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  • Writer's pictureEmmanuel G Escobar

Research amidst a pandemic

Like most non-essential work places, academic research in the UK was paused during the first stages of lockdown back in March 2020. In the months following, building management, health and safety officers and senior lab members would meet and try to bring the research spaces to COVID-secure standards. From one-way systems to temperature checks at the entrances and occupancy limits per room, it seemed to be major setbacks for research.

Academic research often plays itself as being the type of job that is 75% planned and the rest happens out of passion. Most of the places that I worked in there is a general plan for the week, less so for the day. When there are large experiments on-going, there is more routine to the working day, but it tends to be something that is planned weeks if not months in advance. When the pandemic came and we suddenly found ourselves making plans for four days a week, every two weeks. My work is somewhat a bit more complicated. That is because I work with radiation, and I am limited to use a certain amount of radioactivity per week. This means that effectively I cannot carry out radiation work every day in a the four day cycle. That is both in terms of limiting personal exposure to the radiative material as well as a taking breaks from the workload. Typically, we’d do 3 days of radiation work with 1 day rest in between. Radiation work on consecutive days is okay, but at least a day’s break is highly encouraged.

Okay, so on paper, 4 days per work cycle would be sufficient to carry out radiation work, on the basis that work would fall on two consecutive days and day in between for resting. But in practice, the timings would be very different. Roughly, the meaning of “day” varies in the context of research. This can be anything from a few hours to check up on experiments or plants, mice or other biological material to 16h, comprised of a mixture of meetings, seminars, reading and experiments. The first aspect of why timing became such an issue was because of one-way systems being enforced in the building. Essentially, one-way systems ensure that a stream of people only walk in one direction and thus minimise contact by preventing people from mixing in the corridors. But one-way systems do not work in buildings that have never planned for this. These convoluted pathways often take longer than breaking the rules and cutting through a shortcut that would take me back to a private space. So then, we come to this aspect: is it safer for everyone to walk in the same direction and be in a communal space for longer than it would take to take a shortcut and be in a private space? The rationale here is that if we were to allow these unregulated shortcuts all throughout the building, then it is more likely that more people will be in the close vicinity of other people and suddenly these shortcuts may become high contact hotspots. So what if there are no other people around? Does that mean that we have to follow the one-way system, practically introduce ourselves to other parts of the building, when we could simply take a shortcut? Again, if everyone thinks that no one else is around, then we would have the same outcome as above, but maybe people mixing would be less of an occurrence—though likely to still happen. In my building, taking the one-way system takes 5-7 min walking from lab A to lab B, while walking without restrictions would take 2-3 min. The corridors are not really any different, if anything, the shorter route has more ventilation because it is communal space, while the longer route is mainly shared offices.

But we come to a very important point, as there is no policing of these rules, which means that it doesn’t matter if they are in place because people might still break the rules. Another complication is that there are some areas that operate a two-way system. In this case, when people are moving towards each other in this corridor is for them to face the wall as they pass each other. I joined a safety committee briefing back in April 2020, and advised them to implement the use of face coverings, temperature checks at the building entrance and cleaning every 2 hours (that is advice I received from colleagues in Asia, who in 2002-2003 had a SARS outbreak). This was met with mixed opinion, but not implemented. Instead, officials were satisfied that the one-way system (with the occasional two-way system with back to back mode when passing other people) was sufficient. Then, we come to the third complication, which is that these rules don‘t matter if there is a fire drill or similar building evacuation In this case, the COVID-secure rules are shunned and the fire safety rules take precedence. Okay, yes, that is true that some hazards outweigh other hazards, but if a health and safety assessment is done and the risks mitigated with a set of standards, these standards should be robust enough to still apply when other safety protocols are activated. However, had the safety considerations to mitigate the spread of COVID have been by enforcing the use of face coverings in communal areas (in or around the building), then the risk of spread is restricted even if people are mixing in the corridors during an emergency. We should also point out that I am talking about reduced number of staff working at university at this moment in time. And I argue that with the building at close to full capacity, one-way systems may work on paper, but are not robust enough to handle the dynamics of every day life.

