what lockdown lab moves taught us

Adam Levy: 00:09

Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This episode: moving lab during the pandemic.

This is the sixth and final episode of this mini-series. So far we’ve discussed choosing the right lab, fitting into a lab abroad, moving with a life partner, changing disciplines, and moving labs with a disability.

But there’s one topic that has disrupted all our lives, whether or not we’ve been moving labs. The coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities, made travel more difficult, and changed our relationships with our places of work.

So how has it changed our ability to choose the lab that’s right for us? Here’s Joanne Kamens of The Impact Seat, which performs diversity Equity and inclusion consulting.

Joanne Kamens: 01:15

It may be harder to visit in person, it may be a little harder to get the feel for the lab. Some labs are suffering tremendously with lack of funding.

Adam Levy: 01:25

So what was already a tricky question has been further complicated by COVID-19.

In the last episode, we spoke with several disabled researchers. And I asked how the pandemic had shifted questions of accessibility for labs. First, his Siobhán Mattison of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque

Siobhán Mattison: 01:47

COVID has really just made it so plain that we have for a long time been able to make major modifications to the ways that we traditionally do our work.

That means field work, it means a lot of lab work, not all of it.

All of these things that we thought had to be done in person, and had to be done on these really rigid schedules and in very particular ways. People adapted.

And I think it’s really important to maintain that flexibility, as the pandemic waxes and wanes.

You know, if we think about depression as a disability, right? People who work remotely are in a position to manage that better than people who have to be physically in one place at a specified time, every single day.

For me, managing infusions is much easier because I’m allowed to be remote when I am managing my infusions.

So all of these modifications, you know, I’m an anthropologist.

And anthropologists, many of us, work in field sites that are really remote as we talked about earlier.

And when the pandemic happened lots of folks transitioned to working remotely in a way that involved local communities helping to collect data and things like that.

So a lot of work was able to proceed with the help of dedicated collaborators in these remote locations.

And there are two really strong benefits of that, right?

One is accommodating disability. But two is recognizing the very real capacity of researchers that we collaborate with in other places to do work that ends up producing results that are of benefit to both the collaborators and people who are based in institutions elsewhere.

Adam Levy: 03:38

For Kelsey Byers of the John Innes Centre, a research institute in Norwich in the UK, the progress that has been on disability has been more frustrating than a source of hope.

Kelsey Byers: 03:50

It’s not shifted as much as I would have liked to have seen.

So for example, we now have people talking about things like hybrid meetings, conferences and work meetings, which is really fabulous.

But it’s been very frustrating to hear. “Oh, yeah, of course, we can do that because there’s a pandemic.”

But some people have been asking for these kinds of accommodations for years now.

And we’ve had the technology to do hybrid meetings for a while. It’s very frustrating to be asking for something and asking, and finally, “Oh, there’s a reason that’s not disability a reason. We can do it.”

And I think there’s been a lot of also pressure to go back to work in person.

And for some people, that’s been really hard. I don’t think I’ve seen as much change about disability in the last few years, as I would have liked to have seen culturally in academia.

Adam Levy: 04:38

But what about the question of actually moving lab? How has this profound career shift been altered in the past two-and-a-half years?

To get a sense of it I spoke with two researchers for today’s episode.

They’re both in different stages of their careers, but they both ended up taking the plunge to new labs in the midst of the pandemic.

First up is Jen Lewendon, who is a cognitive neuroscientist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Jen Lewendon: 05:08

As we speak, I am in a quarantine hotel in Hong Kong, serving my three days here.

Adam Levy: 05:15

And I think that maybe that sets up a bit of a theme for what we’re going to talk about.

But I guess before we get back to quarantine hotels, could you explain what your career situation in 2020 was, as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold?

Jen Lewendon: 05:31

So in 2020, I had completed my PhD. And I was in that process that a lot of very early career academics find themselves, where they are desperately applying for every postdoc going, trying to get yourself on to the academic career ladder.

In 2019, I was offered a job. And then as COVID broke that job offer sort of disappeared into the ether.

And I spotted a funding program in Hong Kong. I contacted a professor over here and sort of laid out a research project that I had in mind. And thankfully, he decided to support it. And here I am.

Adam Levy: 06:15

Now, of course, entering the job market as an academic is a challenging thing at the best of times. How did it feel to be at this crucial moment in your career, at very much not the best of times, in 2020?

