How has the coronavirus outbreak affected your life as a researcher? (Part 4)

At the time of writing, known COVID-19 stand at around 5.6 million known cases with deaths passing 348,000 over the world. Quarantines lasting for weeks have disrupted work and put many researchers from our Sparrho Community into an unusual position. How did the restrictions affect your fellow scientists? Read the fourth part of our series personal accounts.

coronavirus-crowd800People wearing face masks

Catarina de Almeide MarquesCatarina Marques is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Parasitology, University of Glasgow, specialising in Parasitology and DNA Replication.

(9/4/20) This is my 4th week working from home, though lockdown was only imposed 3 weeks ago. As the situation escalated in February, my research group leader advised all group members to start reducing lab-based work, in case lockdown would be declared. This message later became Institute-wide. From late February we started doing experiments which, for the most part, could be stopped in short notice and re-started at a later time. We also started seriously considering what we could do from home, if the time came. When it did, we were fairly well prepared to do the switch.

My research work is mainly lab-based, though I also do some “dry” research, i.e. computer-based data analyses, which for the most part is an extension of my lab experiments. Although the lockdown forced all our lab work to stop, it has allowed me to do computer analyses that I hadn’t had time for before. So, despite not being able to progress with my projects in terms of lab experiments, I’m still keeping busy with data analysis, which will determine my next steps once I get back in the lab. I have also been training online in skills and tools that I didn’t have time for in the past, and that is also positive.

I try sticking to a daily routine, but it has become more difficult as the weeks go by. Work keeps me busy most of the day, and I have a lunch break and mid-afternoon coffee break with my partner (who is also a scientist and is also doing computer-based research work from home) like we would on a “regular” working day. Our research group members still meet on Wednesday mornings for a work-related chat, as we used to before, but such meetings are now done through videocalls. These have been less about work and more to make sure that everyone is doing alright and that we all have things to do. The University of Glasgow, where I work, has had some webinars and training online, which also helps to keep busy (while contributing to skill development). I now speak more frequently with my family and have reconnected with friends; having chat groups has been great to keep up with everyone. Being at home, we tend not to exercise as much, and my legs have started to ache; me and my partner have decided to take a stroll around the neighbourhood (I walk, he runs) every other day.

CatM-page-001-2At the moment there is still plenty of work I can do from home (data analysis, scientific paper writing, etc). However, if the lockdown lasts far into the future, I will start to struggle – I only have ~1.5 years left of research contract with the University and will start to run out of time to do enough experiments and generate results that will allow me to take the next step in academic research and safely land a job in the future. It is, however, unclear how this pandemic will affect academia and scientific research as a whole. I’ve been trying not to worry too much. For the time being, let’s all do our best, be responsible, and hope that the situation improves soon.

I live with my partner, so I have someone to talk to everyday. We work in different rooms (I’m in the living room, he took the kitchen) so we don’t get on each other’s toes. I speak with my family every day and chat with friends on weekends. I keep myself entertained watching TV series, and I also participate in some online group forums with people from all over the world, related to common hobbies/interests (like books) but that have a great sense of humour. 

Read more about Catarina's research here.

Joy ShihJoy Shih, PhD student based in the Department of Medicine in University of Cambridge, UK, researching the genetic contributions to a rare lung disorder.  

(3/4/20) Week 2 since working from home.

Being a wet work scientist who’s normally at the bench setting up an experiment or in the flow hoods culturing cells, I had a lot of adjusting to do when I started working from home. Obviously experiments were out of the question, so instead my work is now entirely on my laptop, analysing whatever data I’ve collected prior to lab closure and of course, any postgraduate student’s worst nightmare, writing up my PhD thesis.

Prior to the pandemic, as a final year PhD student, I’ve made a timeline schedule that would have nicely wrapped up my degree. With an intense and experiment-filled March and April to finish off final critical experiments, I would have then jetted off in May to the US to attend one of the largest international conference in my field to give a presentation. My return to the UK would then be followed by a steady-paced thesis writing routine that would conclude my PhD project comfortably before my funding ends.

Now locked away from labs and staying put at home, it would seem that my write-up time has been pushed forward and I will have to accept that my thesis will most likely contain certain gaps those final experiments would have bridged and remain a fragmented story. But hey, do complete stories ever exist in academic research anyways?

Apart from thesis-related work, my partner and I have snatched up the opportunity to venture outside once a day for a breath of fresh air. We normally schedule these morning runs or evening walks during times where the streets are emptiest and most often sticking to rivers and fields. Turns out, both of us have found this precious outdoor time to boost our productivity indoors.

Swans walking in park


However, I would also be lying if I don’t share the fact that we are now subscribers to both Netflix and Disney+ and spend a chunk of our time watching psychological thrillers or reliving childhood days. In the interest of reviving old hobbies, I’ve also finally taken out the keyboard in the storage unit and gave my rusty fingers a good challenge. Whether or not I end up playing anything remotely coherent is a different story – it’s the effort that counts though right? And finally, to change things up once in a while, I’m currently attempting to broaden my BSL (British Sign Language) vocabulary as I’ve pretty much stopped practicing the day I passed my Level 1 Examination… a year ago.

Living in a house of 6, it’s hard to feel completely isolated. As days passed on lockdown, the kitchen conversations grew longer and even the usual awkward corridor run-ins seem more welcomed. Of course, for friends and family that are a street, a town, or a sea away, we’ve resorted to video calls and online games. If you’re curious, Drawful on has been a simple and amusing one (Not an ad ).

Hoping everyone stay sane, stay safe and stay compassionate.

 Read more about Joy's research here.

Flávia OliveiraFlávia Oliveira, BSc in Biomedical Science, former researcher at the Institute of Cancer Research, London. Current Journal Specialist for scientific journal Frontiers in Oncology.

(1/4/20) As a publishing specialist, nearly all of my work can be conducted remotely - the only thing I cannot do right now is attending conferences or events of interest to my field. Other than that, my work is still going on at full speed - perhaps even more intensely than usual, as we're putting a lot of effort into getting the newest research on COVID-19 published.

It is odd not being able to go out for a meal or just generally thinking twice before stepping out for any reason. Even then, as I can still keep a normal work schedule and relax at home every evening, it hasn't been so bad. It does take some self-persuasion dressing up for work every morning when all you need to do to start working is go into your living room!A laptop and a monitor on a desk

As someone who can work from home very easily, I have been doing so even before the Government requested people and companies to do it. Sometimes it's a bother not having access to an office telephone, but thanks to the plentiful video-conferencing programs out there, there's always another option for the regular communication I need to keep with my Editors and team-mates.

As we have team meetings nearly every day, the sense of isolation never really kicks in. Also, as someone used to calling up family abroad, this situation has probably encouraged a little more calls - which is not at all a bad thing!

Read more about Flávia's research here.

We are looking forward to hearing from more of our Sparrho researchers. In the meantime check out this pinboard with a collection of research papers published in 2020 since the 2019-nCov outbreak.


by Sparrho

Steve, the sparrow, represents contributions from the Sparrho Team and our expert researchers. We accredit external contributors where appropriate.