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How early-career scientists are coping with COVID-19 challenges and fears

Daphne Ling—a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada—has remained on campus in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. She lives in a university residence and has been working from there, trying to write two manuscripts. But her efforts to remain productive have “failed abysmally because my thoughts are preoccupied with everything else,” she says. “Most of my time right now is spent worrying about my family, friends, and professors and day-to-day practical concerns.”

Ling is a Malaysian citizen, and it’s been especially hard for her to be a continent away from her parents and younger brother. After UBC shut down, Ling contemplated flying to Malaysia to be with them, but she decided against it because she didn’t want to risk coming into contact with the novel coronavirus during her travels and bringing it home with her. The thought of “quarantining myself with my older parents—they both have preexisting conditions—is scary,” she says.

In the midst of all the stress and worry, one bright spot for Ling has been the support she’s received from people around her in Vancouver. “My supervisor has been fantastic,” says Ling. “When she heard that my residence shut down [access to] our stoves and ovens, she offered to bring over a hot plate and some food. My classmates with cars also offered to do grocery runs.” On top of that, Ling has been astounded by all the new social channels and events that allow her to connect virtually with other people living at her university residence. “As an introvert, I have honestly been a little overwhelmed by all this connecting,” she says. But “I’m not obligated to do all or any of them, so I can pick and choose.”

Ling is one of thousands of early-career scientists who have faced personal and professional challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept around the world. As part of our ongoing “How to” series, Science Careers asked 11 of them—including Ling—how they are doing and what strategies they have found helpful as they cope with coronavirus-related challenges, stressors, and worries. The responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What is the biggest personal or professional challenge you have faced because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

I was about to start experiments to respond to reviewer comments on my first postdoc manuscript when the lab (and university) had to close due to COVID-19. I am moving to a new postdoc position in September, so I will most likely not be able to do all the experiments we had planned. In the coming weeks, I will go back to the data I have to see if there is anything to address some of the reviewer comments and rewrite the manuscript to potentially send to another journal. The uncertainty about how long this situation will last is most stressful.
- Charlotte M. de Winde, postdoctoral fellow in stromal immunology at the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London in the United Kingdom

Both my wife and I are early-career researchers. Living in a small apartment and practicing social distancing with our 2-year-old daughter at home all the time has been disruptive to our research routine, to say the least. It can be stressful as we both try to keep up with our assignments while sharing our duties in keeping our daughter well-fed and entertained.
- Manh-Tung Ho, Ph.D. student in culture and media studies at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Japan, who also works at Phenikaa University in Hanoi, Vietnam

I was supposed to write the comprehensive examinations for my doctoral degree before the end of the academic year. I have a disability and had had an extra year tagged on to accommodate it. Seeing my timeline likely further pushed back is causing me significant distress, especially because funding doesn’t continue indefinitely.
- Ling

I scrambled to finish a project before the lab and the entire university shut down. I was worried that I was rushing through experiments that I should not be rushing through. I also felt really stressed about making sure I finished my experiments and grabbed everything I needed from the lab. Personally, the biggest challenge is missing the social aspect of working in a lab, as my co-workers are like my family. Moreover, I have an industry internship starting in June, and I will be really bummed if I don’t get to have such a great learning experience.
- Siennah Miller, Ph.D. student in pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arizona in Tucson

When the restrictions started, I had to finish my doctoral dissertation with three sick kids at home within 14 days. My husband continued working, so it was very challenging to meet my deadline. Now that this deadline is over, I still need to prepare my defense and finish another article. I am homeschooling the children, so this is not an ideal situation to stay focused. I was also looking forward to the time after sending my dissertation to my committee because we had planned to go on a vacation in the United States. I was to present my work at a congress afterward, and the feedback would have been useful in preparing my Ph.D. defense. All of that has now been canceled.
- Amy Quintelier, Ph.D. student in educational sciences at the University of Antwerp in Belgium

I want to complete my projects to graduate and go on to my next level of education. The indefinite delay at this stage is extremely frustrating. And whatever I can get done from home is just not happening. Productivity is at an all-time low. I am not able to focus, with a billion things worrying me all the time, and this is stressing me out even more. I am constantly worrying about the well-being of my parents, who are by themselves in my native country, India. I also had plans to get married in May, which now stand canceled.
- Shreya Ghosh, Ph.D. student in biophysical chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania

I work in a hospital, doing research in a diagnostic radiology department. The cancellation of all non-emergency procedures due to COVID-19 has reduced the number of clinical exams that I can use in my research by about 80%. However, the submission deadlines for the articles and grants that we are still gathering evidence for have not been postponed. This has made us very anxious as we scramble to finish the work with limited access to resources.
- Gabriel Lucca, senior resident in radiology at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, Brazil, who is currently serving as a neuroradiology fellow at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta

