COVID-19, lockdown and research; a basic scientist in endocrinology
UCHE AGWUEGBO | COVID reflections
No one could have ever anticipated the impact COVID-19 would have on our normal daily lives. Being told the country was going into ‘lockdown’ back in March 2020 meant that all my experimental research had to be placed on hold, during the most fundamental time of my postgraduate research as a second year PhD student.
Initially, I was excited that I would get to work from home for what I initially thought would be 2 weeks. After all, it was a well-deserved break from non-stop work since Christmas 2019.
However, I quickly realised the inconvenience and the effect it was going to have on my research. I relied heavily on being in a laboratory setting to generate data for upcoming paper submissions and progression of my thesis, and so I was left feeling incredibly anxious. I was faced with trying to reanalyse, interpret and draw conclusions from incomplete data based on pre-existing literature.
On the other hand, I utilised my down time to develop my critical analysis, data interpretation and writing skills by reading literature. It allowed me to develop my reading skills and broaden my knowledge within my field of research, which is something that can be difficult to factor into your average daily schedule when working in a laboratory setting. As a result, I coauthored a recently published review article.
‘I utilised my down time to develop my critical analysis, data interpretation and writing skills by reading literature.’
I was also faced with some personal challenges during lockdown. I was regularly tasked with having to entertain and occupy my son who, at the time, was a preschooler. This was while trying to complete deadlines and progress my thesis.
My supervisor was very supportive and reassuring. However, at times, I felt immense pressure and guilt that I was just not ‘doing enough’. I often found myself sneaking days off from doing any research-related work in order to ‘breathe’ a little and clear my mind from the difficulties of maintaining a good work–life balance at home.
I soon began to realise how important it was to be able to socialise with other academics daily and exercise scientific jargon. Towards the end of lockdown, I began to lose my work ethic and momentum, I was growing bored and unmotivated and needed a change of scenery. I was longing to get back to some form of normality.
News of the possibility of university campuses reopening and slowly returning to normal was music to my ears. The thrill of having a real purpose to waking up in the morning and getting dressed rekindled my enthusiasm towards research and returning to the lab. But, even though I was eager for my son to return to preschool and engage with his friends one last time before heading off to primary school, I was understandably anxious about the growing threat of COVID-19, and how things would be different and possibly never return to normal.
Being back in the lab has been a massive relief. I was able to resume experiments quickly, as I was well trained in various techniques prior to lockdown. Learning new techniques was challenging, as social distancing guidelines meant that assistance from colleagues was restricted. However, this only encouraged me to develop my independence as a researcher and to use every resource available to learn unfamiliar techniques.
The new social distancing rules and extensive cleaning that are in place have not massively affected my experience in the lab. As researchers, we are used to working alongside others yet alone, utilising techniques that require aseptic practice. It has been nice to see colleagues after all these months, even if at a distance. Being able to clarify concerns and questions immediately has been a great relief, very satisfying and one of the small things I took for granted prior to lockdown.
'I soon began to realise how important it was to be able to socialise with other academics daily and exercise scientific jargon.'
Overall, lockdown has taught me to appreciate and be prepared for unprecedented changes that may present everyday challenges towards my research. It has given me the ability to adapt to the current circumstances and to develop many skills needed after I complete my PhD.
With the anticipation of second lockdown fast approaching as I write, I understand that, in the long term, I may not complete all my research thesis objectives as hoped, but I am grateful for all the support universities have offered in providing free extension for researchers impacted by COVID-19. I am confident that I will still produce a great thesis and look forward to contributing to the growing body of outstanding literature in endocrinology.
3rd year PhD student, Department of Women and Children’s Health, King’s College London