Jen Lewendon: 06:30

The lack of stability that is pervasive in early career academia was just very much exacerbated by the pandemic.

So the ever changing situation with COVID, the unfamiliarity with the virus, and the additional pressures of the ever-changing restrictions that different countries were putting in place to try and halt the spread of the virus, made job applications and moves to different countries incredibly intense.

Adam Levy: 07:0

How did you feel, then, when you did not just land a job, but land a job in a country and in a location that is incredibly COVID-cautious and had much more strict restrictions than many other parts of the world?

Jen Lewendon: 07:17

Initially, there was an enormous sense of excitement. It’s not the easiest thing to find yourself a postdoc.

And I felt incredibly lucky to have been taken on board for one where I had been able to specify the project, and it was following the exact line of research that I was interested in.

I think it was only after I had accepted it, that, sort of, the reality of the situation sunk in. And it became apparent that it was going to be anything but straightforward.

Adam Levy: 07:46

How did travel restrictions affect this move?

Jen Lewendon: 07:50

At the time that I moved, Hong Kong was pursuing a COVID zero policy. So they were attempting to keep COVID-19 completely out of Hong Kong.

So the majority of Asia had shut its doors to non-residents.

One of the few places that you could travel to was Thailand. In order to get into Thailand, you needed a doctor’s report, a PCR test, a disclosure quarantine hotel booked up in advance.

And there were various other hoops that you have to jump through in order to get into the country.

Subsequent to that you then needed all the same forms again, in order to get into Hong Kong.

And a lot of these were very specific. So the actual journey into Hong Kong initially took me six weeks with two separate bouts of quarantine, and countless PCR tests on, a sort, every couple of days basis.

Adam Levy: 08:49

Can you give a sense of what that six weeks actually means on a on a personal level?

How did it affect you to be going six weeks straight in self-isolation?

Jen Lewendon: 08:59

A lot of people can appreciate the idea of being able to shut your door and shut the world out and enjoy some peace and quiet for perhaps a day, maybe two days.

But I think the knowledge that as you shut that door as you walk in, you’re not going to leave for another three weeks, makes the experience quite claustrophobic.

And I suppose little things, such as even attempting not to remain highly sedentary for three weeks in a row.

So for me personally, it was quite a daunting prospect. And the main way that I managed to get around that was by really sticking to a routine as though I was attempting to keep my life as normal as possible, despite the circumstances.

Adam Levy: 09:44

Can you give a sense of what that routine looks like in order to keep you both mentally but also physically healthy in this situation?

Jen Lewendon: 09:53

I think contact with the outside world was super crucial. So, wherever I was in the room, whether I was in the left or right corner, and whatever I was doing, I would sort of drop everything if it meant that I was able to talk to a colleague or I was able to speak to family, or my partner, or friends.

I’m not somebody that is very into workout videos, DVDs, etc.

I’d much rather be outside climbing a mountain or something. But I thought, “I’ve got to do something to make sure that I don’t sit for three weeks.” So I thought from the start I’m going to have to schedule in some kind of movement in the day.

For me, there was a lot of concern about how elderly relatives were doing, how my grandparents were doing. Nobody at that point had had a vaccination.

So I tried to keep in contact with people at home as much as I could just to see how things were going, perhaps write letters to grandparents and make it feel as though I wasn’t quite as isolated as I actually was.

Adam Levy: 11:00

Now, of course, it’s not 2020 anymore, we’re speaking at the end of August 2022. So how much today, are travel restrictions affecting your relationship with your postdoc position?

Jen Lewendon: 11:14

I think time is going on, although the restrictions particularly for Hong Kong, are vastly different from how they were.

You can come in and quarantine three days and then go into a process of self monitoring at home. So it’s very different to how it was.

But for me personally, it creates this enormous barrier between my life here and the lives of the people that I love at home.

But I think the obvious disparity between the way COVID is being handled in the West and the way COVID is often being handled in Asia makes splitting life between two places very difficult.

Adam Levy: 11:59

Have your experiences changed how you would feel about the next steps in your academic career?

Jen Lewendon: 12:04

I would say that despite the challenges in getting here, I have been afforded a fantastic experience with really incredible academics.

But it has made me very aware of the toll that short term contracts, where you need to completely uproot your life, have on a personal level.