Fortunately, most of the data for my thesis have been generated, but the psychological pressure associated with this quarantine has taken a huge toll on my productivity at home. I am finding it very hard to focus when there is such an overload of information being thrown at me at both a professional and personal level. Personally, the most difficult decision I have had to make in my life was declining my family’s suggestion of returning to Portugal to be with them until the pandemic is over. The idea of taking a full day’s trip felt too risky, especially since most of my family members are in high-risk groups.
- Gonçalo Rosas da Silva, Ph.D. student in metabolomics at Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom

I have a few projects that are very close to the finish line, but with the lockdown, I cannot access the lab equipment that is crucial for my work. I also had a 2-month research fellowship planned in the United Kingdom this spring, followed by a conference in Germany, a visit to a collaborator in Switzerland, and a personal visit to my family back in India. All these plans fell through because of COVID-19.
- Suhas Eswarappa Prameela, Ph.D. student in material science and engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland

Because I study coronaviruses, my work has become extremely busy during the pandemic. Every day, I need to plan my schedule very carefully between teleconferencing with my colleagues, bench work, and writing publications. A personal challenge has been finding a good balance between work and family. My husband and I are both working, and we take care of our child in different time shifts.
- Linlin Zhang, senior scientist in viral structural biology at the University of Lübeck in Germany

How have you been adapting to the current situation?

I’ve been focusing my time on reading more papers, writing reviews, planning future projects, writing reports, and doing all the other tasks I always had on standby, such as attending webinars and taking online courses. Perhaps paradoxically, with the lockdown, meetings with my research group have become more relaxed and productive. We now not only discuss the next steps in our research projects, but also our career plans, experiences, and innovative ideas to develop in the future. I have established a similar working schedule to when I was in the lab, and I’ve realized just how important it is to have a routine when you’re working remotely. I set up my office in the laundry room because I wanted to use a different space than my bedroom and kitchen. I also redecorated it to give it more of an office look. That makes me feel more like I am going to my workplace every morning, even though I now share my office with the ironing board.
- Eduardo Oliver, research fellow in experimental pharmacology at the Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research in Madrid

The first 2 weeks, when I was at home alone with the children, I bought a set of toys and comic books to keep them busy. I let them play on the iPad and Nintendo when I needed to stay focused. I rescheduled my planning and committed with my supervisors to work in the mornings, evenings, and weekends. Now, I work on tasks that require attention in the morning and mainly take care of administrative work in the afternoon. I still meet regularly with my research group but only online. There used to be a tradition of having drinks together on Fridays, and now that has been restored, but in an online café where we can share our experiences and difficulties.
- Quintelier

I changed my research approach to circumvent the lack of access to equipment, for example by preparing meta-analyses and case reports. I also changed part of my focus and am now working on projects related to COVID-19. Researchers from developing nations are used to doing high-level research with little time and money, and resource optimization is a useful skill during this time.
- Lucca

Our social science lab has moved to online-based interviews and surveys and directed resources to mining text on social media and online news to be more cost effective. At home, my wife and I take turns during the day to work, and we stay up at night more often. All unnecessary distractions such as Twitter or Facebook are limited. We try to stay positive and mindful of our stress level. We do our best so that we don’t make our daughter feel stressed as well.
- Ho

My research group had a few in-person meetings before the university shutdown about how to tackle some of the lab logistics. We set up some of the lab computers to be online so that we can access key software and data remotely. We also have a group Dropbox account, and we use Zoom for our meetings. Meanwhile, at home, I focus on writing up some papers, including some reviews I had discussed with my adviser. Luckily, the conference I was supposed to attend in Germany this spring has now been converted into a virtual meeting, and I look forward to getting my work published in the conference proceedings.
- Eswarappa Prameela

Are you worried that the epidemic will affect your career, and have you found ways to minimize the impact?

