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Science-ing from home isn’t easy. Our humor columnist shares his tips

When I worked as an industry scientist, there were times when I wished I could work from home. If a blizzard hit or a power outage made lab work impossible—or, say, when my children were born and my workplace didn’t offer paternity leave—I would have loved to skip my 40-minute commute and accomplish science on my own schedule within my own walls.

I had visions of waking up without an alarm clock, throwing on flannel pants, making French press coffee, and plowing through piles of work—distraction free—next to a window at my dining room table. I’d cook lunch on my own stove instead of microwaving frozen tamales, call in to meetings from a chaise lounge in the back yard instead of languishing in a conference room, and knock off around 4 p.m., basking in the satisfaction of a productive day.

I should have been careful what I wished for.

As I write this, I’m balancing my laptop on a pile of unopened mail, declining increasingly intense hourly requests from my 8-year-old to play Catan, and trying but failing to keep the cats from walking on my keyboard. Yesterday morning, I helped my son participate in a Zoom meeting with 22 kindergartners. It worked exactly as well as you’d think.

As you may have already discovered, science doesn’t always easily make the transition to a home environment. If you’re a scientist who suddenly finds yourself moved from the workplace to the homestead for a while, an occasion you’ve marked by finally removing the Post-it flag from your webcam, here are some things to keep in mind when working from home:

  • There are many useful platforms for holding teleconferences and e-meetings, such as Zoom, Skype, and WebEx. These are a productive way to learn that no one knows how to mute their microphone.
  • Consider the upsides of social distancing. Maintaining a physical gap between yourself and your labmates might make it more difficult to work together, but at least you’re beyond arm’s reach when they notice you left their name off of your paper.
  • Recreate as much of your work environment at home as possible. You’ll need an office, a lab, a hallway, a lobby, and—ideally—a lofted atrium with a little coffee cart.
  • Changing out of your pajamas in the morning will put you in a “work mindset,” unless you’re used to wearing your pajamas to the lab—in which case a little telework may be good for you and your officemates for a few reasons.
  • Many household items can be used as lab equipment. If you think about it, a juice glass can serve the same purpose as an Erlenmeyer flask. The flame on a gas stove is just like a Bunsen burner. And if you need to perform high-energy particle physics experiments at home, a standard home-use particle accelerator is often just as good as the one in your lab!
  • Writing grant proposals is just as easy to do at home. You won’t be able to gather as much data to support your proposal, but be honest: Did the grant committee ever really consider your data anyway?
  • It can be harder to work at home if your kids are also home from school, but it’s easy to avoid distraction if … HEY I TOLD YOU TWICE ALREADY THAT YOU CAN’T GIVE THE CAT A POPSICLE.
  • Keep important computer files on the local network rather than on your hard drive. This will ensure that, whether you’re at home or at work, you will be unable to access them.
  • Make sure everyone in your home knows that you’re there to work. If asked to perform a household chore, narrow your eyes and hiss until you have the requisite privacy. Announce things like, “I am here to WORK, everyone. I am NOT here to PUT OUT THAT GREASE FIRE.”
  • Earplugs. If you’re surrounded by family members or roommates, then sweet mother of mercy, earplugs.
  • You may miss the scientific community’s sense of camaraderie. Watch talks on YouTube and pretend that visiting scientists are giving lectures in your living room. Feel proud that you’re the most senior scientist at the seminar. Refer to your houseplants as the “Organizing Committee.”
  • When working from home, it can be hard to escape a work mindset. So remember to take a break! You’ve earned it! Now get back to work. Now take another break! You’ve earned it! Now take a break from your break! Now take a break from that break! Now watch Season one of Love is Blind on Netflix! OMG Jessica’s dog is drinking wine! Now it’s tomorrow!

For me and many others, teleworking used to be a largely voluntary activity, more of an occasional deviation than a stress-inducing mandate. I’ve never actually luxuriated in a chaise lounge (nor have I owned one), but in the past, my occasional work-at-home days still felt quiet and industrious. Now I’m cowering in a corner with my laptop, contemplating what else might eventually work as toilet paper, while my children are raised by streaming clips of Mo Willems.

And yet, for all that some of us complain about this admittedly significant roadblock in our scientific productivity, I’m constantly reminded that things could be worse. Not all scientists have the luxury of even attempting to telework, and many are carrying on with lab work that’s essential, such as COVID-19 clinical trials. That research is made all the more difficult because of shortages, supply chain disruptions, and risks to the researchers’ personal health and safety. And many people, of course, have lost their jobs outright.

To all of those scientists and doctors still performing important research without adequate resources, and especially to those risking their safety to help all of us, thank you. You’re the ones putting out the real grease fires.

Someday things will return to normal. On that day, we will happily commute to work, resume complaining about who left their dishes in the lab sink, and maybe indulge in the occasional high-five.

Until then, we need to do whatever we can to keep ourselves and our communities safe and healthy. Or, to quote Jerry Springer: “Take care of yourselves, and each other.”

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