Lockdown Conversations – How to tide over the Covid-19 pandemic?

At the dawn of this year, not any one of us would have even imagined that the whole world, within months, would be obsessed by a word hitherto familiar only to a sprinkling of scientists. But this word “coronavirus” today seems omnipresent. The pandemic situation caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, termed COVID-19, has changed the lives of people in more than one way.

While most of us are still battling to get acquainted with the lockdown orders in many parts of the world, we asked some researchers to reflect on the current state-of-affairs, on how they cope with it and provide pointers for early career researchers.

Excerpts from the e-mail interview:

“We are under an imposed retreat”

 Prof. Petra Bauer, Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf, Germany


1. This current lockdown seems to be unprecedented in recent history. How do you see the whole situation around it?

It is like a global experiment and we are all part of it.  As a scientist, I follow the viral disease spread, and I place myself in these curves and simulations as a data point, of course wondering how the position of my data point may change over time in these diagrams. The situation is interesting, I would say from my scientific point of view, but at the same time I feel shaken. So I also study the reports on the personal experiences of people and medical staff that are exposed to the high risks, and I have much respect for them.

2. Do you think breaks like this serve to help researchers from the usual humdrum of lab work?

Definitely, I see the break as an imposed retreat. For early career researchers, 2-3 months off the lab is a real chance and immediate benefit to get a clear mind. I think that the rush and pressure for presenting data has resulted in that more and more early stage researchers postpone understanding basic principles and interpreting their experiments. As an advanced scientist, I have the benefit of not commuting to work and no stress of traveling abroad.

3. How do you think senior scientists and early career researchers can spend this time to advance their careers?

Students and PhD researchers can actively pursue and organize information around their experimental approaches and topics, search for background information, understand methods, identify papers of interest, prepare flowcharts, etc. It is also an optimal occasion to expand knowledge on the quantification tools that we use, understand statistics, learn tools in programming and data display.

For each career stage, there are many useful information, videos and remote workshops. People can also expand their networks with scientists, get started on Twitter and make use of the new digital talks and conferences that are being put together.

One point that we should remember is that many young researchers are parents. While people without a family can advance very fast in all aspects and promote their careers at any moment, the opposite is the case for young parents.

4. Have institutions (universities and research institutes) done enough to help researchers at this point? If not, what should they do?

I am surprised how fast we adapt and manage this situation. Everyone is learning with this experience, and so is my institution. We could improve faster by sharing our experiences with the online tools better. For that, we need new platforms and we are all too busy at the moment to develop it. I get lots of useful tips through Twitter from scientists whom I do not know personally, and I guess that it is similar for my colleagues too. Universities and research institutions should address more to young parent researchers and young parent faculty, ask how they are and provide more help and perspectives.

5. Do you think writing reviews at times like these should be encouraged or does it promote redundancy in literature?

Reviews are definitely a good option. But before writing one, we should first ask why we want to write the review, whom this will be interesting to, and how the review can  help researchers connect ideas and come up with new working hypotheses. If the review is just an enumeration of the conclusions of existing papers, without novel discussion and highlights, it won’t be of interest.

“Revisit your objectives and expectations. Have a plan”

Prof. Sophien Kamoun, The Sainsbury Laboratory, UK           

1. This current lockdown seems to be unprecedented in recent history. How is your lab coping up?  

These are challenging and uncertain times for all of us and for our friends and families. I have encouraged everyone in my lab to regularly check in and update the team on how they are doing and so on. I have also encouraged everyone to make use of the lab network as much as possible to stay connected and seek help as needed. We’ve also continued our lab meeting through Zoom and started a weekly journal club.

2. What pieces of suggestion would you offer early career researchers on utilizing this time?

First, it’s important to appreciate that people respond differently to situations like this. My first advice would be to carefully consider your own mental state and address any anxiety you may experience. I think it’s useless to try to get intellectual work done when you’re in the wrong frame of mind. This is generally true and it’s even more relevant during this time. So, just like an athlete before a sporting event, scientists need to learn to chill and relax.

The second point is to revisit your objectives and expectations. Have a plan.

Otherwise, it’s been said elsewhere that researchers can engage in a number of activities that do not require a wet lab: writing, reading, training, computational analyses etc. In biology, everyone has been busy producing data. It’s data, data, data! But if the data isn’t shared and published, it’s generally useless. Now, perhaps there is more time to process and share unpublished datasets. There are many open platforms that allow you to publish datasets and bare-bone mini-publications, which shouldn’t take that long to produce.

If the dataset is worth sharing, then anyone who curates it and analyses it should be in a position to publish it (with due credit to everyone involved of course). That still would be a valued and valuable contribution to add to a CV. We have identified such old unpublished datasets in my lab, and we hope that the extra time offered by this situation would allow us to share and release these data in the coming weeks.

3. How is the cooperation of members in your lab and institute? How do you keep track of their work progress?

It’s the same as always. We continue our weekly lab meeting and that’s our primary forum through which lab members update everyone about their projects. We also have ad-hoc team meetings as needed. The only difference is that this has gone online, but Zoom is working just fine and I’m amazed at how quickly everyone has adjusted to this model.

