For those who are fortunate to still have their jobs, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the workplace a risky place to be. Teachers, factory workers, and other essential workers are putting their health on the line to keep our economy going. Recently, I wondered how the pandemic affected scientific researchers, a group of individuals who rely on regular collaboration to do their jobs. Via Zoom, I interviewed three scientists involved in different areas of inquiry:

  • Dr. Briana Carroll, a postdoctoral research scientist in neurobiology at the University of Chicago
  • Dr. Kathleen Hoyer, an educational researcher at Activate working on a variety of educational research projects
  • Dr. Margaret Silliker, a molecular biologist of thirty years doing research and teaching at DePaul University

Talking with each individually, I asked them how COVID-19 has affected their ability to collect data, access supplies, and collaborate with their peers.

What are some of the ways that COVID has directly affected your research? Has your work benefited in anyway?

Dr. Carroll: I’ve been pretty lucky because U of C quickly named some lab members as essential employees (to upkeep mouse colonies), and I was one. At first, I was able to go in everyday, but after restrictions loosened, more lab members were included, and to avoid contact I had to cut lab hours to part time, working more from home. But there is only so much that can be done from home, since data collection involves laboratory animals, chemicals, and equipment. From home, I could catch up on reading, programming, and writing. I could also participate in journal clubs, lab meetings, and workshops via Zoom.

But being limited in lab time definitely limits the amount of data I can collect.

Dr. Hoyer: It has affected my research negatively because some projects have been delayed or postponed. For instance, one project would include observing students participating in activities, but students have not been in the school physically. This project has been postponed indefinitely.

However, I’ve also experienced some unexpected benefits. The pandemic has prompted a need to be creative and readjust to the changing situation. For example, we were supposed to go to Wyoming to study school finance, but we had to switch from visiting in person to visiting virtually (through video meetings). Because Wyoming is such a large state, we were initially limited by geographic restrictions. But because we changed to virtual focus groups, we were able to increase the geographic diversity of the sample by visiting remotely with more educators and administrators.

Dr. Silliker: When DePaul went into a period of lockdown, we had only limited access to the lab, and only for maintaining organisms. Until mid-to-late summer, it was only the Principal Investigators who were allowed access, but we were discouraged from spending time in lab. Over summer, we established protocols for groups – grad students and undergraduates doing research, but not until later in the summer. So most research in the labs stopped.

Research was further impeded because, as a teacher, time that would have been spent on research was shifted to retooling teaching virtually under COVID restrictions. For example, we had to figure out how to give online exams, we had to rethink how to teach labs, and we had to ensure students had good internet connections and technology. Some students were trying to take their courses on their phones.

Are you still able to collaborate with colleagues and peers, through online meetings, virtual conferences, and if so, how is that working? Has working remotely affected your motivation and creativity in science?

Dr. Carroll: I am still able to participate in all of the meetings I planned except for those that were canceled at the beginning. Conferences adapted to online formats. But the Zoom fatigue that many of us experience makes social interactions less organic. So it has taken a toll that is hard to measure. For example, the departmental happy hours that we had monthly were canceled, and who knows what collaborations would have emerged from those casual conversations.

Dr. Hoyer: I am still able to collaborate with my co-workers very well. Before the pandemic, I was already a full time remote worker, so I had a head start on the rest of my peers on using video-meetings and teleconferences. For me, it was difficult seeing my co-workers having to adjust to the new situation suddenly. They did not have the luxury of adjusting voluntarily, and I had to adjust to their situation as well.

Once we were able to settle into the new normal, working with my colleagues has been great in some ways and difficult in others. The great parts include a shift to increased video calls (instead of phone calls) because we are all in the same situation. A downside is that before the pandemic, I would periodically travel to be in the office occasionally, and I have not been able to do that since the start of the pandemic. It’s disappointing not to be able to visit my colleagues as I was able to do in the past. 

Another downside is decreased interaction with researchers throughout the field. Professional organizations are doing a great job of adjusting to the situation, but a virtual workshop is not the same as in-person meeting. However, there is the benefit of not having to travel there. So on one hand, the ability to come together is hampered, but on the other hand, I have gone to many professional development classes that I might not have had the opportunity to attend before.

Dr. Silliker: I recently began a collaboration with a group in Texas who wanted to do high resolution imaging of my organism, and we worked to figure out how and in what state I could get them my cultures.

When you are mentoring students and teaching research techniques, you need to be there so you can work directly with others. In the lab, there is a lot of unscheduled trouble-shooting and casual conversations about the research, and social distancing restrictions make it difficult. My research is more hands-on; you can give a protocol that helps students and researchers walk through the steps, but you still need to be present to help with equipment, to look at their work, to see what they are seeing.

Because conferences have gone virtual, many have reduced or waived fees, and without travel and lodging, it allows us to send more students or researchers with less funding. This is a plus. Still, they are missing one of the really important aspects of attending meetings – the networking that occurs. We lack the serendipity occurring during informal discussions. Having to always keep a distance is demotivating.

If you work in a lab, has supply chain – of animals, chemicals, supplies – made research difficult?

Dr. Carroll: Yes, at first when the shutdown happened, we could not order mice, so I was limited to the mouse supply from our breeding colonies. But these were not always the right age, so it prevented me from running certain experiments. Specifically, patch-clamp experiments in which I record directly from a cell with an electrode are really only feasible in younger mice. I set up some impromptu breeding colonies to address this issue, and they were breeding within a couple of weeks. But if I use data from experiments with these offspring, I will have to do additional statistical analyses to see if results are the same as in mice we ordered and include this in the methods section. Although I expect that it will not make a difference since these 4 circuits are quite consistent, this will need to be included in the methods section. 

The shutdown also interfered with access to normal services important to experiments. Some of our experiments rely on mice from our colonies inheriting a particular gene, the presence of which, in the particular mouse line we use, allows us to label specific cortical populations (i.e. those projecting subcortically versus locally within cortex.). When the shutdown first occurred, the animal care staff that does the genotyping was not able to, so any experiment that looked at that cortical class had to be put on hold.

Dr. Silliker: We are okay now, although some things are still back ordered. But when we first went into lockdown, it was chaos; there were major disruptions to lab supplies. Deliveries were no longer made to the lab, they were diverted to the wrong building, and supplies were sometimes spoiled because delivery took too long. 

Do you see COVID changing how you do research and interact with the scientific community in the future, as we move beyond the pandemic?

Dr. Carroll: No, but it will be more productive when things get back to normal. 

Dr. HoyerI see many long term impacts on education research. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many students have not been able to take end-of-year tests and other assessments. While student assessment data are certainly only one piece of education research, when we have information on large groups of students over time, we can look at trends and equity issues. The pandemic has really affected how we will be able to do this type of research for decision making. For example, we will have trend lines that have a break in 2020 – 2021.

Perhaps more impactful will be our need to examine how the pandemic itself has affected schools. As every family knows, the pandemic has been a traumatic and disruptive experience. My field will have its hands full looking at social, emotional, and mental health issues for both students and adults in the school. Additionally, teaching, learning, and cognitive processes have been interrupted; understanding these matters will be new areas of study.

Dr. Silliker: Yes, we are going to continue to have more conversations and collaborations via Zoom rather than via email, and discussions that begin virtually can deepen over time. I also think that professional society meetings might continue to be more accessible, benefiting students and researchers with smaller travel budgets.

Author

  • Bill Carroll

    Bill Carroll is a retired mathematics and astronomy high school teacher with a PhD in Educational Processes. Currently, he volunteers at the Field Museum in lichen, botany, and education outreach and with Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. He also tends a native garden in the traffic circle near his home in Chicago.

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