Reflections on a year of COVID-19

It is hard to believe that it’s been a year since our world has changed due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. In this first column as ASCB President I want to reflect on the past year, and in particular to tell you about my experience and what it has meant to me and my community, including ASCB. The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 will be remembered as demonstrating the need to protect the health and livelihood of all citizens through science. This year will also be remembered for clear calls for social justice after continued police brutality against Black Americans and for an end to systemic racism and racial discrimination. In my next President’s Column I will talk about specific measures that ASCB is taking to address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in every aspect of its work and programming going forward. 

For us, these were worrying but equally stimulating times because we love the biological puzzle and the humbling reminder that we know so little. 

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has changed how scientists interact with each other, how we teach, and how we do research, but it has also highlighted the important role that science has always played in society, in this instance in addressing a pressing global health crisis. For me the year started in New York City and seemed at times to last decades and at other times to be like one long day in front of my computer screen. When the news came about a novel type of coronavirus infection observed first in Wuhan, China, and then detected in Seattle but also Italy, we knew that it would soon be here, in New York City. New York University Langone Medical Center, like many other medical centers in the city, acted quickly: Travel was suspended, and labs prepared for shutdown. We cooked as much fly food as possible and developed an emergency plan to keep flies and other animals in the institute alive.

Worry, Flurry, and Fear

From one day to the next, all direct social interactions, group meetings, and floor meetings went quiet. Our faculty and trainees started journal clubs, which were a huge success, especially our COVID-19 journal club. Indeed, while the reality of this virus was frightening, we scientists did what we do best: try to get the facts and speculate. It was comforting to be part of a vibrant and broad scientific community: virologists, who explained what they knew about infection and replication mechanisms used by SARS-type, RNA viruses; immunologists, who hypothesized about the causes of the chemokine storm; and neurobiologists, who debated the causes of the loss of smell and taste experienced by COVID-19 patients. (Indeed some of the first faculty and students who were infected realized that they had caught the virus because of their loss of the sense of smell.) For us, these were worrying but equally stimulating times because we love the biological puzzle and the humbling reminder that we know so little. 

I foresee an extreme bottleneck for new positions, especially in academia, in the next years.

The logistics of getting reorganized to work at home was a challenge and initially all-occupying for both lab members and administrators, but one that we began to manage with some foresight and planning. However, we underestimated how long this interruption to our normal routines would last. Only now do we realize that some restrictions are here for the long haul. Being in New York City and working at a hospital, the scope of the pandemic and danger of the virus were all too apparent. There isn’t a person here who does not have a close friend or family member who became ill. The novelty quickly turned into worry and existential fear.

Personal and Professional Challenges

The pandemic affected people very differently. Many of our graduate students kept busy by helping out in the hospital either transporting nasal swabs from the clinic to the clinical lab for PCR tests or by helping to build face shields. Some labs started research on COVID-19, and lab members were allowed back in the lab. Then, starting in June all labs transitioned to phased lab work, allowing scientists to work in shifts with clear rules about masking, distancing, and occupancy. Some trainees in my lab welcomed being back, even if just half-time. Advancing research under these difficult circumstances requires a lot of flexibility and creativity. It may also require us to realign our relationship with our trainees (see reference 1 for further discussion).

For those with children, adjusting to new work schedules was difficult. What may already have been a delicate balance between work and family before the pandemic now became a never-ending struggle. It was difficult to find needed quiet time at home, especially with small children, and entertaining and teaching older kids without their friends presented another challenge even for the best-intentioned parent. Almost all the postdocs in my lab have small children and it
has been nothing but disheartening to see their struggle.

Those trainees who were ready to be on the job market faced additional problems as many institutions and companies decided to forego faculty/new employee searches. Through the next few years, I foresee an extreme bottleneck for new positions, especially in academia. Not only are there fewer openings, but the pandemic and its unequal hardship on those providing care for children and loved ones will further hamper efforts geared at increasing the representation of women, Black, and Latinx scientists. Indeed, during the pandemic there has been a drop in publishing by women.2,3 However, new measures to increase and refocus research spending to include underrepresented scientists are recommended by a study about changes to procedures for Canadian government spending, which suggests promising new approaches for greater equity and inclusion in research funding.4 

Many scientists have lost more than a year of research at a critical time in their career. Many labs are no longer able to support their research staff, affecting the livelihood of graduate students, postdocs, and staff. While the American Rescue Act provides urgent relief to the continued impact of COVID-19, there has been no plan yet from the National Institutes of Health to help labs and trainees beyond carrying forward additional funds that were not spent during the shutdown. A bipartisan plan known as the Research Investment to Spark the Economy, or RISE, Act (H.R.869/S.289) would provide $25 billion to universities, research institutes, and laboratories to continue their federally funded projects and provide much needed relief to our research community. With the strong and unwavering support for science by the present U.S. administration, we’ll get through this.