As we got to learn more about COVID, later in 2020, the UK government advised for face coverings to be worn in all indoor spaces, a decision that university didn’t want to accept until it came from the government. Some labs enforced users to use face masks when people cannot work 2 m apart from one another. However, some labs are less so strict on the use of face coverings, that is because the safety assessment of the work being carried out don’t consider the need to use face coverings. And so their regulation is left to the individual research groups, with less control coming from the departmental safety officer. This is something very different to the role of the safety officer ensuring all labs follow the safety standards. But some lab members argue that if 2 m can be kept apart at all times, then face coverings are not necessary. This even was the attitude of the health and safety officers back in April, and used the phrasing “at all times” quite literally. They probably do not understand the dynamic of research. And this comes to the most important point, apart from moving between labs, is that time spent in space and if that space is shared. It is relatively easy to come to an agreement of what space to use if it a space that is unique to a particular group. However, most equipment is communal, which means going into spaces that are managed by another research group, some times, in another department or building altogether. And depending of the size of the room, it can allocate from 1 person up to 8, in my experience. Now, it is typical to conduct research with another person, so this person becomes a work-buddy. This ultimately means that you can share any space at the same time that this other person is present, even though safety considerations would suggest a room is only available for single occupancy.

Lab booking systems played a massive role in establishing some routine and lab management. We used Bookkit, which allows users to manage and book lab equipment remotely, and works well with groups that manage several workspaces. But like most of these team management software used in the context of academic research, their full potential is often not realised. Research groups are like unique companies within a leased building and the management structure differs from group to group. This means that one group could have all these management systems in place, while another group doesn’t—so what does this mean if one group needs to use equipment that is in a space that is managed by a different group? Well, I think we all just go back to using email to arrange these spaces. The concept of a ‘one ring to rule them all’ just doesn’t work in academic research. I had a similar experience with the use of Confluence. Confluence is a multi-user, team-orientated documentation software for creating and sharing ideas. We use it as a way to document projects such that our partner universities can follow-up on progress. However, because of the management structure is so different between groups, there is no standardisation on how information is shared and what one lab group finds important when documenting work might not be relevant to another group. It is almost unbelievable how much interaction exists between groups in academic research, but collaboration only exists to the extent of ‘working on similar things for a related project’.

You see this quickly turns into the pitfalls of working in academic research. It is as if there is no loyalty in academics, only loyalty to themselves. At least some industries rewards loyalty with bonuses or employee benefits, even if the employee has no loyalty for the employer, which is okay. If a person cannot develop in a job they are in, then that person needs to be confident to search for a job that gives them personal growth. Personal growth in academic research is probably only an ego-boost; I don’t see how a researcher is any different from an artist. It’s a personal pursuit. Researchers who are not academics might struggle to find a place that fits for them. Maybe we try to be loyal, but at the ends of the day it is not our projects, we are solely employed to live in someone else’s dream.

So what is our response to this while under a pandemic? It comes back to the fundamentals of academic research. Yes, one’s experience comes down to the individuality of the research group and its leaders, but that is just what the academic model creates. The pandemic and the whole working from home routine has shown two very different outcomes: 1) a researcher’s job can be done from home and 2) a researcher’s job cannot be done from home. If we consider the latter, obviously a lot of research involves lab work and this work needs to be done in a COVID-secure workplace. And under these new circumstances there are far more considerations that need to be considered. Essentially though, if conditions are safe, nothing stops research from being conducted. Is it no different than doing office work when it comes to risk of transmission. The everyday changes that we do observe is having to plan around lab bookings and the extra cleaning. Though I found one lab’s tactic of routine cleaning every hour to be more effective than every individual cleaning after themselves. Even writing now, almost a year after the virus came to the UK, our workplaces are still very much unchanged and that is probably a reflection of the safety considerations necessary for a lab’s normal operation. The key difference between now and a year ago is the number of people, and how regulated any work onsite has become.

