How scientific trainees can navigate the hurdles imposed by COVID-19: An interview with Sharon Milgram from NIH’s OITE

Sharon Milgram

We reached out to Sharon Milgram, the Director of the Office of Intramural Training & Education at the National Institutes of Health (NIH’s OITE), who has been responsible for webinars on stress management and resilience, for advice on how scientific trainees and their PIs can navigate the challenges of a pandemic. We interviewed Milgram on April 21, 2020, and have edited and compiled her insights below.

What are the main skills trainees will need during this pandemic, and how can we better develop those?
Milgram: It’s not only trainees, but the scientific community as a whole, that need to focus on wellness and resiliency in times of crisis. As researchers, understanding the science underlying COVID-19 helps us realize how dangerous this can be, making it an added stressor. This is an unprecedented event affecting humanity, and something so deep and traumatic as this disruption requires that we deal with it with our catastrophizing mind—a natural part of our minds with a tendency to expect the worst—in order to move forward. This is best achieved by taking care of ourselves and focusing on what we can control, while learning to let go of the things we can’t, before they fill our minds and lead to despair and paralysis.

As trainees, you are in a very delicate phase of your careers, and the more flexible and adaptable you can be now, the more successful you will be in the long term. As scientists, we are multifaceted people with a variety of skills, and either learning new skills or creatively reframing old ones can help us traverse this crisis. It is especially important to develop your communication skills as you learn to work with colleagues, supervisors, and collaborators in a new digital format. Maintaining a healthy and lively routine including virtual journal clubs, lab meetings, or discussions with collaborators is vital to stay in contact with science. These newly developed skills will continue to be an asset when you reenter your laboratories and in your future careers.

Coming back to work will not be going back to normal but rather a “new normal” that will take time to evolve. How can we better plan this reentry and make the transition swifter and more effective?
Milgram: Our first response to reopening may be to try to expedite the process so we can compensate for the “lost time.” As scientists, we are used to quickly generating data to transform into papers and grants. However, one important aspect of a successful transition will be to let go of the words “swiftly, quickly, and fast” and replace them with “respectfully, safely, and kindly.” Life changed so rapidly overnight. We were thinking that we would see people the next day, and yet it’s been weeks or months. Many of us may have been sick or even hospitalized, may have dealt with taking care of our families, or are grieving the loss of loved ones. We will all be, to a lesser or greater extent, more fragile and vulnerable.

Another important aspect of this transition will be how leadership deals with this challenge. Different regions of the United States will surely have different reopening timelines. Every institution, department, and lab will have a different path through the struggle of coming back to work in our laboratories and offices. Ideally, this process will include a broad, open, and respectful discussion between those in charge on how to proceed in the safest way for everyone. Individually, we cannot have the mindset of thinking, “I’m first and going back to work is most important to me.” We will all have to compromise and go slowly, as there will be a lag time to catch up on experiments and produce results. People in leadership positions need to communicate these ideas to benefit trainees. More important than fast, we should think about well-planned!

Are there special issues for our international colleagues and friends and what can we do
to help?
Milgram: They are dealing with this crisis on a whole new level. Everyone is having difficulties during this situation, but they are differentially affected. On top of the health concerns we all have to deal with, our international colleagues are worrying about their visas and the communities in their home countries. One of the most important yet overlooked aspects of how to navigate this harsh situation is: All Americans should exert their capacity to be good allies. It’s important to reach out to international students, advocate for policies that are welcoming, stop any bullying or harassment especially that caused by prejudice, and even take a bystander training course to learn how to intervene in situations that unfortunately might arise in this time of crisis. Being thoughtful about how we take care of our international colleagues is of the utmost importance for their well-being, as this builds strength in our community.

As trainees, we are also concerned about funding and fellowship deadlines. How should we tackle trying to publish and get funding right now?
Milgram: Be assured that discussions are happening at the highest of levels about how to support and protect our trainees. Circumstances may not be exactly as we hoped, but there is a collective desire within leadership to thoughtfully work on ways to help us through this situation. Leadership believes you, as trainees, are the future of science. The attitude of people in leadership roles, and whether they reach out in a positive manner, will highly impact trainees. Support comes in many flavors, such as extending fellowships, understanding alternative responses to manuscript reviews, and even, in the future, being understanding of this productivity gap when hiring. Trainees can also take a multitude of actions depending on their situation, so it’s best to reach out to your mentors, your program officers, or your scientific review officers for guidance.

The slowdown caused by the pandemic can be incredibly stressful for postdocs and graduate students looking toward their future career paths, so how can we set a better course of action so this can have as little impact as possible?
Milgram: For graduate students, you can wait out this crisis to avoid dealing with a bumpy hiring scenario. It is best to assess your situation and discuss with your mentor the best option for your career path. For industry and non-bench positions, one strategy could be highlighting the transferable skills acquired during this period. For trainees heading toward academia, apply for positions if the time is right and you have a prepared package. Everyone is aware of the current situation and the impact it has on work, so it is important to be clear about long-term goals and what you accomplished to get back to productivity. Simply state, “Here is where I am now and this is how I managed that.”

What are good mindfulness strategies to deal with the hiring freeze?
Milgram: Do not focus on the negatives, but be realistic and put your energy into yourself so that your ability to navigate a difficult job search can help you navigate any situation. Don’t define your success this year by your ability to get a job, but by all the things you have accomplished. Practice gratitude to enhance your ability to see the positive in the toughest times. Reach out to your community, because loneliness can impact your health and wellness. Hold on to the notion that we will get out of this together, and take care of yourself. When we come out on the other side, we will have our life intact and work will resume.

Lastly, how we can deal with long-term disruption, grief, and fears?
Milgram: Pay attention during the reentry and see your changed habits. What are you proud of, what are you satisfied with, and what can you let go of? Look toward the ways you communicate with loved ones and the way you work and interact with your colleagues. It’s important to realize how much people matter; in the long run, this impacts our ability to work. Hopefully, we will also learn that the people who clean our labs and the front-line workers are much more important than we might have previously thought, an insight that could lead to positive changes in policy.

And one last note of positivity: Milgram has been in science for a long time, including her work with trainee education, and believes that our generation will change science for the better. We will see positive things happen even in the hardest of times.

About the Author:


Maria Fernanda Forni is a Pew Latin American Postdoctoral Fellow in Valerie Horsley’s lab at Yale University.
Caitlyn Blake-Hedges is a PhD student in the Biomedical Sciences Department at Florida State University. She works in the lab of Dr. Timothy Megraw, investigating the function of the centrosome in development and disease using Drosophila as a model. In her free time she enjoys yoga, running, Netflix, and watching college football (Go Clemson!). Email: caitlyn.blake-hedges@med.fsu.edu
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.