Changes for the Good

Some changes we experienced may be for the good. For example, it quickly became clear that the transition to work from home was less onerous than expected, except for wet-lab research. This experience should diminish concern about more flexible worktime. Indeed, office space at work will likely be rethought and reconfigured in the future. The pandemic was an excellent, large-scale experiment and demonstrated that people work just as hard when at home. Perhaps, for some of us, work and life have blended a bit too much and we will need to find new ways to create separation, independent of the physical workplace setting. Emails do not have to be answered immediately, and it’s OK to have an Internet-free day. I expect that workplaces will change dramatically, creating new ways to complete tasks and work as teams. 

Meeting and Teaching on Zoom

For me this year also meant an enormous personal and professional change. After 24 years at the Skirball Institute at New York University Langone Medical Center, I accepted a position as Director of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the fall of 2019. Logistics of a home and lab move are traumatic under normal conditions and became somewhat of a nightmare under lockdown. It is so odd to start a new position by Zoom; not getting to know people in person, not bumping into new colleagues after a seminar or at the cafeteria, means that even after nearly a year of starting this new position, I still feel like a newcomer.

No doubt we will miss in-person networking, but new realities will create new opportunities.

We hired postdocs and research and administrative staff by Zoom, which works and may even remove some of the hidden prejudices that come with meeting the “entire person” and not just a screen shot. An article on ASBC’s website gives great advice as to how to interview by Zoom for a postdoc position.5 Some of our “Zoom” postdocs have now joined the lab, and it will be interesting to ask them how much the Zoom presentation of the lab reflects reality. 

My colleagues at MIT described how they had transformed their lectures from in-person to online within a few days. It is not an easy task to rapidly develop and become comfortable and effective with new platforms. Once we return to in-person teaching, I would not be surprised if some of the innovations and new online teaching tools find a permanent place in our teaching practice. (See https://bit.ly/2OLUvZ4 for a list of virtual teaching resources compiled by the editors of CBE—Life Sciences Education.)

Conferences Go Virtual

Scientists are often described as single-minded people who doggedly pursue their passion. But we all know this is so misleading; most scientists and teachers are very social, and strive to exchange their ideas with others. For me, so many ideas for new experiments and revelations about interpretations were generated during chance encounters in the lab. This does not happen when one first has to schedule a Zoom meeting. Beyond the lab, conferences and seminars are important venues to exchange findings and ideas with other scientists. Since March of 2020, all scientific conferences have been either cancelled or carried out virtually.

The annual ASCB|EMBO meeting was held virtually last December and we received mixed feedback. Many attendees liked the flexibility offered in viewing presentations and found that it was easier to ask questions in the chat than at a microphone in a crowded session. However, it was difficult to virtually recreate poster sessions, so the feedback for this component was less enthusiastic.  We will learn from this past experience. At the last ASCB Council meeting, the leadership of ASCB voted unanimously to hold the December 2021 meeting virtually (www.ascb.org/cellbio2021). This decision was not made easily but seemed inevitable as it was unlikely that we could all feel comfortable to come together in person. No doubt we will miss in-person networking, but new realities will create new opportunities. We expect that the 2022 meeting will be, once again, in person.  

A Year That Will Shape Us for Generations

What a year! It is hard to tell today whether one day we will look back and think about the changes that followed as positive. I’m betting that this year+ will shape us for generations: The fear of reoccurrence should encourage nations and institutions to be better prepared; the lessons learned from Zoom conferences and working from home may make us reconsider some of our business practices; and the fundamental role for basic science and innovation in global health should provide new opportunities and support for research and science education. 

References

1Pfund C et al. (2021) Reassess-realign-reimagine: A guide for mentors pivoting to remote research mentoring. CBE Life Sci Educ 20, es2.

2Viglione G (May 20, 2020). Are women publishing less during the pandemic? Here’s what the data say. Nature. doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01294-9.

3Andersen JP et al. (2020). Covid-19 medical papers have fewer women first authors than expected. eLife 9, e58807. doi:10.7554/eLife.58807.

4Witteman HO et al. (February 9, 2021). Covid-19 gender policy changes support female scientists and improve research quality. Proc Natl Acad Sci 118, e2023476118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2023476118.

5Wong S (February 15, 2021). Finding and starting your postdoc during a pandemic. www.ascb.org/careers/finding-and-starting-your-postdoc-during-a-pandemic.

About the Author:


Ruth Lehmann is a developmental and cell biologist at the New York University School of Medicine, where she is the Director of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Professor of Cell Biology, and the Chair of the Department of Cell Biology.