Managing social distancing as a scientist in training

Massachusetts Institute of Technology students celebrated last week with champagne, beer pong and one of the hand-sanitizer stands recently added to university hallways. (Zidane Abubakar)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology students celebrated last week with champagne, beer pong and one of the hand-sanitizer stands recently added to university hallways. (Zidane Abubakar)

Ed. Note: Scott Wilkinson is the current co-chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS).

Social distancing. By now we all know the term that emerged in the American lexicon within the past 10 days. You know the rules… Stay at home unless it’s essential to leave, telework if at all possible, and stay six feet away from others when out in public. As we face a global pandemic with COVID-19, American and global lifestyles are currently undergoing a radical shift to flatten the curve, another rapidly emerging term. While we all adjust to these new societal norms to combat this pandemic, the global scientific community is quickly learning how to work from home. Grant deadlines are being extended, inevitably manuscripts will be written at a quicker pace, and at least for PIs, working from home should be a relatively quick adaptation. However, for trainees (including undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs), this crisis has profound implications on day-to-day life, experimental results, and career development. While we all adapt to this new way of life, comments from students and postdocs around the country are full of anxiety, unrest, stress, and ultimately uncertainty.

For myself, the first indication of the impending national scientific disruption came on March 5, when Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center instituted a mandatory remote work policy, although wet lab research was (at the time) exempt. Within two days, most research universities instituted travel bans for official business. By March 6, a conference I was scheduled to attend in Denver the following week was canceled, and then most scientific conferences and retreats through March and April were canceled or postponed.  Fast forward another week and I’m being asked to work from home as my lab and branch shut down non-essential experiments, before NIH instituted a mandatory lab closure on March 20. All within the span of two weeks, I went from assuming I’d have a productive conference and return to lab afterward, to now working from home for the foreseeable future and wondering what impact this will have on a K99 application, data acquisition for my next manuscript, and ultimately my future career prospects and timeline. Importantly, my story is far from the only one. This whirlwind of updates and adaptations is quickly becoming the universal story among trainees, requiring us all to come together (from afar) and adapt to our new reality to overcome the storm.

Listening to firsthand accounts from trainees across the country has been heartbreaking, but revolves around the same themes. Labs closing down, classes and seminars going to remote lectures for the remainder of the semester, conferences and travel postponed, commencement ceremonies canceled, committee meetings and even entire dissertation defenses happening via Zoom calls, and postdoc/job interviews going fully remote or being postponed altogether. At Fred Hutch, trainees spoke to me to emphasize the uncertainty involving long-term projects that took years to develop and can’t be stopped. Emory graduate students are being sent home except under exceptional circumstances (which requires approval by multiple deans and department chairs), with students expressing their anxiety and anger about having to shut down mouse experiments that have been in development for months and years. The University of Southern California initially had students working in non-overlapping four-hour shifts, with trainees adjusting to the new schedule for a couple of weeks before a decision to completely shut down research required additional adaptation and last-minute scrambling to close down long-running experiments. Vanderbilt University, with many students and postdocs affected by the recent Nashville tornadoes, is instituting a work from home policy that has some trainees working from their new mattress, waiting for the rest of their destroyed belongings to be replaced and delivered. As the anecdotes continue to file in, it becomes impossible to ignore the similarities in all these situations: We are united in our confusion and our growing anxiety.

As we begin this transition, it seems as if students and postdocs everywhere are receiving the same advice: Take this time to do some data analysis that’s been building up, write a manuscript, work on a review, or perhaps use online training to learn a new data analysis technique. While this is a good first step for most trainees scientifically, conflicting messages and a lack of clear guidance contribute to our uncertainty and anxiety in the face of this pandemic. Several trainees have spoken with me about their lab or a friend’s lab being told to ignore their university’s wet lab shutdown, or how their PI is filing an exception because they want non-critical research to continue. Others have spoken with me about the uncertainty about graduation requirements, eligibility windows for grants, and housing concerns for undergraduate students who are both unable to return home and also are being denied an exception to stay on campus. For myself, the four-year eligibility for a K99 is staring me in the face, having been a postdoc now for 3.5 years and quickly gathering data for a potential K99 resubmission up until I was sent home. While I understand working through a pandemic is new for all of us, trainees would benefit from a stronger and more unified statement from all levels of leadership about both immediate lab closures as well as long-term implications on our scientific and professional development.

To University Leadership: As trainees, we need a reassuring voice from a university leader telling us that health and safety are the top priority, emphasizing that we cannot be compelled by our PI or supervisor to violate a lab shutdown, outlining the limited examples that could qualify as an exception, and reassuring us that you have our backs. With a clear end date and return to research yet to be defined, continued updates about university status and any potential exceptions/waivers for graduation requirements will ease our collective anxiety. We implore you to keep your communications with trainees frequent and transparent.

To the PIs: Your students and postdocs understand the challenges of closing the lab, and that tenure, promotions, and grant proposals will be impacted by this pandemic. We don’t want the research shut down either, but we ultimately may have no choice. Your trainees are in an inherently vulnerable position, as our successes and career trajectories are directly tied to your lab’s progress. Please understand that we’re confused and nervous, and please maintain a unified message with the university. We have all embarked on a social experiment in isolation, which carries its own risks and unforeseen complications that impact mental and emotional well-being. Please remember that everyone — your trainees included — needs social interaction and methods to cope with isolation. Learn about strategies to mitigate this stressor, especially if the return to work is postponed for several weeks or longer at your institution. Reach out to your trainees who might be particularly vulnerable and remind them that you care for them regardless of their ability to make progress on their projects.

To trainees: We’ve heard your messages and are with you in spirit and in shared anxiety. COMPASS and ASCB will continue to advocate for our trainees during this unnerving time, and I welcome your continued messages as to how we can help. We will get through this together and emerge strong, all while expanding our Netflix viewing history and rationing our toilet paper.

The global COVID-19 outbreak will forever alter our lives and the state of the scientific research community. For trainees who have spent months or years on their projects, these uncertain times are probably grief-inducing for people who are realizing their research will be slowed and could take a long time to rebuild. Other trainees may be grieving and upset about their graduation being canceled, their personal and professional development plans, or any number of life events not occurring as we had desired. As we adjust to working from home, I urge everyone to take some time to care for yourself and your loved ones. Our scientific and global communities are in the midst of a pandemic where our normal daily structure is being completely dismantled and rebuilt into a new “normal.” It should be stressed that it’s okay to not be okay right now. Over time we will learn to become okay again, but for now, it’s perfectly fine to just BE.

About the Author:

Scott Wilkinson is the current co-Chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS). He is a postdoctoral fellow in the Sowalsky lab at the National Cancer Institute, studying the genetics underlying prostate cancer treatment response.