Reopening labs without leaving people behind

My lab does bench work. We can analyze data and do a bit of modeling, but in the end, we make and test things at the bench. If we’re not at the bench, there are questions we cannot answer. I love our work, and I want to get back to it.

Beyond running a lab, I help to mentor faculty, and I sit on a committee to discuss how to reopen labs safely. These three tasks are coming to head now. Like many institutions, we want to reopen research labs with a low density of people. It is possible, and there is interest in doing this before schools, camps, and childcare will be open. Ultimately, we are a state institution who must follow State guidelines, but as we talk about what would need to be in place from our perspective to open, childcare is not on the table as a requirement.

I and many of my colleagues are desperately trying to juggle taking care of family members, a full time job, homeschooling, and figuring out how to manage things during the pandemic. (I feel like a hunter returning from the kill when I get groceries or place an online order successfully right now.)

My colleagues who are juggling all of these things are not getting out more grants or more papers. They don’t look like they are sleeping in many cases. I feel their pain.

Reopening labs without ways to support families stinks. It is another not so subtle way of saying how little we value people who have lives and the balance they are trying to find. Even if we don’t mean to say that, it’s awfully hard not to hear it. So, what do we do?

Maybe this is an opportunity to rethink how we do research. When I moved to my current institution, I hoped to be part of a team where multiple PIs worked together and comentored students. We would have each other’s backs. I hoped that we’d be able to build an environment where students could participate at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in more flexible ways that allowed people to be part time or full time in ways that fit with their lives.

In grad. school, I had a colleague who worked from 7 pm to 4 am. He and his partner figured it out so they could both work and raise their families. I’m still not really sure when he slept, but he was an incredible colleague and was always willing to help when I had questions in the wee hours.

We need to change the model. Yes, it is nice to check in, but there are lots of ways to do it asynchronously. It is even nicer to find ways to involve more of us in science and work more broadly. We need more perspectives, and this provides us a way to be more inclusive. We can build teams that provide collaborative ways of working, but we need to be willing to move from the model of one person one project and one person as a head of a lab. If we do it now, we have the potential to help both students and colleagues navigate the pandemic and their work and, perhaps, we can actually do better science in the long term.

The end of academia?

We have all been working remotely for a number of weeks now. In the quiet moments, which is my home are few and far between (and, honestly, I’m really grateful for that), many of us think about what the future will look like. How will the pandemic play out? Will our loved ones be ok? What will happen to our jobs, our friends jobs, our neighbor’s?

I run a research lab. We work at the bench. Everyone is anxious to return. During our last group meeting, everyone wanted to get back to the lab as soon as possible. I do, too…. but then I pause. I want to get back to research. There are so many unanswered questions. But the last thing I could ever want is to put my students, their families, or our community at greater risk. What if we became an inadvertent hub for transmission even with all of us trying to maintain social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks, wiping things down. It scares me greatly.

I have colleagues who are looking at the finances and wondering if their universities can survive if they have to open online in the Fall. I have other colleagues who wonder if their departments or mission or institutions will be fundamentally changed by the pandemic. They’re scared. We all really love what we do.

But, I think it is time to stop being scared and time to start doing what we can do really well– envision a new future. How can we make lab classes hands on and accessible even if students start out at home in the Fall? (I am a huge fan of the research care package. It is incredible, when one gets over what one usually does to think about what one might do.) Maybe, some of that would help make classes more accessible moving forward.

How can we build community when people don’t have a history and don’t know each other and can’t even be in the same room? What if we have small groups– 3-4 led by a more senior student. What if those become the basis for learning communities? It isn’t the same, but maybe it is a way to build things out and help make things more interactive than they currently are.

Whatever we do, we have to go back to basics. What are the learning objectives? There is always more than one way to do something. What we have done may work well in person, but what can we do that gets to the same objective with different tools? How do we connect? What helps us feel part of each other?

I am a huge fan of stopping to rethink what we’re doing and why on a regular basis. Perhaps, one positive in the absolute awfulness of a pandemic is to stop and think. To innovate. To engage. To develop new ways to be inclusive. And to carry that with us through the other side of this. Something good can come from this if we create it. I, for one, am starting with research care packages.

Falling on your face (or someone else’s)

I am not a coordinated person. It was never meant to be. My brain hears rhythm, but my body makes chaos. This can be easily understood when I dance, but I love dancing, and I rarely maim people in the process.

Gymnastics, though, is another story. I hate gymnastics. I think gymnasts are amazing, but I have less than zero desire or ability to mimic them. When I was the age that people had birthdays at gymnastics studios, I wondered why one would want to celebrate with outright torture.

I do not like being upside down, hanging on things, walking on narrow things, or bouncing around. I am not good at it, and I am terrified of it.

On the upside, it has proven to have a purpose recently. My son has been trying lots of new things, and not all of them have gone well. Gratefully, he is coordinated. (Yay, Dad!) But he is working on learning to ride a bike, and he’s scared, and he’s struggled a bit. Notably, our neighbor who is the same age is riding without training wheels. He’s very aware of this.

Sure enough, he went into the sad place and told me no one is worse than him. I was armed and ready.