Moving forwards the dream would be to find something a little bit more long term.

Adam Levy: 12:35

Is there anything that you found particularly helpful, as you’ve been navigating that move of lab and move of country during the pandemic?

Jen Lewendon: 12:43

One thing I did want to mention was how useful I found support networks, be them online, (there are various online support networks for people attempting to relocate or move back to Hong Kong).

But even on the ground when you get here, you’re not the only one that is in this situation. And trying not to do everything from scratch, and learning from these other people’s experiences, can save you a hell of a lot of time and angst.

Adam Levy: 13:13

That was Jen Lewendon. Earlier in the series, we spoke about the infamous two body problem, the tongue in cheek name given to the problem facing academics who are in relationships with other academics.

How do you move labs when the career of your partner might be dragging them in another direction? Mette Bendixen and Lars Iverson are both now at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

But when the pandemic hit, it wasn’t clear how they’d make their next career steps.

Mette Bendixen: 13:47

I interviewed for my current position before the pandemic. And I was offered the position in the very early days of the pandemic, literally March 2020.

And we were living in the US at the time. But because of the pandemic, we were advised to move back to Denmark.

So we really were confused about what’s the next step. So we ended up moving back to Denmark, and then staying in Denmark for what we thought was just going to be a few months, but it turned out to be one-and-a-half years before we were able to finish the negotiation and move to Canada.

It was one and a half years of uncertainty, because I was offered the position but we had to negotiate Lars’ position too. The pandemic really affected our opportunities in the end because of the persistency. I guess from our side, it turned into two tenure track positions at the same place.

Lars Iverson: 14:45

I think what turned out to be our luck was that we at all time had kind of multiple solutions rolled out. So not only did we have multiple lines In which we could negotiate more permanent position in.

We also kind of survived the pandemic without having any blank spots on our CV even though we had to do two transatlantic moves.

Mette Bendixen: 15:18

And just thinking that we did it. But it was horrible waiting for so many days not knowing whether we were going to move or whether we’re going to stay.

Adam Levy: 15:27

Of course, the pandemic didn’t just disrupt our lives. In many cases, it helped shine a light on what aspects of our lives, academic or otherwise, we value.

This is exactly what happened for theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack.

Katie is now at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo in Canada. But this wasn’t her setup at the start of the pandemic.

Katie Mack 15:54

So I was based at North Carolina State University. I was an assistant professor at North Carolina State. When the pandemic began, I was on an extended visit to the Perimeter Institute.

The idea was that I would spend six months at the Perimeter Institute, doing research working with faculty there, a sort of mini sabbatical kind of thing, really.

And I got there in January 2020. And within about two and a half months or so, the Institute was closed. And then I spent the rest of the next four months living in the visitor apartment working from, you know, my living room there.

Adam Levy: 16:37

Now, of course, it was a difficult time for everyone. But how was it affected by being somewhere that you’d only lived in for a couple of months previously,

Katie Mack: 16:46

I definitely felt quite isolated. Because I mean, I knew a few people in the area.

But they didn’t live in town. I mean, I knew a bunch of people in Toronto, I was not going to be able to go to Toronto, it’s about an hour and a half away. So I definitely felt pretty isolated. It was really far from my family. So my family lives in California.

And so I was just very, very on my own. I had a few, a couple of local friends, new friends I just met, and I figured out that I could tempt them out to meet up at a park if I brought some shortbread with me. Trying to find ways to have some, some human contact, because I really had none,

Adam Levy: 17:28

You describe your reasons for being there as some kind of sabbatical. But were you at the time already kind of thinking, “Oh, maybe I’d like to change institution more permanently.”

Katie Mack: 17:38

I didn’t really know at that time, what I wanted to do in that regard.

I was, I have no complaints at all about NC State. But I definitely noticed while I was at Perimeter, how rich the research environment was, how many more people there were in my research area.

And even just the couple of months I was in the building, it became clear that it was it was a very good place for me to continue my career.

So the time I was at Perimeter during that that visit was an opportunity for me to see how much opportunity there would be for collaboration, how how much I could learn by being there. Whereas I was in a much smaller group of, of my research area at NC State,

Adam Levy: 18:23

Did the pandemic and lockdowns make that kind of decision and that kind of assessment of the Perimeter Institute more difficult or perhaps more slow for you?

