On March 11th of 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic across the world due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Weirdly enough, just like in those horrible “end-of-the-world” or “I-will-close-my-eyes-because-I-cannot-watch-that-much-blood” zombie movies, a deadly disease started to rapidly spread everywhere in the world and completely changed the way we live.
My own experience of pandemics is pretty much non-existent, so I naively thought that, in the worst-case scenario, I would have to spend two weeks at home. Little did I know that when I flew to Brazil to visit my parents that I would be unable to go back to Canada for an undetermined time. Some schools are already cancelling their classes for the whole year and the future is very much uncertain. This is stressful especially when as a graduate student you are working against a clock in terms of funding and being the first to discovery.
Our entire lives now happen in front of our computers, cellphones, and tablets: every single interaction we have, every single class we take, every single exercise we practice, every single conference we participate in, every single hug we receive and send. We miss our family, our friends, our routines, and in my case, also my dog.
In the middle of all of this, how does it feel to be a chemistry graduate student? How can we perform research without a lab? When will we able to continue our experiments? Are we ever going to finish our graduate studies? How can we deal with these feelings of unproductivity? Should we start thinking about another path?
It is hard to say what should be done or what works best to keep us from losing our minds, because different people have different realities and are responding differently to the consequences of this outbreak. MUN and my supervisor have been extraordinarily supportive during this time, but you might be experiencing something different. Here is what I have been doing to keep moving forward.
Control the things you can control
Truth is, no one knows when this will end and what will happen then. No one knows and no one can control that. However, as my supervisor, Chemistry Professor Fran Kerton, always says, “control what you can control”. In the first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, all I did was try to get as much information as I could — number of infected people, cancelled services, symptoms, cool opportunities and conferences that were cancelled, the situation in Canada, the situation in Brazil, which songs I could sing while washing my hands — the list goes on.
And in these first weeks all I felt was depression, fear, and stress. When I understood the situation was way worse than I hoped and expected, I (kind of) accepted it, and decided to focus on the positive things around me. Everything has a positive side, and we just need to hold on to it with more strength and for longer now
MUN Chemistry Professor Chris Kozak, a member of my supervisory committee, always says that “it’s never too early to start writing your thesis”. I always felt guilty for not working as I should on that Word document I created almost two years ago. Therefore, the first thing I did when I finally accepted the way COVID-19 changed my life was to work on my thesis. This task, which already requires so much concentration, care, and attention from us in non-pandemic situations has proved to be even more difficult, like everything else nowadays. I have been losing focus very easily, replying to e-mails slowly and with delays, and sometimes I even catch myself reading the same three-word sentence at least 10 times.
In this way I have been trying to accept the new “pandemic version” of myself and its limitations. Some days all I could write is “biochar” after 15 minutes looking at my computer. Then I change the approach and work on cool graphics, figures, and illustrations to add in the document. For the graduate students who are in the very beginning of their programs and have no results, please do not think it is too early to work on your thesis. Time goes by in the blink of an eye during your Ph.D., and you could always start researching things to include in your introduction, understand more about your research, plan future experiments, and get used to all the thesis formatting and software that you will need to use.
A comfortable crisis
Even when you feel you have accomplished very little, be proud of yourself, be kind to yourself and keep going! We are living in abnormal circumstances that demand extreme kindness to ourselves and others. Some of us have spent months and months planning, writing abstracts, submitting applications, and looking forward to that specific conference or event. Ah, the opportunity to travel, get to know different places, share your research, learn new things, see old friends, make new ones. Well, most of these events are not happening anymore, with a big and sarcastic “thank you” to the coronavirus.
I believe it is good to participate in those events that are occurring, even if they are in some new different virtual format. I know it is not what we expected, but the positive side is that most of these opportunities are now free. Maybe you did not have any more funds for registration, flights, and lodging to participate in an interesting event you heard of. No worries: now you can enjoy it in bed, eating popcorn, and petting your cat.
In this and other contexts, I find social media extremely helpful. On Twitter, there is a whole community of chemistry students, professors, and researchers, sharing resources, interesting articles, events, or even venting about how annoying this situation is. In fact, Twitter Poster Conferences are a very efficient, fun way to connect with others while learning more chemistry, and they can be added to your CV.
It is an important time to stay engaged with the chemistry community, something I have been trying to do through the Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists and Engineers (NESSE) and the Beyond Benign Organization. We started the #NESSEHappyHour and every Wednesday we take some time to share resources, discuss ideas, and talk about sustainability, green chemistry, or anything at all to whoever is interested and available. Beyond Benign is also hosting a series of webinars to educate people about green chemistry which I have been happy to help with. We cannot do what we used to, but we can always contribute somehow and take steps towards fulfilling our mission. They can be small, but they are steps anyway. Focusing on the bigger picture rather on my “cannot dos” helped me to change my point of view and feel less unproductive.
Although I cannot perform any experiments right now, I believe the COVID-19 situation has shown our society the importance of science and research. Some people have asked me if I am sorry for being in academia right now. All I can say is that never, even for a millisecond, do I regret choosing the path I did or the choice of continuing my doctoral studies. In my mind, my research has never stopped, as I continue to look for ways to make the world a better place and help other people. Now I am just using a different approach and staring at my laptop for more time than I used to.
Keep swimming! We are all together and this, like everything else in our lives, will pass.