For the many that are not present onsite, that is because their jobs can be done at home. In this sense, some research can be done from home. Not considering research that is computer based, like bioinformatics, there are several aspects of a researcher career that can be done at home. This is perhaps when collaboration takes more of an effect than in any other circumstance. Collaboration here applies as an equal pursuit to accomplish and in a way, it feels as if there is more unity. Though careful about unity because when work and home merge into one, the home lifestyle responsibilities of co-workers might conflict with some work responsibilities. We just cannot expect people to be switched on during normal working hours, and some of the consequences can be felt when planning meetings that involve everyone in the group.. Then again, this isn’t specific to research, and it is expected to occur in other job sectors, and more so when office workers are working from home. But unity plays a large role in the functioning of a research group. Attending meetings and conferences remotely has been actually a good experience, but there is little connection between individuals involved. For research or any other type of work that depends on collaborative efforts, remote meetings takes away one of the key ways that information is shared. The thing with remote meetings is that information comes only from one source, that is the direct voice or voices that are being transmitted through the call. In real-life scenario, information can come from various sources, as voice dialogue filters through the air from conversation bubbles. This creates the dynamic medium for networking. Now, there was been some developments in video-conferencing software that allows video from multiple users webcams to show up at the same and so it feels like they are in the same room. But social bubbles cannot be formed, unless these so-called ‘breakout rooms’ are formed, which just decreases the number of people the group.

But we seem to forget that research is not solely about writing papers or conducting research. A lot of time is spent thinking about new projects, ideas or day-dreaming about innovative solutions to complex problems. It opens part of the person’s individual world to be part of their work, and visa-versa. It is when we stop thinking about research as a job and more like an opportunity to lead our own vision to help a cause or to create when we start to be scientists. And it doesn’t mean that before we come to this we aren’t good scientists, it just means that we are like cogs that make up larger machines. The point is whether we (as cogs) are added to a machine to improve its function or from us do we start building a new machine. And what lockdowns, restrictions and working from home has really shown is how to get acquainted with ourselves and what we search for in a career in science. It teaches us to reach out to other people, to collaborators or to strangers, and take some time at-work but away from work to consider the myriad of other projects that are conducted each and every day across the globe. That is why I encourage any researcher to dedicate some of their time for their own ideas, no matter how ridiculous or unrealistic they are. Probably the main reason to be disillusioned with a project is by a lack of passion for it and/or its projected outcomes, and this has the potential to create a false sense of disappointment in one’s choice to be a researcher. You see, people can place their skills and knowledge in the same pot as their passion for said project, and so when they become personally upset with their decisions and dump the contents of the pot, they throw away their skills and knowledge (obviously metaphorically). The fact is that anyone who has trained to be a researcher just needs a constant flame of passion to essentially be happy or at the very least be satisfied. And in my view, that only comes from a personal mission.

So how should I end this? The main point of this is that academic research is about people who pursue their passion. It is a personal and egotistical pursuit that differs not from an artist who wants to create. But their egotism is not a character quality but a defence mechanism as their passion can sometimes be disregarded as justifiably unscientific. This passion is often masked as their belief towards their projected outcome—the thing that is going to help the world. And so it leaves us researchers with the difficulty of choosing where we belong—do we have a passion for the pursuit or for the outcome? And to what extent do we feel like that solely because we want to fit into the project, as if we recognised a need to feel passionate about this work. And so the pandemic has really brought us time to think about our career, but not as researchers but like academics. To create research plans in advance, to create collaborations before work is conceptualised not mention carried out, and think about a projected outcome before the project starts.  

Credits: Banner obtained from here.

#Pandemic #Academia #Featured #Research #Careers


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