CAREER COLUMN

Coronavirus diaries: a new year for science

John Tregoning reckons with a return to the academic year and an emptier house.
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 calendar on an open notebook

Credit: Adapted from Getty

Last month in the United Kingdom, we entered the promised land when my children, after a 150-day absence, returned to their school in London. As with most much-anticipated events, except perhaps an end to the pandemic, it didn’t quite live up to expectations.

The first change was the silence in my house. There was no gentle bickering over whose turn it was to play the online video game Fortnite, there was no cricket ball thumping into the back wall and the dishwasher went unrun for a whole day. Silence is over-rated: when the children were in the house and I needed to concentrate, I could just put really loud music on and find peace in the noise. Now, it’s just me and my thoughts, which are not as good company — and unlike the children, my inner monologue is not as easy to drown out with some classic goth rock.

A bigger change is all the time that is now available. For five months, I have been trying to cram a week’s worth of work into half a week (the other half having been taken up with home-schooling, average-parenting and bad-baking). This shortage of time led to an increase in intensity when I was working. I now have ‘all’ this extra time but am still working at the same intensity, which is exhausting and unsustainable. I have also lost some of the time-management discipline: when you have really limited time, it is much easier to turn things down, but now that the calendar looks relatively free, I’ve been stuffing it with meetings, paper reviews and online training.

And although things are returning somewhat to normal, it might not last for long. I have just about rebooted the lab, including a reordering of things that had run out. I even threw away some chemicals that had expired during the first SARS-CoV outbreak in 2003 (#sciencehoarder). On some level, I feel ready to get back to research, but as I write this in early October, the number of cases in the United Kingdom is on the rise again — and already some local lockdowns have been enforced.

We have to readjust, again. In less than half a year, my family has gone from four people who share the same home but disperse in four different directions from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., to an inseparable unit of four who spent every minute together, and back to four independent souls who happen to live under the same roof. Readjusting is tiring; uncertainty is tiring. Having a routine takes less work than making new plans every day: a framework for the mundane means we have more headspace for the meaningful. One of the reasons I enjoy academia is that, on some level, it is constant: annual conferences, recurring grant deadlines, the long Easter holiday. These milestones give me a chance to reset. I normally relish the autumn. I am so ingrained in academia that my year doesn’t begin in January — it starts in September and ends in August. This year, with the start of this term being so different from others, it doesn’t feel like so much of a fresh start.

But hopefully this lack of a reset means we’re all a little less hard on ourselves for not achieving what we had planned for 2020. This year is unique: time you should have spent doing research will have been taken up in isolation/lockdown/clinic/transferring teaching online/home-schooling/caring/being sick/volunteering/shopping for loo roll. Just because there was a brief window between the end of the summer and the start of the autumn when things were a bit more normal doesn’t negate that.

We also still need to look after each other. Learning new ways to check in with colleagues has been crucial. A short e-mail or a text can be enough. I have had to learn how to listen online, which is very different from real life, particularly in the absence of body-language cues. One observation is that listening properly sometimes involves pauses in the conversation, which can feel like a lifetime on video conferences.

The simple truth is that there are at least six more months of COVID uncertainty to get through, and even after that, the world in March 2021 probably isn’t going to reset to what it looked like in March 2020. We need to take it one week at a time, keeping ourselves and those around us safe and sane. I’ve learnt a lot this year, but when it comes to predicting what’s next, I’m just as bad as I always have been. At least some things stay the same.

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