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|The POSTDOCket, March/April 2020: Every Member|
The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Postdoctoral Community - an Every Member Special Edition
By The NPA Board of Directors and Staff
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us on a global scale, causing significant change in our daily lives—shifting work from offices to homes, requiring family balance, navigating virtual meetings, and trying to maintain mental and physical wellbeing. In these unprecedented times, the National Postdoctoral Association remains dedicated to building community, providing resources, and supporting all members of the postdoctoral community, as we learn to navigate the effects of this pandemic together. We reiterate our commitment to you, prioritizing our efforts to listen to our members and innovatively designing new ways to collaborate. Amidst much uncertainty, the NPA will stay true to its mission—facilitating connections and raising awareness of the postdoctoral community.
As part of our dedication to engage with and strengthen our diverse community, the NPA will be highlighting your inspirational stories over the coming weeks. To begin, we present this special issue of The POSTDOCket: Every Member, revealing the impact of COVID-19 on our postdoctoral community in their own words. In it, you will find articles focused on how members of our community boldly navigated changes to their work, as well as their personal and professional development. This issue also showcases postdoc-led research that may ultimately lead to treatments and vaccine-development aimed to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.
We extend our tremendous gratitude to the many postdocs and postdoc office leaders who shared personal insights and stories to help unite us and reinforce that we are in this together.
We encourage all of you to continue to connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org using the subject line “COVID,” or through one of our social media channels (LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) using the hashtags #NPAEveryMember and #COVID19.
Wishing you and your loved ones good health and best wishes,
The NPA Board of Directors and staff
Banding Together: How Young Scientists Are Supporting Each Other In the Time of a Pandemic
By Avanti Dey
From the closure of universities, and the subsequent move to virtual learning and communication, the potential for career disruption in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of the minds of many postdoctoral scholars. With the added pressure of juggling personal concerns such as social isolation, keeping healthy, and managing family life, the process can easily be overwhelming. However, in this new age of digital revolution, many industrious young scientists are generating ingenious new ways to stay afloat in the time of crisis—both academically and mentally.
Time to pull together
On March 20, 2020, H. Holden Thorp, PhD, the current provost at Washington University in St. Louis, published the article “Time to pull together” in the journal Science. In this article, Thorp underscores the value and need for the scientific community of continuing to do their work safely. In this vein, postdocs have admirably risen to the challenge of continuing their work through a number of creative ways while supporting each other in the process.
The Twitter account @AcademicChatter has been inundated with tweets from students and postdocs sharing stories and advice about how they’re dealing with the academic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, from guides on working remotely to successfully maintaining writing routines. Indeed, the virtual community has been flourishing with initiatives to help fellow academics in need, including revivals of online journal clubs, setting up remote livestreams to provide social support to doctoral students during their defense, and even offering to review papers to relieve the burden on parents with children.
PDAs support postdocs
Moreover, PDAs at various institutions have been active in self-organizing initiatives to assist hospitals and emergency services during the ongoing pandemic. For instance, at Columbia University, a group of postdocs volunteered to provide support to physicians in several COVID-19 related projects, from aid in testing to literature reviews (see the article “The Power of Organizing People: Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19 (CRAC) Team” in this issue for more detail on these initiatives).
In addition to academic support, postdocs are also banding together for personal support, led by PDAs. Aaron Reifler, PhD, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Michigan State University, has been instrumental in keeping postdocs connected and active during the current period of social distancing by encouraging spontaneous sports games and activities to keep people engaged and in good spirits.
Mental health is also clearly on the minds of many PDAs; the MIT PDA started virtual “Brain Breaks,” in which postdocs are encouraged to include their families in various mindfulness and meditation activities. Postdocs are also taking to blogs and writing helpful posts on staying mentally and physically healthy, as well as tips for parents with an eye towards keeping their children engaged.
Resilience is key
The lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet clear, and it may be a long time before we fully understand the complete picture. However, in this moment of uncertainty, what is clear is the resilience of the scientific community, particularly early-career scientists embarking on their careers. In these extraordinary times, it is more crucial than ever to stay connected despite physical limitations.
These initiatives can occur either on an individual or a group level and with the aid of the internet, the possibilities are endless. While a return to normal may not be in sight for a while, postdocs are making the most of their resources to create a ‘new’ normal where the goal is not only maintaining productivity but also a social support system for fellow scientists.