When I was in 5th grade, in a fit of flaming insanity, we had gymnastics class in school, and we had to do penny drops. The premise is that you hold onto the upper bar of the uneven bars, hook your legs around the lower bar, and let go. You spin around, your legs release, and you land on your feet. There is no reason this would even be a useful thing, but it was required. I failed at negotiating, so I hooked my legs over the lower bar and let go.

Here’s the thing: thanks to gravity, you go upside down. I am not meant to be upside down, and my body, realizing this, did what it does best: flail. If there was an Olympics of flailing, I would get the gold. There is not now, nor was there in 5th grade, but there was a spotter who was a very kind, wonderful teacher who never knew a human could flail like I could. My foot caught her face. I landed, probably thanks to her, and she had to leave to go to the doctor.

I told my son this story. He looked at me. “Mom, what happened?” “I broke her nose.” “Oh, no. But it was an accident.”

It was. It was a total accident. Things don’t always go as we plan. Sometimes we struggle, and sometimes people get kicked in the face by 10 year olds. But, I did what you are supposed to do. I got back on the proverbial horse, or in this case, the balance beam.

The teacher returned. Her nose was all taped up, but she was in good spirits. I can’t help but wonder if she had a head injury, because she volunteered to spot me again. She decided that my issue was fear which was probably true, and the solution was to face my fear, so I should do a leap on the balance beam. I did. Guilt is a powerful thing but not as powerful as my innate sense of chaos. I fell. On her. She went to the doctor again. I broke her arm.

My son looked at me. “You broke her arm?” “Yes. It was an accident. I spent the rest of the class on my own mat in the corner where I couldn’t hurt anyone.” “Am I ever going to ride a bike?” Yes, you will. In your own time, when you’re ready. But if I’ve learned nothing else, not ever fear needs to be faced, at least not right away.” “Want to do yoga?” And so, a kid and his spastic mom did yoga in the yard. Conquering the bike will wait.

Wherever that teacher is, I’m sorry. Thank you for trying. I still can’t do any of those things, but it taught me a lot about failure and the inner voice that asks why we do things and listening to it.

COVID-19 and Education

It’s a strange time to be a professor. I had to shutter my lab and help my colleagues shutter theirs. I am teaching online. I prepped a course for moving online in 2015, but I had months. We will be this way through the Spring, and I wonder what will happen in the Summer and Fall with the virus and with our university.

The only reason I am functioning in this is that I have incredible students. They have been beyond generous in moving online, discussing what is working and what is not and explaining basic functions of the software. I am definitely the learner in so much of this. The students in my lab have brought all of their humanity and work ethic home with them. They are trying to do as much as possible, teach themselves, and support each other.

The students are doing this while dealing with so much. Some have moved. Some have lost their income. Some are not sure where they will live in a few weeks if they know now. They are struggling with finding places and spaces to work and managing their mental health at an incredibly hard time. Some are sick and worried they have the virus. It is so much for them to carry, and yet they find the space to be so incredible to each other and to me.

What makes a College special? I went to a college where there was a strong sense of community, a particular culture (around engineering), and a place where I had a sense of identity that empowered me. I think that community, culture, and identity are incredibly important parts of education. Our students are showing that in this incredibly difficult time. I am in awe of them.

I also wonder as this virus progresses, how do we support and build community, culture, and identity when we are all in different places? So much of what helped me in my time as a student was the student groups and cross pollination between different ideas and activities. How can we have performances and audiences online and sporting events online? We’re seeing examples. It is an important time to figure it out, and along the way, support our students and help make our corner of the world in academia a little bit better in a terrible time.

Getting the Flu

This week, my whole family came down with the flu. We had flu shots, but the b strain got us. It was a long week, but we all recovered. Everything has been wiped down with bleach or washed. We’re all ready, I think, to return to the world.

For a few days, my son, my partner, and my dog all curled up with me. Everyone felt bad, but I was so grateful to have time with them. The weird gift of the flu was we had time together, albeit while we were ill.

It says something about how crazy things have been that the flu had an upside.

My aunt died on Dec 26th, and since then, every waking moment that wasn’t work has been dealing with her estate. She hadn’t planned on dying, and things weren’t organized as well as she would have liked. I know this because she apologized for that while she was dying. It isn’t bad, but it takes time.

I had to fly to Nashville to close a bank account. I was lucky to have a colleague who generously invited me for a wonderful visit at Vanderbilt, so I was able to do something positive while I was there. I’ve been on the phone more times than I want to count with people who never return my calls about her retirement and about assessing her things. I need to know what will or won’t go to the estate to file estate taxes. I’m lucky that I found a realtor I trust to help get her home ready to sell, but it still takes time to go through her papers, her letters, her photos. The latter two are stored away, but it still took time to figure out what they were, and in some cases, return the letters to her friends who wrote them who have at least a small thing to help remember.

Since December, much of the limited time I would spend with my son and partner haven’t happened. I’ve been paying bills, figuring out tax documents, and trying somewhere in between to keep my head above water at work. There are grants that didn’t get written in all of this. I wonder how I can catch back up.

Then the flu struck, and we were all curled up, sick, but together. We watched Scooby doo. I was really worried about everyone, but at least we were together. That’s the thing. It took the flu to get us to all stop, to get me to stop, and for us to have time together. I need to figure out how to find time when we’re all feeling better to curl up.