4. Some journals have come up with guidelines to support researchers in this time of difficulty. What do you think is the role of journals at this time and what more do you think they can do?

I’m much more interested in highlighting the key role of preprint servers in this crisis. First, preprints, such as bioRxiv and medRxiv, have accelerated the dissemination of new COVID-19 research. Second, preprints allow immediate sharing of all those papers that scientists are writing up during lockdowns. I don’t think the classic journal model can cope with a surge in submissions as the system is already overloaded. Many articles will get stuck in the outdated model of journal pre-publication peer review. Just imagine how we would cope without bioRxiv at the moment. All that good science would be held up for months and months for no one to see except for an editor and a few reviewers.

5. Do you think this time might serve as a cooling-off period for researchers from the usual monotony of lab work? If so, how productive do you foresee the immediate future after the restoration of normalcy?

Scientific research should never be monotonous. Who says planning, executing and interpreting experiments can be boring? As my friend and colleague Ken Shirasu likes to remind us, “Science is the ultimate entertainment for humankind.” So just enjoy and cherish being a scientist whether you’re in a lab or at home.

“You need a car if you want to race”!

 Prof. Alex Costa, University of Milan, Italy

1. This current lockdown seems to be unprecedented in recent history. How do you see the whole situation around it?

I am Italian and the situation is not easy. Actually, I work at the University of Milan, one of the first universities to have been closed and even before the lockdown, the undergrad and bachelor students, as well as postdocs, had limited access and had to stop their research. Even though my laboratory is in Milan we feel very lucky as so far we do not have relatives or friends who are positive for COVID-19.

Nevertheless, being a scientist, I can fairly say that common people have probably better understood how important research is for a country. Believe me or not, but science and scientists will solve this situation – they can be medical doctors, engineers, biologists, etc. – but once this situation ends, people will look at them in a different way, something that we need in Italy, where science is poorly considered.

2. How has this lockdown impacted your research work?

Negatively. Being at home with family is indeed nice, particularly for me, as I commute between Milan and Padova during the weekends. However, since my family is stuck at home, it makes difficult to have a quiet environment and gain proper concentration.

In addition, I am often distracted by other things, including wanting to be always updated on how the situation evolves, in the hope that there will be improvements.

3. Do you agree with the argument that this lockdown might help take the pressure off researchers?

I do not agree with this. Being a scientist means you have to stay with fellow scientists. I feel like a ‘Formula One’ driver – you need a car if you want to race. In my case, I need the lab and my labmates for me to remain a scientist. I need to have continuous feedback from the people I work with and staying at home does limit this. And getting rid of some pressure has the effect to reduce my stimuli. As in any case, maintaining equilibrium is the right thing. Being jailed at home might be good for a couple of days or a week, but then I need to be in the ‘arena’ with the ‘lions’.

4. Tell us about any new app/program/software that you have learned (or planning to learn) to use during this time.

This is the positive thing about this situation. I have started to use Microsoft Teams to do my online classes, to register my classes and to interact with my students. I have made a team with the students where we have a shared chat and where we post articles or they ask questions or make comments. I can individually speak with them about topics related to the lectures. Surely, this is probably eased by the fact that the students are also stuck at home, instead of going outside to do the ‘Happy hour’.

Moreover, I have the time to watch webinars and online seminars.

5. Some people are of the opinion that this time can be used to write review articles. Do you agree or do you think it will create a barrage of redundant reviews?

I think there is a real risk of writing redundant reviews, and I must honestly admit that I am going to write two because I have been invited to do it. However, I would have preferred to have enough new data to write original work instead. I can promise that I’ll try to avoid being redundant.

“Real challenge is not being able to go to the lab”

 Dr. Rucha Karnik, University of Glasgow, UK

1. This current lockdown seems to be unprecedented in recent history. How do you see the whole situation around it? 

We are in times when technology and medicine are highly advanced, and yet the pandemic and the associated lockdown has brought us to face some very challenging situations, it’s quite surreal.

2. What do you suggest students who were in the middle of crucial experiments and didn’t see this closure coming?

The situation with the pandemic evolved very quickly and experiments had to be paused in a very short time. Ultimately being in the lab and conducting experiments is vital for any research student or academic. For students, especially in the early phases of PhD, it is very important to learn and get hands-on experience in research work. Nevertheless, it is always good to read up on published literature and to plan for your research project.

3. While the phrase “work from home” sounds comfortable, what are the real challenges that researchers encounter while working from home?

Perhaps the real challenge is not being able to go to the lab and test an idea experimentally.

4. Tell us about some new apps/software/programs that you use to tide over these difficult times

Well, we are all engaging with colleagues and researchers on software like Teams and Zoom!

5. Some journals have come up with guidelines to support researchers in this time of difficulty. What do you think is the role of journals at this time and what more do you think they can do?

In modern times, journals contribute a lot to develop the scientific temper for researchers in different stages of their career and facilitate scientific communications. Such roles of journals has become even more crucial for the scientific community in the present times

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