Accepting the ‘new normal’ as a trainee

The products of a successful week of working on data analysis, manuscript preparation, and mental wellness at home.
The products of a successful week of working on data analysis, manuscript preparation, and mental wellness at home.

In my last post discussing social distancing as a trainee (link), I had been at home for one week and was still trying to figure out how to get my work’s VPN to stop kicking me off every hour. It seemed that we would be at home a few weeks while we waited for the COVID-19 pandemic to sweep over us before transitioning back to work relatively quickly and easily. Indeed, one of the early refrains I heard from multiple mentors and scientific leaders implored us to not define this as a “new normal,” as that implied our lives would be altered far longer than a mere “temporary normal.” Now, I’m on day 59 at home, with at least 20 more days until I can potentially return to the lab on June 1 under reduced conditions. I am slowly accepting that this is our “new normal” and it is here to stay for far longer than I imagined when I was sent home on March 13. Despite the harsh realities of the previous 58 days and the inevitable challenges as we look toward tomorrow, this adjustment to working from home has reaffirmed my commitment and dedication to the scientific profession, while anxiously waiting for the day I’m allowed to return to the lab.

My previous post emphasized that it’s okay to not be okay right now and that we will slowly learn to become okay again. While it was easy for me to say those words, adjusting to our “new normal” was initially challenging for me. Used to waking up before sunrise and going to the gym before arriving at work around 8:00 am, I suddenly found myself waking up to a closed gym and my “lab” now sitting on my dining room table. I was fortunate to have a strong support system with my PI, NCI, and NIH all strongly emphasizing the wellness and safety of our trainees. In the first week of our stay-at-home orders, my PI encouraged us to take time for mental health by developing a new hobby, baking, and taking time to cope with the uncertainty and angst that was filling our lives. My lab has a daily 30-minute check-in to meet and discuss non-scientific topics while promoting wellness and social interaction between members in our lab. While expectations for scientific progress remain, our new and most important expectation is to maintain mental health and continue our professional development.

In addition to my lab’s commitment to our health and wellness, in mid-March, the NIH Office of Intramural Education and Research (OITE) increased the number of its daily webinars and online discussions geared specifically to trainees, including professional development and a Wellness Wednesday discussion series geared specifically to mental health and resiliency (all of which are available to trainees at any institution). These webinars helped me start to adjust to my new lifestyle by introducing me to new mental health strategies such as “commuting” to work by going for a walk in the morning for the amount of time it takes me to get to work and repeating the process at the end of the day. Once I began “commuting” each day, I found myself sitting down prepared to continue working on data analysis and manuscript preparation, as well as attend scientific webinars and presentations. As I continue to adjust to this “new normal,” these resources provided by our mentors remain invaluable for my continued sanity and slow progression to become okay again.

As our society begins to contemplate a gradual return to a “new normal,” my overall anxiety and trepidations are resurfacing. Are we returning too early? Will we be able to actually conduct science at a reduced workload? Are we truly going to spend the next 12+ months with this anxiety? Sharon Milgram, Director of NIH OITE, spoke with me in April to discuss the impact of this crisis on trainees, while also reinforcing the positive outcomes. When asked about how to move forward in training and career planning, Milgram emphasized the impact on scientific awareness, stating, “I know right now it feels like science is really slowed and damaged from this. But in some ways, I feel it might actually be stronger in the long term, because of what we will all learn from this. … This has taught us we need science more than ever. When we look back on this at some point, we’ll say science helped us figure this out. Science was responsible for the treatment, for our understanding of this, and for taking care of all kinds of things in life.”

Taking Milgram’s advice, I’ve started to reflect on my role as a scientist, especially now that I’m not able to conduct experiments. I’ve realized why I’m a scientist, why I fight, why I care, and why I matter. Being a scientist isn’t about the best western blots, immunofluorescence images, or the most intriguing results. Being a scientist is perhaps best exemplified by our childhood hero, Mr. Rogers, stating, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Through my self-reflection and dedication to science over the past two months, I’ve rediscovered what it means to be a scientist. And, despite our current global tragedy and the forced understanding of a “new normal,” I’m proud to say that I am a scientist. As we all begin to define our “new normal,” I encourage everyone to stay safe, be proud of our successes, and most importantly, remain optimistic for our future and the future of science.

About the Author:

Scott Wilkinson is the current co-chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS). He is also a postdoctoral fellow in Adam Sowalsky's lab at the National Cancer Institute studying mechanisms of prostate cancer resistance.