CAREER COLUMN

Coronavirus diaries: all the things we do not do

Lockdowns offer a break from failed experiments, laboratory admin duties, airport check-ins and wearing shoes, says John Tregoning.
Sketch of slippers on an open notebook

Being cooped up at home comes with a lot of challenges, but don’t overlook the benefits — such as wearing cosy slippers and quick naps on the couch.Credit: Adapted from Getty

So, we’re five weeks in. Looking back, some of these diary entries might come across as a bit negative. For what it’s worth: I know I am lucky, both in my normal life and during the lockdown. Perhaps I shouldn’t be complaining as much as I have in these pages. All I can say is we’re all developing new coping strategies during the coronavirus outbreak. Mine, it seems, is vocalizing my feelings each week in Nature and posting pictures online of my failure to grow cress or make sourdough. To set the record straight, rather than talk about the things I miss (people, pubs and handshakes making up the shortlist), here are some of the things that I don’t miss.

1. Commuting. I certainly do not miss millions of people swarming like flies around Waterloo Underground Station in London, and spending two dead hours each day shoved into someone else’s armpit. I also don’t have to spend time commuting between different sites at Imperial College London; my biggest move now is from the ‘study campus’ to the ‘dining room campus’.

2. News about politics. Yes, the news has become a little bit single-track, but at least that track is science — not angry shouting about politics, either Brexit in the United Kingdom or the forthcoming US presidential election.

3. Shoes. I’ve basically worn slippers every day, and they are so cosy. I do have a pair of office slippers at work, but on advice from my team, I didn’t go full ‘fluffy style’ in case I wandered into the lab with them on, violating safety guidelines.

4. PPE. There has been a lot of talk about personal protective equipment (PPE) during this outbreak, and although it is effective at preventing infections, wearing PPE — which I regularly had to do in my day-to-day lab work — sucks. It is hot, sweaty and itchy. Hairnets leave a mark on my forehead for the rest of the day, gloves dry out my hands and masks make me want to touch my face all the time. The closest I get now is an apron for baking.

John Tregoning's tidy lab bench

While home might be messy, John Tregoning doesn't miss the PPE used in his lab.Credit: John Tregoning

5. Access-controlled doors. Locking myself out of the lab because I left my swipe card on my desk was a reasonably common occurrence. Now, I can move freely around the campus of my south London home.

6. Shirts. In an attempt to look grown up when I started as a lecturer, I decided I should wear shirts to work. They are all hanging peacefully in my cupboard undisturbed, and now I can rock my old band T-shirts at work every day. My The Sisters of Mercy 1993 tour shirt demonstrates that I’m still very much down with the kids.

7. Rushing home. When my children were going to school, we had to get home by 6 p.m. to collect them from after-school activities. This was made more challenging by my misplaced optimism in the London transport system and my inability to get all my work done in time, so I often ended up sprinting from the station to the school.

8. Public toilets. So gross. The ones at work, particularly the ones the undergrads could access, could be awful.

9. Airport check-ins. Waiting to go on holiday with your family — fun. Getting up at 5 a.m. to go to London City Airport for a one-day round trip to Holland for a collaborator meeting — not fun.

10. Long car journeys. Not going anywhere means not having to sit for hours in the car playing I Spy or arguing with the children about my The Sisters of Mercy playlist. And I don’t have to spend 30 minutes shouting “shoes on, teeth cleaned” at my children before even getting into the car in the morning.

11. Experiments that don’t work. My science in lockdown has been limited, but at least nothing has failed.

12. Meals al desko. Sometimes, the back-to-back schedule of meetings, lab work and other stuff means lunchtime either disappeared completely or turned into an ‘inhaled sandwich’ at my desk. Lunches at home with the family have been a real joy, although I do miss my team’s chatter: my knowledge of what has happened in the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race has certainly suffered.

13. Awkward meetings. I am not great with names. At present, I have to remember only three people’s names (my wife’s and my two children’s). Everyone else now conveniently shares their names on screens in online meetings. At work, there were lots of people I sort of knew and then couldn’t remember their names. That led to a few slightly awkward conversations and lift journeys.

14. Lab admin. Not having a lab means I don’t have to do all the online consumable ordering for when my students inevitably crash the purchasing system again, and it means the lab is spotlessly tidy and I am not sending passive-aggressive e-mails about bins.

15. Being physically present at meetings, but mentally absent. We all have more meetings than we need. There are seminars that are not quite on what you thought they were on. Previously, this would necessitate enduring the meeting, but now I can load the dishwasher, eat my lunch, read Nature — as long as I remember to turn the video and sound off!

16. Not being able to nap. I am a huge fan of the power nap. After lunch, my brain slows and a five-minute nap can reboot it much more effectively than sluggishly battling through the afternoon. But I often struggled with maintaining my professionalism from my desk, despite the smart shoes and shirt. At home, I can now knock a nap out and be back at the desk before you can say “Doktor Avalanche”.

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