NATURE PODCAST

Podcast Extra: ‘There is lots of anxiety’: a scientist’s view from South Korea

Nick Howe speaks to chemist Bartosz Grzybowski about his experience with the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.

Bartosz Grzybowski tells us what it's like to be a university researcher in South Korea in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

In recent days, the number of coronavirus cases have surged in South Korea.

In this Podcast Extra, Nick Howe speaks to Bartosz Gryzbowski, a researcher based in the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, which is just 60km away from epicentre of the South Korean outbreak. He explains how the outbreak has affected his research and what the atmosphere is like there at the moment.

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Transcript

Bartosz Grzybowski tells us what it's like to be a university researcher in South Korea in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

This is a Podcast Extra from Nature.

Benjamin Thompson

We’ve been talking a lot about the coronavirus outbreak over the past few weeks, but how is it affecting individual researchers? In this Podcast Extra, Nick Howe hears one scientist’s story.

Interviewee: Bartosz Gryzbowski

I’ll be cancelling my travel plans, probably, because now I can probably fly but whether I’m going to be admitted or not… I was actually supposed to give a talk in the UK in like ten days, but I can fly there only to be put back on a plane.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

This is Bartosz Gryzbowski, a researcher based at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in Ulsan, South Korea. I called him up early in the morning on Skype to talk to him about his work for an upcoming Nature Podcast. But before we got into that, the conversation turned to coronavirus. Bartosz had found himself in the midst of the outbreak in South Korea. I quickly started recording on my laptop. This is an extract from that conversation.

Interviewee: Bartosz Gryzbowski

Yeah, there are quarantines. They shut down the schools. My son is not going to school and half of the universities are dead. Only people who want to come, come in. So, I sit in my office because I like it, but it’s interesting. I mean there’s lots of panic here and scare, but the country is well prepared, I’ll give you this. They have gazillions of these cameras, thermal-sensitive cameras to tell whether you have an elevated temperature and all that. People wear masks. They’re disinfecting. So, they’re pretty well organised.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Has this virus affected your research in any way or do you perceive that it will in the future at all?

Interviewee: Bartosz Gryzbowski

It’s beginning to because everybody is scared. We have little kids and people are worried and facilities are being closed or restricted. So, I think yesterday, they started restricting some facilities at our university, and there’s this anxiety in the air. My students are constantly discussing the virus, and we’re following the guidelines from the government, whoever is making the decisions. Should we be in the lab? Should we go home? So, there is lots of anxiety. I don’t know how justified it is, but it’s better to be safe rather than sorry later. I can tell you that what is reassuring is that Koreans are taking it very seriously. So, they spray, and they have all these cameras everywhere, and it’s very professional, so this is good. But I do expect… it’s already definitely impacting my own travel plans. God knows what’s going to happen next. I hope that they’re going to be able to contain it, but I would imagine it’s going to slow us down.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And you said you were planning to go to the UK in about ten days as well – do you foresee that you may not be able to travel because of this?

Interviewee: Bartosz Gryzbowski

Well, I already know that even to some European countries I can still fly there as of today, but am I going to be admitted is a separate question. From South Korea, I know what happened to the Korean tourists who went to Israel – they were just kept there, put on another plane and sent back.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And in terms of, like you said, some facilities and things have shut down – is there anything specific you can say about your institution or anywhere that you know that has been shut down as a result of this?

Interviewee: Bartosz Gryzbowski

So, we have something called the UCRF here, which is like a centralised facility with all the electron microscopes, like big equipment, US$200-300 million worth of equipment in one place for the entire university, and I think yesterday, it was actually shut down or at least curtailed to some kind of minimum level, if not shut down, but I think it was actually shut down. The library is closed. All places in which people congregate because this is how it started in this church in Daegu – which is like 60 kilometres from here – that people just went to church, they had this worship where people are very close together, and then, boom, you have 1,000 cases. So, the university is sort of banning like… I will not have my own group meeting this week, just to be sure. We don’t want to sit in one room for too long with 20 people or so. But this is minutia compared to more serious places where people come together. So, the library, centralised facilities, TMs and CMs – this already has been hit.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And is the government or your institution advising you to stay at home or are they okay with you coming to work and things like that?

Interviewee: Bartosz Gryzbowski

Hard to tell. It’s not yet that the university is closed, but it might be. It all started on Thursday or Friday of last week, so it’s very dynamic as of today, and we just had the first cases of the virus in Ulsan over the weekend, so it’s changing pretty much by the hour.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

That was Bartosz Gryzbowski. Look out for the regular show later on today for more updates on the coronavirus.