Katie Mack: 18:33

It made it a little bit less clear what working there would really be like, because I’d kind of thought that that being there for a whole six months, I would get a better feeling for for what it was like, but I didn’t take the fellowship with the intention of staying permanently.

I think one of the things that happened during the pandemic, there was a bit of a reassessment of where I want to be geographically and how I want to work and what what’s really important to me.

That did have an impact on on my decisions about my career from there.

Adam Levy: 19:08

So would it be fair to say then that in some ways the pandemic, not made it easier, but kind of highlighted some of the motivations you might have for looking for different institution?

Katie Mack: 19:18

Yeah, I think so. And I had a kind of strange trajectory, because I was at Perimeter for for about six months.

When my visa ran out, and it was time to go back to the States. I didn’t really want to go straight back to Raleigh, because it was the the first big sort of summer spike of the pandemic.

And things were really bad in North Carolina. So what I ended up doing was, I basically looked at a map and I thought, well, I’m going to be working remotely for at least the next several months anyway. Where can I be where I’ll have some nice outdoor places to hang out?

And I basically looked at the map and I said, “Well, western Massachusetts looks pretty good.”

So, and I ended up spending a year, living in Massachusetts, everybody was working remotely. So it really didn’t matter where I was, from a work perspective. But it made me kind of think about what what’s important to me geographically, and what what kind of place I want to live in.

And I really liked the vibe of Massachusetts, I really liked the vibe when I was living in Waterloo, and it kind of suited me better than than Raleigh in some in some way. That’s, again, hard to articulate. So, you know, I had a few different places I was living, and it made me think a lot about what’s valuable to me in my life outside of work as well.

Adam Levy: 20:43

Of course, this is an advantage of scientists working in a more theoretical field is that you can work remotely, you don’t need a physical lab, or to be in a particular field to do your fieldwork, when I suppose your field work is about what’s happening out in the cosmos?

Katie Mack: 21:00

Things would have been very, very different if I’d needed a physical lab, I find it easier to work with people face to face, it’s certainly more efficient to collaborate when you’re in the same room. I very much value those conversations.

And that was another thing that was really highlighted by the whole thing is that having people local to work with is really important to me. And that was part of why Perimeter was so appealing to me is because there were so many people who were very local, who I could work with, who I could walk down the hallway, and you know, pester if I needed to.

So in some way, you know, spending a lot of time working remotely made that a little bit more clear to me.

Adam Levy: 21:36

Now that you have actually moved to the Perimeter Institute, does the pandemic cause any, any new problems for you, as you’re settling in?

Katie Mack: 21:45

We’re at a weird stage in the pandemic right now, which is that most of the externally imposed precautions have been removed, everywhere.

So that makes things complicated for me, because I’m, I’m still being very careful. And so, you know, at work, that’s a real mix between some people are wearing masks, some people are not.

We have an indoor dining area perimeter, and I’m not generally eating inside because I don’t feel comfortable with that.

And most of the other researchers are. And so it does sometimes feel like I’m missing out on on conversations, because I’m being more careful, then, you know, than most of the people around me.

So, like, lunchtime conversations are a big deal. Lots of people discuss interesting physics, in that in that context. And if I’m not eating inside, I’m missing that.

It’s kind of an awkward space, that trying to navigate different levels of risk in order to feel like I’m getting the advantages of the workplace that I’m in.

Adam Levy: 22:49

Do you have any tips for academics who are trying to work out whether they want to move to a new institute, or perhaps have just moved to a new lab, in the context of the pandemic?

Katie Mack: 23:02

For me, a lot of it had to do with thinking about, you know, what I really value in my work and what I really value in my life, and I guess a lot of people are making that reassessment at this time or have been over the last several years.

I think it’s important to really figure out what you really care about, what’s most important to you, too, in terms of how you can work most effectively, but also how you can enjoy your life.

And all of those things you have to kind of take together, you know, going through the stress of the global pandemic, it changed the way I think about living my life.

So that’s just an assessment everybody has to do for themselves.

Adam Levy: 23:47

Katie Mack there. And that’s it for this mini-series on moving labs.

A huge thank you to all the researchers who’ve spoken with us to share their stories.

And make sure you stay subscribed to the Nature Careers podcast, because very soon we’ll be taking a look at leadership in science.

Until then, this has been Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.

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