A lonely introvert in a pandemic

Ngee Kiat (Jake) Chua
By Ngee Kiat (Jake) Chua
Dec. 30, 2020

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.

Courtesy of Jake Chua
Jake Chua works as a postdoc in the lab in Melbourne.

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.

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Ngee Kiat (Jake) Chua
Ngee Kiat (Jake) Chua

Ngee Kiat (Jake) Chua is a postdoctoral research officer in the Feltham research lab, Ubiquitin Signalling Division, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Follow his blog at walkingscienceshoes.wordpress.com.

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