How Cell Biologists Work ‘at Home’ featuring Veronica Segarra

Veronica Segarra is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at High Point University in North Carolina. At HPU Veronica and her team of undergraduate researchers use budding yeast to study questions related to membrane trafficking, and how these mechanisms aid cells through times of stress. Additionally, Segarra contributes to studies involving science pedagogy, innovative teaching interventions, and how to involve the arts in science outreach efforts. During the stay-at-home orders, Segarra and her team have chosen to make the most of this time and focus their energy on fostering an interactive and supportive academic community to the best of their abilities, which you can read more about below.

Let’s start with your Name: Veronica Segarra (@SegarraVeronica)

Location: High Point University (HPU), a private liberal arts university in High Point, North Carolina

Position: Assistant Professor of Biology

Are you able to work?  If you are working, where and with whom are you currently working?

I have been working remotely from home since mid-March. All my work is in collaboration with undergraduates who are scientists-in-training—I have been teaching an upper-level Cancer Biology course, mentoring undergraduate research students, and implementing online programming for HPU’s Mobile Lab Program (@HPUMobileLab). I would not be able to do all of this without the help of talented undergraduate students who have become my thought partners. In honor of this, I have taken the liberty of asking three of them to help me provide you with a view of our collective challenges and strategies for success when working from home, highlighting similarities in the ways we have met the COVID-19 challenge. Contributing to this piece are Liz Cabrera, Meaghan Robinson, and Candyce Sturgeon, all full-time students and undergraduate research assistants in my lab at High Point University.

What is your daily (or weekly) routine? Any regularly scheduled meetings or activities? Anything you really enjoy or really dread?

While we try to follow our pre-COVID-19 academic schedule as much as possible, we have had to develop new strategies and routines to effectively change how we work. We now have more regular exercise and eating schedules that are built in around regular videoconference sessions like our weekly Segarra Lab meetings. We have also had to increase our proficiency in using and implementing remote learning environments—for all of us; this is our first time learning and teaching remotely. Sometimes things go as planned, sometimes, not so much. For this reason, we have had to learn to be even more patient with each other and ourselves. In this process, we have also had to grow closer and more comfortable asking for help—when we tackle challenges together as a community, the burden and frustration is lightened. Also, while we dread days with a lot of scheduled videoconferences or live class sessions (we find these meetings drain our energies), we enjoy connecting and “seeing” each other even if it is through video. For all of us, our favorite part of a liberal arts education is the high level of personal interaction we get to have—we feed off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm. We have tried to replicate that to the extent possible using online and remote tools.

Learning how to wood burn through a remote art class – screenshot photo courtesy of J. Egan (teacher of the remote class)

What are your daily distractions/impediments?

While we are all working from home, we recognize there are shared challenges that we face. For example, it is challenging for us to stay focused during work and study periods—we have family members that we live with who are also working from home. Some of us also have pets that often want to play and demand our attention. Related to this, one of the challenges we have identified as common is the lack of dedicated study/workspaces away from campus—we now realize how much these spaces helped us stay focused. And while some of us may be in a position to have a dedicated space for work and study at home, some of us are not. Last, but not least, some of us do not have access to reliable WiFi networks. While this can diminish our ability to work effectively, it serves as a reminder that some challenges are completely out of our control, highlighting the need to rely on each other to have access to what we need to complete the semester successfully.

Undergraduate researcher Meaghan Robinson at her makeshift workspace, looking at micrographs of HeLa cells she grew in lab earlier in the semester. Photo courtesy of Robinson.

Undergraduate researcher Liz Cabrera taking time to relax with embroidery. Photo courtesy of Cabrera.

Undergraduate researcher Candyce Sturgeon, a scientist-artist in training practicing her craft. Photo courtesy of Sturgeon.

Do you have any strategies that are helping you stay productive (or sane for that matter)?

We all have art/crafts related hobbies that we have been able to use to release stress and occasionally take a break from these challenging times. I am enjoying painting, have started to learn wood-burning techniques with the help of a local artist through remote art classes (great way to support local!).  I am also trying hard to revive my love for running. Meaghan is drawing more now, doing more crafts, reading more books, and has started to learn how to longboard and skateboard. Liz has taken up new hobbies like stitching. And while Candyce, who is a budding scientist-artist interested in a career as a medical illustrator, has art/crafts built into her academic work, she has also used this time as an opportunity to perfect new techniques and work on her graduate school application portfolio.  Candyce is also working on growing her love for running. Fascinating (although not surprising) that we have all used different forms of crafting/physical activity as a coping strategy in these difficult times. We are thinking to build on this once we go back to campus, perhaps going to an art class together (or completing a fun 5k race together!) as a lab would be a good way to celebrate being back together in person.

Is there anything you have time for now that you previously kept on the backburner? (Finding the silver lining amidst the COVID-19 challenge)

We are finding time to cook more, eat healthier, and share meals and time with family. For example, I have been cooking Puerto Rican dishes that I had not made in a very long time (I was born and raised in Puerto Rico). Meaghan loves the fact that she routinely eats with her family, which helps her take regular breaks from work. Moreover, Meaghan’s siblings have relied on her for help in some courses, which makes her feel important.

As a group, we are also finding time to be more thoughtful about our professional development. We have been able to update our resumes/CVs with each other’s feedback. We have also started thinking about our careers long term using the myIDP tools (https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/). Even though some of us are not PhD-level scientists, it is never too early to start thinking about what we want from our future as scientists.

In light of recent events, is there an initiative (or multiple) in which you have taken an interest or active role?

We have been focused on finishing up our spring semester strong, just about to finish the final exams period now—we have not been able to take on too much more. But once final exams end and grades are submitted, we plan to find ways to engage in volunteer work, support those in our community who need assistance and find ways to continue our research over the summer. Some of us had planned to do research over the summer in person. These programs have been canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis. We want to find ways to foster our professional development despite these cancellations.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Something that has helped us face the COVID-19 crisis and the effects it has had on our lives/academic trajectory is to constantly remember that we are part of communities (for example, ASCB, HPU, the Segarra Lab, our families) that need us. In these communities, not only do we receive support from others, but we have the opportunity to help others as well. The satisfaction and happiness that come from helping others can counteract the sadness we might be feeling at any given time. In my case, working with young scientists is a source of constant inspiration. For an energy boost on a day when I may lack the gumption to work on a particular task, I only have to think about the fact that my work directly impacts students like Liz, Meaghan, and Candyce and their careers as scientists.

A few weeks back, my institution asked me for my picture to use for a collage to celebrate our community. They ended up using my picture to generate the quote graphic that I am sharing with you here  (my picture is second from the top, left to right)—it nicely captures my lifeline during this crisis.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Mahatma Gandhi

High Point University faculty coming together remotely during COVID-19

 

About the Author:


Emily Bowie is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the lab of Bob Goldstein at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is interested in morphogenesis and embryology. Twitter: @docbowie Email: emilybowie@unc.edu