Finally, a new initiative for researchers and scientists called Crowdfight COVID-19 has emerged, which seeks to pool the resources of scientists in the fight against COVID-19. It acts as both a resource for researchers directly involved in COVID-19 to solicit help in completing their work and as a repository for researchers not directly involved in COVID-19 to volunteer their skills and knowledge to researchers who need it. It is an ideal demonstration of the collaborative power of scientists in the time of need, particularly their generosity and co-operation. In this sense, ‘social distancing’ is a misnomer; in fact, we are more connected than ever.
Avanti Dey, PhD, is currently a postdoc at the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas, and the study coordinator for the engAGE Project.
Unforeseen Costs: How the COVID-19 Outbreak has Affected Research Grant Funding
By Stephanie M. Davis
On March 18, 2020, President Donald Trump held a press conference to officially declare the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak a national emergency. Between this announcement and the previous classification of COVID-19 as a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization, it became clear to people within the research enterprise and outside of science that “business as usual” was about to face unprecedented disruption.
In response to the orders by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to practice “social distancing,” academic institutions across the nation have started shutting down research labs and banning non-essential personnel from their campuses. Unfortunately, research can only thrive with proper funding, and that funding depends upon grant writing, application, and peer review process that has been unpredictably disrupted. However, despite these setbacks, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the societal value for biomedical research and given rise to new opportunities as well.
Most offices of sponsored programs (OSPs), which manage externally funded projects at nonprofit research institutes, remain operational in the face of lab closures. For instance, the University of Illinois at Chicago OSP assures researchers that their grant applications will be submitted on time if they adhere to official OSP guidelines. Other institutional OSPs, such as the University of Texas and the University of California, San Francisco indicated that closed facilities should not interfere with the on-time submission of proposals.
Moreover, websites for institutional OSPs and offices of research have largely functioned as informational hubs for principal investigators (PIs) containing the policies from funding agencies related to COVID-19. These policies, as discssed below, demonstrate an increase in flexibility towards researchers who have inevitably been affected by closed facilities.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Policies
Although the policies regarding COVID-19 have varied across federal agencies, most agencies that provide research grants have shown a willingness to accept late applications and provide administrative supplements to laboratories affected by shutdowns. The NIH released the first notice on March 9 indicating their willingness to accept late applications, provided that the applicants demonstrate evidence of the COVID-19 spread interfering with their research activities.
A second notice released on March 12 indicated that the NIH would permit greater flexibilities regarding expenditures (salaries, travel funds, etc.) charged to NIH awards, extend the deadline for post-award reports, and allow pre-award costs from January 20 throughout the duration of the pandemic.
Finally, on March 26, NIH released a revised notice that pushed the April 6 application deadlines to May 1, regardless of COVID-19’s effects on the PI’s institution.
Other Federal Agency Policies
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has offered similar flexibility in terms of grant deadlines and financial relief in response to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Memo M-20-17. For applicants who are at institutions that are affected by COVID-19-related shutdowns or delays, the NSF website mentions that these late proposals will be “continued on a case-by-case basis.”
Additionally, several NSF funding solicitations had their deadlines postponed for all applicants as of March 27. The Basic Research Directorate within the Department of Defense (DoD) also announced that they would be providing financial flexibility in accordance with OMB Memo M-20-17. While their website recommends contacting program staff for clarification on late submission policies, their website states that the DoD has encouraged said staff to be flexible with proposal deadlines considering the current situation.
Finally, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that they would be extending applications for certain proposals due to the COVID-19 situation.
New Funding Opportunities
Although federal funding agencies generally acknowledge that the COVID-19 spread will hinder progress for many researchers, new opportunities have also arisen for virologists and researchers in other disciplines. A recent Dear Colleague Letter from the NSF requested proposals related to COVID-19 via the Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism.
The NSF Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure also requested RAPID proposals involving the use of data and cyberinfrastructure to address the COVID-19 crisis. The NIH recently released several notices of special interests (NOSIs) regarding the availability of supplements and competitive revisions for COVID-19-related research on existing awards.
Other offices and agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services, including the CDC and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, have released funding solicitations focused on strengthening existing systems of public health and the development of new diagnostic tools and treatments for COVID-19 infection, respectively.
Finally, the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on March 27 allocated significant funding towards several agencies that provide research grants (see Table 1).
