Wellness

A pandemic-proof mindset

How three scientists at different levels are coping
Caleigh Findley
Jan. 5, 2021

I first heard about COVID-19 when our Chinese New Year celebration was canceled in late January. News about the coronavirus in Wuhan had spread, and one of the organizing committee members recently had returned from a trip there. I remember thinking it was a freak thing, an outbreak happening overseas that we just needed to make sure didn't cross over. As the weeks passed, however, I began to see that this virus was a real threat. Before I knew it, the grocery stores were out of toilet paper, and the governor was announcing a lockdown.

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The first months of the pandemic were the most stressful. My lab went on a restricted schedule, with only essential workers allowed to carry on their experiments. I had to perform my work as quickly as possible and then work remotely for the rest of the day. With little flexibility in my on-site schedule, my anxiety grew at the thought of how this lockdown could impact my graduation date. I did my best to remain calm, maintain a regular schedule and lean on my support system to take care of my mental health.

I knew I wasn't the only person with these feelings. According to a recent survey at public research universities, twice as many students reported suffering from major depression and 1½ times more said they had generalized anxiety disorder in 2020 than in 2019. I wondered how others around me were coping. I talked to three people at the university about their experiences.

The grad student: Be logical

Jesika Colomer–Saucedo, a fellow graduate student in my department, said the lockdown left her feeling anxious and unsure of the future. "I was just going to the lab like normal, but it was weird because no one was around," she said. "But it was like, what's the point? Nobody knows what's going to happen."

Colomer–Saucedo faced major challenges with living alone and having reduced contact with her support system. Before the pandemic, she could walk into her PI's office to talk about her projects. The lockdown forced many professors to work from home, leaving grad students to troubleshoot and move forward with less oversight. Jesika now sees this as a period of professional growth. "It forced me to be even more independent as a researcher," she said.

Her "student mentality," as she calls it, allowed her to adjust better to changes in work-life balance. Many students are accustomed to working from home, and graduate students are certainly adept at learning as they go.

To combat pandemic anxiety while living alone, Colomer–Saucedo maintained a regular workout schedule, minimized her doom scrolling and news intake, and just tried to be "as logical as you can about things."

The lab coordinator: Go with the flow

I live with my boyfriend and our two dogs that we treat as our children. But I knew that people with families faced greater challenges than I did when daycare centers closed and school-age children had to switch to remote learning at home.

Sam McFadden is a laboratory coordinator, managing several aging projects and the logistics of a large lab. He found that juggling a shift-work schedule with a 2-year-old no longer in daycare and his wife still working on-site left him stretched thin.

"I had to come in (to the lab) on weekends, which threw off my life schedule," he said. Aging projects have strict timelines for data collection, negating any flexibility for pandemic shift work. "It was necessary but unfortunate because I got less time with my family."

While his work–life balance was being tested, McFadden found that adapting to his new normal meant taking things day by day. "I went with the flow of it, and the only way I could keep my sanity was to understand that I couldn't control any of it.

"I just took every day one day at a time and said, 'Alright, that was today, and who knows what tomorrow will be, so just go to sleep and wait for the next day.'"

The PI: A marathon sprint

Kevin Hascup, an assistant professor and early-career principal investigator, works in tandem with his wife, Erin Hascup, director of the university's Alzheimer's center and an associate professor, studying Alzheimer's disease pathology in several animal models. The onset of the pandemic left Kevin Hascup feeling anxious about the possibility of the lab shutting down and overwhelmed by the constant influx of new information as the virus spread.

"We're an aging lab," he said. "Some of the mice we use are aged out to a year or longer. If we have to cull the entire colony, that sets us back at least a year just to get back to the point we were at."

With a large laboratory, a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old at home, and a publishing quota to reach, Hascup knew the pressure was on to find a way through the lockdown. He chose to face these challenges head-on, determined to make the most of an uncertain situation.

"I adapted by understanding more about the virus and then trying to adapt that to our research," he said. "We both believed that there were going to be two scenarios that come out of this. You either come out stronger, or you fall behind. And we didn't want to fall behind."

Hascup refocused on various writing projects and research ideas that had been in the back of his mind. His efforts produced forward momentum in his work, with the publication of two editorials and successful application for additional funding toward COVID-19 and Alzheimer's research.

Yet he felt the strain of finding a work–life balance as he and his wife attempted to continue their work while homeschooling their children. The children's school was slow to adapt from hands-on teaching to virtual learning techniques, leaving the responsibility on parents to teach from home. No easy feat — even as a husband-and-wife team.

Hascup said he knew coping with the virus would be a long process, a marathon of sorts. But meeting the ever-growing demands of early pandemic life left him feeling like he was sprinting from one thing to the next, he said. "You're able to sustain that for only so long before it mentally and physically wears on you."

In facing these challenges, Hascup learned to take things in stride and place greater value on balancing his work and family life. He also relied on his tried-and-true technique for mental health — consistent exercise with his Peloton bike.

Now (somewhat) adjusted to pandemic life, Hascup said he realizes something that rings true for many of us — we are more resilient than we thought.

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Caleigh Findley

Caleigh Findley is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in pharmacology and neuroscience at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

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