A lonely introvert in a pandemic
I am an introvert, so I need quiet personal time to recharge after a day with other people. In the lab, I prefer meaningful conversations to small talk. Since I started a new postdoc during the pandemic, I've been looking for a deeper purpose to my research life and trying to figure out how to find satisfaction in my simpler, socially distanced home life.
My dissertation was passed, and I graduated with a Ph.D. in February. I moved to Melbourne, Australia, in March to start my postdoc, leaving the city of Sydney where I had lived for seven years. Before the move, I knew I'd need to find support groups at my new workplace and in my personal life. Why does an introvert need a social circle? Don't misunderstand: I am delighted at the thought of spending time away from the lab and avoiding the current rocky state of the world, but I also knew I needed real human connections in my life.
At the start of the pandemic, I was indifferent to my life of isolation. But over time, my satisfaction with my new position deteriorated, living alone in Melbourne. I couldn't shake off the feeling I had just started a postdoc without knowing how a research career in science works. My visa was set to expire soon, and as a citizen of Malaysia, I feared deportation. I needed to complete several publications with my former Ph.D. advisor with tight timelines. Without companions to talk to, I found it difficult to be in a vibrant mood most of the time.
Eventually, I figured out that I needed to create new routines for my new life.
I had started blogging in January, months before my move and the peak of the pandemic. As a grad student, I had grown more confident and better at making decisions after hearing the stories of experienced postdocs and grad students. I wanted to do the same, to help newer grad students, through my blog "Walking in My Science Shoes." As research for the blog, I started reading uplifting articles about personal and career development in my spare time. Along the way, I connected with other bloggers and even ended up hosting a Zoom session on bloggers in science. Through blogging, I became more mindful of my feelings and reactions, which helped me keep my emotional distress in check. Being a science communicator as a blogger fulfilled my desire to be in a quiet space where I could dive into the silent world of my mind. It gave me time to think and communicate freely in the comfort of home.
I always have been slow to warm up to others and reluctant to initiate contact, but I became frustrated; my routine of doing experiments and finishing desk work was just not enough. A week after I started my postdoc, I was told to work from home. When I was allowed back two months later, I thought returning to the lab and meeting colleagues would alleviate my frustrations, but it was difficult to familiarize myself with the people and atmosphere of my new workplace. So I made the first move to sign up as a presenter for two series of weekly online events to make other connections. One of these developed into a community of Malaysian scientists, and another flourished as a community of grad students and postdocs from different parts of the world. We did a bit of show and tell about our research each week. Hearing about the lives of other scientists in these tighter circles has been comforting as I face the unknowns of my postdoc journey. These virtual communities contributed to what became daily positive affirmations that I have now to keep me going to the bench.
One new routine I initially loathed but then became strangely devoted to. Every week, I teach an online class at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, where I had my Ph.D. training. At first, I just wanted to help maintain the university's reputation during the pandemic, but after the initial stress, I became infatuated with online teaching.
On the weekends, I worked at developing creative teaching resources and learning about how humans interact in the virtual world. I learned to make full use of the online realm for science, and that made me a better teacher. I began to enjoy meeting my students every Wednesday. I was excited to see how they learned to like molecular biology even without hands-on lab experience. Their words of appreciation continuously brighten my day. After class, I walk to my research bench empowered as a scientist, knowing that I've helped nurture the scientists of tomorrow.
I do enjoy my alone time, but introverts can get lonely. I realized that no matter how introverted I am, I still wanted contact with people who support and understand me. The difficulties of starting a postdoc, worrying about my visa status, taking care of unfinished business with my former Ph.D. advisor and living alone in a pandemic made that contact necessary. Taking time away from the research bench to set new routines and find online support communities helped me gain a better sense of belonging and satisfaction in my new life.
Join the ASBMB Today mailing list
Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.
In this version, instead of basketball teams we bring you competing scientific methods and a chance to sway the outcome with votes (and maybe some trash talk) on Twitter.
The whole purpose of retraction — marking research as poor quality or even as fraudulent — frequently doesn't seem to affect how those papers are read and cited.
“Publications that describe curricular or pedagogical innovations are rarely cited, and their authors get little feedback about their impact.”