The unexpected shutdown of research facilities will no doubt be a setback to the research process. However, given the flexibility of federal funding agencies, it is recommended that all researchers contact their respective program officials and university staff members to remain aware of updates to current policies. Furthermore, it is our hope that the new funding solicitations related to COVID-19 will provide senior graduate students and postdocs with the opportunity to use their knowledge and creativity to solve this public health emergency.
The primary goal of biomedical research is to combat human disease and enhance our quality of life. Therefore, it is more important than ever to recognize the importance of research funding to better help us fight global pandemics and ensure that the future biomedical workforce is supported during this difficult time.
Stephanie M. Davis, PhD, is a 2019-2020 Executive Branch AAAS science and technology policy fellow and an associate editor for The POSTDOCket.
Importance of Teamwork: SARS-CoV-2 Research Highlighted
By Multiple Researchers
A large, interdisciplinary team of researchers at UCSF has been working to identify potential drugs that could be repurposed for the treatment of COVID-19. Below is a summary from postdoctoral scholars involved in the team’s efforts. For more see their preprint on this work.
The creation of this SARS-CoV-2 protein-protein interaction map required the coordination of many teams with distinct and complementary expertise. First, the cell culture and immunoprecipitation (IP) team prepared the samples. Second, the mass spectrometry team analyzed the samples to identify human proteins physically interacting with each of the 26 SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins. Third, a bioinformatics team processed the mass spectrometry data to score interactions, creating a list of ~400 high-confidence interactions. Lastly, the chemoinformatics team mapped this high-confidence set of human proteins to drugs and compounds, with a focus on those that are FDA-approved or in clinical trials.
Mehdi Bouhaddou and Merve Cakir
One of the major challenges when processing affinity purification mass spectrometry (AP-MS) data is segregating true interactions from the background. To do this, we used two different algorithms to score each interaction: MiST and SAINT. MiST scores interactions with a focus on specificity; that is, unique interactions across many immunoprecipitations receive higher scores. SAINT scores interactions with a focus on abundance; interacting proteins with high abundance in the immunoprecipitation receive higher scores. A large part of our work was developing a rationale for where to draw our specificity and abundance cutoffs for this dataset.
Next, we built a map. Utilizing a mixture of manual literature searches, curated databases, and gene set enrichment analysis, we grouped human proteins on this map together based on known protein complexes and biological processes. This was a concerted effort amongst dozens of scientists, each assigned research of a different viral protein, and its identified human protein interactions.
Lastly, we performed several descriptive bioinformatics analyses. We assessed the enriched expression of our high confidence interactions in various human tissues, finding them to be most enriched in lung tissue (even though we did our experiments in HEK293T cells, a kidney cell line). We also compared this SARS-CoV-2 interactome with dozens of other viruses and bacteria interactomes previously assessed in the Krogan lab, including HIV, HPV, HCV, chlamydia, tuberculosis, WNV, HBV, Ebola, Zika, and Dengue. Interestingly, we found SARS-CoV-2 to be most similar to WNV and tuberculosis, both of which are also associated with severe pulmonary conditions.
Drug Candidate Identification team
Ilsa Kirby, James Melnyk, Ying Shi, and Ziyang Zhang
As a rapidly developing, global pandemic, the current situation does not allow for traditional drug development timelines. Therefore, our most immediate interventional treatment options may lie in the repurposing of existing drugs with well-studied mechanisms of action and known clinical profiles. One of our key goals was to use the interactome map produced from the AP-MS data to identify drug candidates that could potentially target the virus-host interactions and prevent the exploitation of host cell machinery and processes. To accomplish this, we considered thousands of FDA-approved drugs, investigational drugs (in clinical trials), as well as preclinical compounds with unique target profiles and mechanisms of action. Using a combination of chemoinformatic literature review and knowledge from our research in drug discovery, we identified 69 drugs that target 66 host factor proteins, and are now evaluating them in live virus infection assays.
This work was a highly collaborative and fast-paced effort—this all happened in just a few days—we studied the interactome data, read papers, bounced ideas among our team using Slack, got feedback from the team, went back to the interactome and papers, came up with new ideas or refined previous ideas, and repeated this sequence several times. We hope that with this dedication, speed, and teamwork, we will get a step ahead of this virus.