As a final-year Ph.D. student, now would be the ideal time to attend conferences, present my work, do some networking, and hopefully start making plans for the future. All of this has been put on hold by the pandemic.
- Rosas da Silva

I feel lucky and happy that I can contribute my efforts to the global campaign against COVID-19. We are exploring many collaborations all over the word and building a new network. My current research may benefit my career in the future.
- Zhang

Early-career researchers depend on publications for getting competitive grants and research fellowships—and ultimately a permanent position. With our experimental work on hold, there will be indefinite delays in our publications. I try to minimize the potential career impacts by boosting my transferable skills through online courses, for example on data analysis software and effective presentations. Also, I am involved in writing papers and reviews with different colleagues that will likely reinforce our collaborations.
- Oliver

My postdoc search has been a complete toss due to COVID-19. As I was planning to graduate this summer, I started looking for postdoc positions in January. A lot of the applications materialized into in-person interviews that were to begin mid-March. But then all travels were canceled, and interviews were postponed indefinitely. Some of the interviews did take place over Skype, but I missed out on checking out the lab and the facilities and talking to the lab members. In the longer term, with the economy hitting a low, I am guessing that both academic and industrial job openings will be scarce for the next few years. Some universities have already announced they won’t be hiring new faculty in the next academic year. Such a scenario is extremely stressful, even more so for international students like me who are on a visa and need a job to remain in the United States.
- Ghosh

My appointment at the university ends in June, so I’m looking for a new job. I had seen some interesting vacancies abroad, but I’m a bit cautious about that now. Where I live, hardly any new vacancies have been posted since the lockdown, so it is very likely that I will be unemployed in July. I am now working on an “emergency plan” so that I can possibly start as an independent researcher if I still don’t have a job in September.
- Quintelier

What are you doing to cope with your stress, anxiety, and fears? Have you found any resources to be particularly helpful?

I am trying to watch less news, be less paranoid, talk it out with my boyfriend, and connect more with friends and family. I also try to analyze what my fears are and then tease them apart to see if they are rational or not. If they are, I try to think of ways I can manage them. And I always remind myself that I am much better off than so many other people in the world—people who have lost jobs and need to feed a family.
- Ghosh

My university has been providing plenty of resources focused on mental and physical health. For example, staff members recently initiated online fitness classes, and it’s been a great way to relieve stress and work out with my peers remotely. I also find it helpful to talk with my family much more regularly.  
- Eswarappa Prameela

I do a solitary walk in the fresh air for 2 to 3 hours every morning. My walks have been extremely meditative. To reward myself for walking, I bought a whole bunch of chocolate. Nibbling little buttons of dark chocolate after my walks has been very helpful! I have also been tweeting away my stress and anxiety about all the uncertainty, and I have found Twitter to be a great resource to see how other academics are dealing with this. It may sound morbid, but I have also started to prepare a will and I appointed a health care representative and a power of attorney. As overwhelming as this has been, it has helped allay some of my anxiety knowing that I am doing what I can to make things as easy as possible for my family in case of an emergency.
- Ling

My lower productivity is still a challenge that I haven’t fully overcome, but frequent contact with my supervisors and collaborators has helped tremendously.
- Rosas da Silva

I try not to get too influenced by catastrophic TV news and instead read official sources of information, as well as scientific journals to be up-to-date on COVID-19. I then use social networks to spread the information that I consider most useful and, in this way, feel somehow connected to the outside world.
- Oliver

I use the time that I used to spend commuting to now do yoga two or three times a week and go for a run once or twice a week. I also try to go for a walk every day, alone or with my boyfriend, to get some fresh air, and not think about work. And I have virtual social calls with my friends, which is almost as much fun as seeing them in real life!
- de Winde

What have you learned during the pandemic? Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for other early-career scientists?

This experience has made me much less reluctant to reach out to others when I am at my lowest. A lot of us will also become more appreciative of the important people in our lives when we are with them again, and of the liberties we took for granted when we regain them.
- Rosas da Silva

This situation has made me more conscious of the need for a better work-life balance, and that working from home may be part of the solution. Also, the pandemic has boosted my commitment to society and my desire to work on global challenges, support politicians in their decision-making, and engage in citizen science.
- Oliver

Keep asking and researching. We all could be in a panic right now in isolated apartments and away from family and colleagues, but take this time to think even more about how you as a scientist may be useful to humanity.
- Lucca

Stay strong. This too will pass. The world needs more scientists now and this is the best time to invest yourself in science.
- Ghosh

When it is difficult to separate work and private life, do not set the bar too high for yourself. During your working hours, also make sure to take a break, relax, and stretch your legs. And if you notice that the stress is getting the upper hand, then it is important to raise this with your employer or the doctor in good time.
- Quintelier

Think of the work you can do, instead of what you cannot, and try to turn having to work from home into something positive. Be nice to yourself, as adapting to this situation is already challenging enough!
- de Winde

Of course, some people will be able to work very well and be extremely productive. Good for them. However, there will be many of us who are taking it one day at a time. I think it would be good if we can normalize self-care, talking about our emotions and our struggles, and normalize grieving. It’s OK to feel scared and sad. And it’s OK to say so.
- Ling

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