alike would listen to scientists about potential threats – not just about epidemics but also on issues like climate change
  • Fiona: I feel a lot of related fields in science might change. Many researchers have jumped into studying COVID-19, and many of them will want to continue.

Do you feel that what you are doing as a scientist is still very important and should be pursued even in these uncertain times? Or would it be better to stop doing what we are doing and refocus our research efforts to fight this type of threat directly?

  • Po-Chun: There were indeed a few moments of self-examination. Still, I believe there is much fundamental research that is important even without imminent applications.
  • Nikolay: I believe so – science is carried out with a greater purpose in mind, whether the results have near-term or long-term implications.
  • Fiona: Yes, I believe so. I believe what we are doing is meaningful not just for short-term goals but also for long-term goals that could benefit society.

Did a lockdown have a significant impact on your research timeline?

  • Po-Chun: Yes. What makes it particularly difficult for young investigators is that social distancing hurts many opportunities for collaboration and shared equipment access.
  • Nikolay: Surely, it did. We shifted our focus for some time on computer-based work and are slowly getting back into experimental work.
  • Fiona: Yes. Since the research in my group is experiment-based, locking down definitely slows down our progress.

If you had to manage students, how did you keep them motivated and consider the difficult personal situation they might be facing?

  • Po-Chun: I tried to keep them busy and productive by spending time on computational skills and literature research. Both of which will come in handy in the future.
  • Nikolay: Same – we focused on thesis writing, putting together reviews, and so on. It wasn’t the same, but we make the most of what we can do.
  • Fiona: Same here. I tried to keep them busy by writing review articles, reading literature, and summarizing their data.

Did you feel a lack of motivation or productivity due to the lockdown? If yes, how did you fight it?

  • Po-Chun: The productivity did drop. I found it useful to create a new routine and set a new boundary between work and life.
  • Nikolay: Yes, it’s hard to keep momentum amidst a changing schedule but I tried to keep a to-do list for each day and stick to it
  • Fiona: The productivity certainly drops, but not the motivation I believe. I am still in the middle of seeking an efficient way to balance work and parenting.

Are you going to change some of your work habits (research and management) after the end of the pandemic?

  • Po-Chun: During this pandemic, I recruited quite a few remote interns, which could be a new way to do research.
  • Nikolay: I believe so. More regular formal meetings (even if done remotely) has been a plus for us. With the rest, I guess we will see as we return to a more normal environment
  • Fiona: yep. The pandemic makes us realize how much work can be done remotely. I think some of the habits will be kept even after the pandemic is over.

Learn More About the Nano Letters Early Career Board

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