Literature review team
Beril Tutuncuoglu, Jyoti Batra, and Qiongyu Li
A team of about twenty scientists came together to conduct a detailed literature review on each of the 332 high-confidence human (prey) proteins identified to interact with viral (bait) proteins. Besides obtaining direction from the available databases that provide information on general roles and known interactions of identified proteins, reviewing each of the peer-reviewed publications is important to prioritize functionally relevant proteins. This approach provides mechanistic insights and gets us closer to generating testable hypotheses about host cell proteins that are involved in the replication and construction processes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Our study has highlighted key interactions between SARS-CoV-2 proteins and human proteins with diverse functions including DNA replication, ubiquitination, nuclear transport, epigenetic regulation, vesicle trafficking, RNA processing and regulation, mitochondrial processes and innate immune signaling. Among these host proteins, many of them have also been targeted by other pathogen-encoding proteins from the interactions with other viruses including HIV, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, KSHV, HPV, Dengue, Ebola, Zika, West Nile virus, and Chlamydia, suggesting common molecular mechanisms of infection and proliferation used by these different pathogens. Several of them are targets for antiviral drugs. Interestingly, we also observed several factors that are involved in acute lung inflammation, lung injury and repair, and lung cancer. The pathways that some prey proteins are involved in and their functions reveal that these proteins are involved in the pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 viral infection.
We are employing genetic screens for the identification of host-dependency factors mediating virus infection, which may provide key insights into effective molecular targets for therapeutic interventions against SARS-CoV-2. This could not be achieved without collaborative efforts from each scientist. We are hoping that this protein-protein interaction project could shed light on tackling the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
The newly formed Quantitative Biosciences Institute (QBI) Coronavirus Research Group (QCRG) at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), have pooled their expertise in biochemistry, virology, structural, computational, chemical and systems biology to understand how the coronavirus hijacks human cells for its own replication. The group includes twenty-two leading laboratories, involving hundreds of scientists within the QBI, who have come together to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the International Student and Postdoc Community
By Akshata Naik
In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic the lives of most people in the world changed abruptly. Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are no exception. Most of these trainees are unable to continue with bench research, forced to defend their dissertations in a virtual format and missing the excitement of graduation. All of this while having to focus on self-care, caring for others and adjusting to the new normal, a life at home.
A particularly vulnerable population are the international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, who make up 5.5 percent of the total higher education population in the United States. According to the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, in the year 2019 alone, 1,095,299 international students came to the United States in pursuit of their professional dreams. The world-wide lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic created a myriad of uncertainties for international students and postdocs, taking a toll on their mental health even greater than for those residing in their home countries.
This article aims to bring awareness of some of the challenges international students and postdocs face during a global health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, this would lead to increased support from advisors, international offices and other campus resources.
First time U.S. travelers
When international students and postdocs come to the United States, they leave their friends and family behind. They are forced to start building a new network of support, establishing a new home, and becoming familiar with a new set of simple routines. It can take a while to establish an official identity through social security and state IDs. It is not hard to imagine the plight of postdocs who traveled to the United States for the very first time shortly before the declaration of a pandemic, only to find out that the country is shutting down in a period of time and that they need to quarantine themselves, a difficult task for arriving graduates and postdocs still in the process of finding a place to stay. Further, if they are unable to start the university paperwork, they cannot be on a payroll. Even basic self-care needs, which are harder for everyone these days, would be additionally challenging.
International travel ban
The international travel ban has affected all of our lives and it hasn’t spared the international students and postdocs either. Many postdocs who visited their home country during this time are now unable to return to the United States, a situation which could jeopardize their current position. Others with plans of visiting their families abroad are unable to do so either. These situations not only have a high emotional cost but also a financial one (for more on this topic, see the article "Staying 'Home' Away From Home" below).
Furthermore, with the graduation ceremony going virtual, parents and relatives who were excited to witness the commencement of their loved ones are unable to do so.
Suspension of immigration in-person services
It is important to highlight that for international students and postdocs, their professional roles at the university are linked to their ability to live and work within the United States and vice versa. Most of these grad students and postdocs hold visas that require an in-person interview at one of the visa centers in their home country for approval by the U.S. Center for Immigration Services (USCIS). With the in-person immigration services being suspended by the USCIS, many doctorate holders with valid postdoc job offers are unable to secure a visa, further delaying their entry into the United States.
Doctoral to Postdoctoral transition
An international student planning on remaining in the United States must file for an ‘Optional Practical Training’ (OPT), after defending their graduate thesis. The OPT approval by the USCIS takes approximately 120 days from the date of filing. An international student has an interim period which begins from the date of filing their OPT and up to 90 days post-approval of OPT, to secure a new job. Those students who already obtained their OPT before the declaration of the pandemic and its consequences are in the midst of this 90 days of post OPT approval. If the current job market situation prevents them from securing a job in a timely manner, these doctorate holders will be required to return to their home countries, unless changes in immigration policies are put in place to account for these issues.
