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Coronavirus diaries: to be a scientist

John Tregoning finds that lockdown challenges his identity as a scientist.
John Tregoning is a reader in respiratory infections in the Department of Infectious Disease, Imperial College London, UK. He runs a blog on academic life.

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Sketch of a drooping plant on an open notebook

Credit: Adapted from Getty

For me, one of the biggest things to come to terms with, as I’m locked down in the United Kingdom, is not being able to go to my lab or my office at Imperial College, London. I realized the extent to which I was missing work when I told my children to get the ice cream from the freezer in the lab, actually meaning the garage — my subconscious speaking volumes.

Shutting the lab down came as a bit of a shock, despite the warning signs from other countries’ responses to the coronavirus outbreak, and the increasingly grim news from the epidemiology modellers downstairs. I’d done some preparation the week before — mostly making plans with my PhD students and lab techs about where they might best see out the next few weeks (at home with family or in their London flats). But there were several unanswered questions causing me angst:

• What were my lab-facing team members going to do with their time?

• What was I going to do with my time?

• Who was going to water my office plants?

The real challenge, though, is deeper than working out what to do with my and my teams’ working hours. It revolves around personal identity. So much of how I see myself is tied up with what I do as a job. I am a father, a husband, a brother. But I’m also a scientist and an academic. One of the great things about being a scientist is the close overlap between job and personal interests. But there can be times when the close relationship between science and self gets out of kilter and science takes over. There are waves of intensity, normally peaking around the time of grant deadlines, when I can think of little else.

Now, however, I’m in new territory. Not having a lab to go to will have an impact on more than just work productivity. It isn’t necessarily just lab work that will be affected — I am the first to admit that I am not in the lab itself very much during the week. Like most principal investigators, I spend much of my time working on the leadership, funding and administrative tasks that spring up around wet lab work — but the proximity to it and the interactions with my team in the lab are all part of the job. Working from home occasionally was an excellent way to get a piece of focused thinking done, but the appeal soon disappears when it is the only option.

Various pots of plants ranged across a windowsill, shelves and filing cabinet.

John Tregoning’s office plants flourishing before the lockdown.Credit: John Tregoning

On reflection, I would, in part, link my identity as a scientist to the discovery of new things, or at least living vicariously through the work my wonderful team does. In her fantastic book Lab Girl, Hope Jahren describes the moment she made her first discovery and how this led her to an academic career. When I was doing my BSc, my supervisor pointed out that I was the first person ever to see what I was seeing down the microscope. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was enough to get me hooked. These little moments of discovery are hard to achieve from my home office.

On deeper reflection, it isn’t only the discoveries that drive me, but the story-telling that builds from them — stringing individual discoveries into an epic scientific tale. As my team would attest, there isn’t always a solid plan at the beginning; the science builds organically from one point to the next. Each experiment leads to the next: a thread running through them from beginning to end. When your approach to planning work depends on the experiments, it is bloody hard to plan the next step without the experiments.

I need to remind myself that the current situation is temporary, if open-ended. I have had a similar challenge before: in parallel with doing my PhD and postdoc, I was an officer in the army reserves for ten years and when I left I had the feeling ‘if I am not an army officer, what am I?’ Turns out, it wasn’t such a big deal, I was still me, even if I wasn’t marching up and down the parade square. I imagine the experience was not dissimilar to retiring — which is probably why so few academics do actually retire.

And of course, I’m sure that once I’m back in the lab, the excitement will fade with the first failed polymerase chain reaction.

Nature 581, 226 (2020)

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