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134. Lessons from the Quarantine

COVID-19 is a wildfire burning its way around the planet.

Its impacts are devastating to nearly every aspect of our modern lives: loved ones lost, economies destroyed, and plans put on hold indefinitely.

But like a fire, it’s also shedding light, illuminating the hidden corners of our society and our routines that we may not have taken the time to examine before.

When this fire eventually burns itself out, should we go back to living in the dark, or are there lessons we should learn? Are there torches we can carry beyond this trial to more permanently transform our work, our values, and our lives?

This week on the show, we reflect on the lessons learned from the global experiment that COVID-19 has forced on our lives.

Though none of us chose to participate, we have all been enrolled in a massive clinical trial.

We have upended our work habits, leaving our labs and offices to quarantine at home. We’ve been forced to rethink the pace of our work, the value of ‘face time’, and the strategies we employ for doing everything from lab work to ordering takeout.

And while the devastation is real, not every change has been harmful. On the contrary, we’ve identified at least five transformations that we’d like to maintain even after the pandemic is over…

Slowing our pace may speed up science

Most researchers have been out of the lab for two months or more. What have they been doing with this extra time?

For many, it’s a chance to spend more time thinking about their research, rather than doing the next experiment just to keep busy. This planning time can pay outsized dividends, as we learned when we spoke with Dr. Jimena Giudice back in Episode 122.

Scientists often fill their days with busyness and experiments, without thinking strategically about how those results will advance their next paper or the question they hope to resolve.

Slowing down has allowed many scientists to plan a leaner, more targeted approach to those answers.

Technology can make science more accessible

Raise your hand if you’ve participated in a Zoom meeting that, three months ago, would’ve been done in person with half as many participants…

By pushing conversation online, we’ve opened up a whole new world of collaboration where your physical distance from the research is no barrier to your participation. As dissertation defenses, journal clubs, and research seminars move online, science becomes more accessible and more collaborative.

We need to ensure that this online access continues even after we can safely meet together in person.

Remote work has some advantages

Sure, you need to be physically present in the lab when splitting cells or running a PCR because your house or local coffee shop don’t have a laminar flow hood, Vortex mixer, and thermocycler.

But what about the times you need to read journals or write a manuscript? Many scientists can find the lab distracting when engaging in these solitary pursuits.

But ask the typical graduate student whether it’s okay to ‘work from home for a few days’ while writing, and they’ll reflexively default to lab attendance regardless of the activity, the holiday, or the weekend.

As we prove to ourselves and our colleagues that we CAN be productive outside the lab, perhaps we can intentionally pair our activity with the location where we work most productively.

Mental health matters

There’s something transformative about our collective experience during this pandemic. Everyone is hurting. Every life is changed.

This shared reality has generated an unprecedented level of empathy for one another.

It has also pushed many of us to the brink of our ability to cope. The pandemic has decidedly harmed our mental health and contributed to high levels of anxiety and depression.

At the same time, more people are recognizing the need for assistance. We’re taking the time to speak with counselors and therapists. We’re exercising, and getting more sleep. We’re forgiving ourselves and our colleagues as we shift the weight of our work-life balance.

If that acceptance and mindfulness can continue, we’ll be better off after this pandemic than we were before.

Science matters

When this crisis is behind us, it will be due to the tireless effort of countless scientists. This is not an “if”, it’s a “when.” There will be a vaccine, drug, public health intervention, or some combination that will move us beyond the reach of COVID-19, and that solution will be because scientists from around the world did what scientists do.

They will build, brick by brick, study by study, the knowledge we need to discover a cure for this disease. The fact that laboratories in academia and industry are already testing myriad vaccine candidates just a few months after the discovery of this novel coronavirus tells you everything you need to know.

Let it never be said that we are ‘wasting money’ on NIH or NSF funding. Let it never be said that some piece of scholarship ‘has no real-world application.’

Modern medicine, and this pandemic in particular, are filled with stories of research whose “time had not yet come.”

We owe those forward-looking researchers our gratitude, and in many cases, our lives.

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