A Semi-Personal Reflection of Life in the Lab during COVID

It has been one year since the first deaths in the United States from the coronavirus disease 2019, also known as COVID. The full effect of the outbreak didn’t hit our department until one month later, in March of 2020. For many us of researchers, the changes were sudden but uncertain. As a first year PhD student I had just started learning my way around the lab. It felt like a large step back to find myself stuck at home in a studio apartment (only slightly larger than the lab) with just my dog and my laptop. Fortunately, my advisor was empathetic and helped me prioritize my mental health in those first few weeks, so we could later successfully develop a new timeline for my dissertation.

Those first few weeks in quarantine were like stabilizing a rocking boat. My pre-COVID days used to include rushing to feed and walk my dog before morning meetings, rushing to classes, recitations, office hours, and various extracurricular meetings and campus events and talks. I would meet my coworkers for coffee in the conference room or offices semi-casually and pick up bits of advice here and a bit of reassurance there. Then I would rush home to walk my dog before heading out to grab drinks at networking events or watch a Philadelphia game at one of the many stadiums. My days were unremarkable in the sense that everyone was just as busy as I was.

I remember the first time that I stood in a library classroom preparing to teach my first recitation in January of 2020. I had fallen in love with teaching while directing a garden club in Senegal, but I wasn’t as confident teaching in English as I had been in Pular. I didn’t have the language-barrier excuse to fall back on since English is my native language. But teaching was everything I remembered it to be: fun, engaging, challenging, and exhausting. I was shaking and sweating after the first day, but just as much from excitement as from nerves. I vaguely remember telling students to stay safe over spring break, and I looked forward to seeing them in a few weeks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet with them again. Everything moved online to asynchronous recordings after the university sent everyone, including me, home.

My first post-COVID days were unremarkable in the sense that everyone was just as unproductive as I was. In between teaching my dog new tricks and organizing my Tupperware cabinet, I read some papers and responded to some emails. My coworkers and I drank wine and put on face masks over zoom. We met (virtually) every week for coffee, which helped immensely even if we just stared at each other and made awkward small talk.

Eventually, cleaning my apartment and doing yoga multiple times a day to distract myself from the unfolding economic collapse stopped working, so I jumped on the opportunity to sign up for re-entry into lab spaces in June. This brought up a wave of grief that many of us have had to process simultaneously. I am fortunate to have only lost three months of lab time, and not my source of income or health insurance, but the impact of the lost time is undeniable. My summer plans included traveling to a soil institute for a two-week professional development program and mentoring a female undergraduate in our lab. It is tempting to reflect upon those changed plans with anemoia or bitterness, but the more peaceful perspective is to imagine each life that was saved when these plans changed. Airline attendants, hotel sanitation staff, elder soil scientists, the list is infinite. A shift in my dissertation timeline is a small price to pay for the lives of fellow Americans.

This perspective shift closed the book on the first chapter of lab work during COVID and brought in a second chapter. With the guidance of my advisor (and his tireless dedication to realist-optimism), I began re-imagining the path I would take for my doctorate. I began developing a professional skill most people find through personal crisis – significantly adjusting your methods to achieve your goals. I could see how easy it would be to fall into a “professional depression”, especially as I was navigating a personal depression. Often, projects at the doctoral level are the culmination of years of a science community clarifying a vision and a researcher building their career to explore that vision. Throwing a huge, global pandemic sized wrench into that process could be debilitating if not destructive.

But one of the things COVID has taught us is that our professional trajectory can be just as vulnerable as our personal journey. I spent the entire summer running a time-intensive procedure. Every week, alone in the big lab, I bleached around 16 soil samples, eventually building a set of around 300 bleached soil samples. When the fall semester began, I was able to focus on less time-intensive procedures such as surface area analyses of the bleached samples and carbon/nitrogen analyses while I navigating the new structure of zoom classes. I became grateful for the time I spent solely reading and organizing papers in March and April as my qualifying exam approached.

Now, in the early spring semester of 2021, there is a new world. I get excited to log into my zoom recitation so I can try out new ways to engage with students and get them to connect with the material. My excitement and motivations for teaching are the same, but my methods are different. Next week, a new female undergraduate will be joining our research team and I feel confident we can collaborate under COVID-safe protocols. My dissertation proposal may be a bit more preliminary data and literature review heavy instead of grand paragraphs about what methods I learned and potential collaborators I met at Colorado, Rutgers, or Berkley, but my hypotheses and research questions will still be scientifically valid and meaningful (inshallah). Every dissertation journey in the Plante lab may be different but the flexibility, innovation, and support in the lab allows each one to be successful.