One of the biggest differences in academic groups in the laboratory-based sciences and other disciplines is that teams of people are generally required to execute experiments. Most graduate students and postdoctoral fellows would typically “see” their supervisor on a daily or at least weekly basis. They would also see and interact with other members of their laboratory group as well as technical staff member who run specific equipment or facilities. These interactions are part of the fabric of being a laboratory scientist.
In sharp contrast, I spoke with academic colleagues in the arts and humanities and they described their relationship with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows quite differently – there aren’t so many (if any) “team” meetings, lunches or coffee breaks. As a result, the relationship appears to be much more formal in nature with most meetings being pre-arranged with specific topics and tasks. The COVID-19 lockdown has likely had quite a different impact on these groups of academics (both the students/postdocs as well as the supervisors) with scientists probably standing to learn quite a lot from their colleagues in other fields about how to monitor progress and “check-in” with people.
I miss it dearly – not just the social interaction that comes with being a lab-based scientist, but the spur of the moment conversations that cannot be pre-planned and are inspirational for where the next set of experiments might go. Also, I feel more on top of what people are doing because they are either asking me a quick question or actually physically walking around doing an experiment. I’ve come to realize through the COVID-19 lockdown that I rely on these passive interactions as a light touch mechanism to check in with people and to help determine if my group members are doing well.
What have scientists retained during lockdown?
As mentioned above, lab-based experimental science is a team sport and for the most part I suspect labs have regular group meetings (typically weekly) and these have been maintained in some form via videoconferencing. Similarly, the relationships built prior to lockdown between lab members makes it relatively easy for them to interact with each other when required. Aside from poor Internet connections (which can definitely be an issue!), it should be easy enough to organize a chat with the person you need to speak with, even easier in some cases because of the lack of experiments. Some groups have also scheduled coffee breaks, journal clubs, drinks nights, gaming sessions, you name it. However, now that we are several weeks into lockdown, I get the feeling that enthusiasm for a non-essential Zoom meeting is waning.
What have scientists lost?
Aside from the obvious inability to undertake experiments, scientists have lost one of their most precious commodities – social interaction. This ranges from quick advice on a problem (which has been partially addressed through IM services), through to sharing frustrating problems/situations (like how much this piece of programming has been driving you nuts), through to spontaneous chats that stimulate new ideas and collaborations. In many cases, people don’t even know what their lab colleagues are doing in the run of a week.
What can we (or should we) do about it?
This is where I think lab-based scientists need to do some thinking outside of their normal spaces. The two groups that I think have quite a lot of experiential knowledge to share are group leaders who run groups remotely (e.g., during transition periods when a lab is moving countries) and academics in other disciplines where this type of regular interaction has never existed. The latter is a particularly interesting group to think about, and I encourage any of our arts, humanities and social sciences readers to share their ideas. In these spaces, the welfare and progress of students and researchers still needs to be monitored, but the physical interaction time is far more limited. There are some obvious red flags such as major behavioural changes or the consistent lack of delivering on agreed upon tasks, but I’ll bet there is a long list of other mechanisms that can be adapted by scientific group leaders to better support the early career scientists in their labs who find themselves banished from their normal work environments.
Importantly, when we are allowed to return to the lab, many restrictions will be in place and “normality” will take quite some time to resume. The high likelihood is that individual scientists will be allowed to do experiments with social distancing rules in place, and for the most part group leaders with little to no physical experiments will almost certainly be encouraged to continue working from home. So, we won’t really be “going back to work” and it is crucial to ensure that we find ways to compensate for the loss of impromptu interactions, passive check-ins, and lab camaraderie.
As I sign off on this column, I’ve decided that the very next thing I will do is to set up individual, informal check-ins with my lab group members – nothing crazy, just 15 minutes to discuss how it’s all going and whether there are ways I can support them. COVID-19 is impacting us all in different ways and a worldwide pandemic is bound to throw up some unexpected life circumstances – it is our job as supervisors to be there for our staff and students, even if we cannot (and may not for some time) sit across a table to discuss in person.