Trainee lessons in the time of COVID-19

ASBMB Today Staff
Nov. 27, 2020

While still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, four science trainees at the National Institutes of Health reflect on how this unprecedented time has affected their career trajectories and, importantly, what they've learned so far.

'After every down, there will be an up'

Natalie Landeck

On Monday, March 16, I approached the entrance of the NIH Bethesda campus holding my usual cup of black tea. This was the day I would start my big experiment. I had waited nine months, had prepared and planned. I was excited and nervous. We had received a message over the weekend instructing us to telework, but our team decided that I would spend one more week in the lab. I held my NIH badge on the reader to open the revolving doors. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. My badge had stopped working, and the employees at the NIH badge center all were teleworking, so no one was around to help me get in. I was devastated. What followed was a long and painful five months.

I am a postdoctoral fellow studying Parkinson's disease in animal models, so working with cell culture and animals is my daily bread and butter. During the months at home, I mostly stared at my computer screen, desperately trying to find something to write or read or listen to. Early on, our group decided to decrease our mouse colony to make it easier for our essential staff to take care of them. This meant canceling a lot of ongoing experiments, such as cell culture treatments and mouse cohorts. It was difficult. I was jealous listening to some of my friends around the world who were still somehow working and getting data. In this stage of my career, getting data and showing I can be an independent, productive scientist is everything. Research has become more and more competitive. I worried that spending additional time as a postdoc would cause me to fall behind in the making-it-to-group-leader race.

Looking back, I realize that I learned a great deal during this challenging period. I learned how I deal with stressful situations and which coping mechanisms (some might say hobbies) work for me. Communicating regularly with my postbac over Zoom, making sure he was busy and was surviving the isolation, taught me a lot about how to be a better leader. I also had time to write manuscripts, hunt down opportunities for collaborations, work on grant ideas, start teaching online courses and, most of all, chat with my amazing lab colleagues; we kept each other connected and sane.

If I had to point out one lesson in particular, it's the importance of going through rough times as a team. Everything is easier when you can share the burden.

— Natalie Landeck, postdoctoral fellow

'Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams and Skype … all in the same day'

Marya Sabir

On Friday, March 13, NIH staff received an all-hands message from Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH: "I have made the decision that effective Monday, March 16, all telework-eligible employees across the NIH should begin teleworking to the extent possible, at least through Friday, April 3."

This was followed by a slew of messages from our institute and lab leadership outlining policies and procedures. Then began the onslaught of virtual everything, from the 9 a.m. daily lab huddles to virtual seminars, conferences and happy hours. Before the pandemic, I had no idea what Zoom was; by mid-September, I had used Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams and Skype — all in the same day.

As a first-year graduate student studying neurogenetics, I had a research plan. Overnight, that plan changed. My research is based on large genome-sequencing data sets, so not being able to go to the lab meant that my work on these data would be delayed until further notice. After a series of trials and errors as I tried to establish a routine, telework began to feel normal. I learned a new programming language, worked on manuscripts (albeit some days in pajamas), found innovative ways to train new members of my lab and attended conferences that suddenly became virtual. Eventually, the NIH opened its doors, and I returned to the lab to finish a few experiments. These days, I'm back to my newly established normal, working from home and only stopping by in the lab from time to time to help colleagues with challenging experiments.

The pandemic has taught me two important lessons early in my graduate studies:

  1. Always plan for the fact that no plan goes according to plan. Remain flexible. Flexibility gives you space to be creative and resourceful.
  2. Find a hobby and be adamant about making time for self-care. Indulge in baking for an afternoon, learn a new instrument, read a book you've been meaning to pick up for months. It doesn't have to be big or time-consuming, it just has to be something.

This is not how I expected my first year of graduate school to end, but I am grateful for the lessons in resiliency I am learning, day in and day out.

 — Marya Sabir, graduate student, Oxford–Cambridge Scholars Program

'Is there bench work without a bench?'

Makayla Portley

On March 13, my PI walked into my cubicle and asked if I had enough computer work to keep me busy for a little while. I'm a postbac fellow studying neurogenetics, and, as an entirely bench scientist, I answered with a hesitant, "I could find some."

My first weeks at home felt like the opportune time to catch up on an abundance of spreadsheets and notes, and then I tried my hand at bioinformatics, a world I never had ventured into before. I learned how to analyze our group's genotyping data, exomes and more. The day I learned how to submit a "swarm," a script designed to make submitting a group of commands easier, I was unjustifiably excited as I sat alone in my room.

As I dipped my toe into the computational pool, my to-do lists of bench work remained untouched. After a few weeks, I could not bring myself even to open the tab on my computer that held them. I had so many pieces of so many projects waiting for me, and I felt like I was making no progress. I decided to create new quarantine to-do lists in a separate tab so that when I opened them I could see progress and achievable goals for my remote work. For my morale, the appearance of progress is sometimes just as important as progress itself.

As I've returned to the lab and finally been able to open that first tab, I am grateful for the second. I had hoped for months to start learning the computational side of our lab's work but was always too busy. In these remote working months, I had nothing but time. I also started writing a review, developed a few new hobbies (almost all food-related), and learned how to stay connected with my lab mates without spending every day with them.

 — Makayla Portley, Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award fellow

'What are plans?'

Corinna Davis

When COVID-19 shut down much of the U.S. back in March, I was waiting to hear from the NIH about a summer internship researching neuroscience. That was my plan. Unfortunately, the only news I received was the cancellation of the program. Suddenly, I was a rising college junior with no summer plans, no income and no contingency.

After a few weeks of searching for summer opportunities in the neuroscience field, I decided to make a change. Since quarantine had begun, my friends from college and I had been discussing spending our summer in Denver, Colorado. Most of us had family or friends in the area we could stay with. So, with the money I had from part-time tutoring in Spanish and my art studio assistant job near my college, I booked a flight and moved to Denver with two of my best friends. There, I spent my time studying for my upcoming fall courses while working a remote job based in the area.

While the summer held some enlightening moments, my mind drifted back to my first research internship at the NIH over the summer of 2019. I thought about how I felt when I was there, like I'd found a special place where I felt challenged each day to push my intellectual limits and abilities, where every day I learned or began to question something new. I hadn't much considered research until my experience in the NIH lab; I always had assumed I'd attend medical school and eventually practice clinical medicine. Even when I was doing laboratory work during my last spring semester at college, I was itching to be back at the NIH bench with my samples, notebook and lab coat.

Being away from the place where I had found my passion solidified my goal after college — to complete a Ph.D. program in the subspecialty of neuropharmacology and become a clinical research scientist. Prior to my arrival back home from Denver, I had applied for research assistant positions at my college, but those positions were closed due to continued remote learning. So I decided to spend the fall semester focusing on my courses, learning more about my career interests and preparing to take the GRE next year, and I would spend the spring semester looking for summer opportunities.

We've all learned a lot this past year. I learned that plans are just that — plans. They are outlines of massive projects that haven't started yet. This is not how I expected my year to go, but now I'm excited to see how my future projects will turn out.

 — Corrina Davis, undergraduate, Lafayette College

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