Discrimination of Asian students
Another important factor to highlight is the xenophobia and racism against Asian students and postdocs due to the origin of the coronavirus. This adds to the challenges and problems faced by these international students and postdocs, and has led to a movement #IamNotaVirus on social media.
The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all and the international community in higher education is no exception and is particularly vulnerable at this time. Most of the international graduate students and postdocs who live in the United States are away from their families and have a limited support system which can be not only emotionally but also practically challenging. Additionally, some might face the difficulty of being unable to travel to be close to their loved ones and the added uncertainty of the situation in their home countries.
Many universities have established a COVID-19 website where they post useful resources for their students and employees. They may also provide resources that one can avail to manage anxiety, depression, and loneliness in the times of social distancing.
Below are some additional resources to help support the international postdoc community in this challenging time.
COVID-19 information resources
International resources from NAFSA
Akshata Naik, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at Wayne State University. Her research expertise lies in the field of cellular physiology, molecular biology and protein-protein interactions. Additionally she also enjoys writing, painting and dancing!
Conducting Postdoctoral Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Suzanne E. Witt
As the spread of a novel coronavirus continues to accelerate around the world, life as we know it is rapidly changing. Every day, new rules and orders are being imposed to control the number of infections. Overall, people are instructed to “socially distance” from one another, but the specific restrictions put in place to accomplish this depend on the individual's location. For example, currently most states in the United States have enacted statewide shelter-in-place or similar orders for their citizens (though this number is rapidly evolving, with 9 states on March 23, but 30 by March 30, and more now), while the remaining states have closed or placed restrictions on non-essential businesses, schools and other entities.
Disruptions in research
In light of these new and rapidly evolving policies, and out of consideration for their own health and that of their loved ones, postdoctoral scholars are facing varying degrees of disruption to their research. In areas under shelter-in-place orders, postdocs are not permitted to go to their physical work location at all, unless their work is deemed essential by their universities. Essential work is not a well defined term, but currently often includes only a very small fraction of postdocs, such as those conducting research specific to COVID-19.
For scholars not permitted on campus, the result is a loss of access to laboratories, instruments or other resources essential to their research, bringing data collection to a screeching halt. Some postdocs staying in university housing have even been required to move, finding new apartments or traveling long distances across the country to be with family, as schools are increasingly being shut down. Postdocs that are still permitted to go to work are faced with the decision to continue their research, potentially putting themselves and others at risk, or stay at home. Indeed, levels of anxiety are high for all as we deal with these unprecedented circumstances.
Making progress while staying at home
Not all hope for progress is lost, however, as postdocs are turning toward completing tasks that can be achieved from home. This includes catching up on reviewing the literature, analyzing data, writing manuscripts, applying for grants, or learning new skills, such as a programming language. Postdocs who already use virtual tools for the majority of their work, such as those conducting machine learning or informatics research, are experiencing little disruption to their projects.
Meetings with collaborators can continue with the help of Zoom, Skype, or other online video conferencing programs. In fact, professional societies have even begun using online tools so that their conferences can go on virtually, an example being the SciMeetings platform that was launched by the American Chemical Society earlier this week. This way, early career researchers can continue to network and share their research at this critical stage in their professional lives.
Strength of community
It is difficult to quantify exactly how disruptive the current situation will be to research, or for how long. Facing what is perhaps the most difficult challenge of their lifetimes, postdocs can hopefully find solace in the fact that they are doing the best they can. The remarkable speed in which the research community is adapting to the new normal is a result of tremendous creativity and determination and is something that all of those involved should be proud of. Despite being physically distanced from one another, there is an enhanced sense of community that has come from this crisis.
Above all, however, the priority now is the health and safety of everyone. Postdocs are also using their increased time at home to check in on family, friends, neighbors and each other, albeit from a distance. They are also investing more time into at-home hobbies, such as playing music, creating art and cooking or baking. For many, a global crisis serves as an opportunity to reflect on what is most important to them, and perhaps research progress is not so high on that list.
Suzanne E. Witt, PhD, works as a scientist at the Fraunhofer USA Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Academic Job Search
By Tanja Burkhard, Stephanie Davis, and Josh Henkin
By March 16, 2020, a large number of U.S. universities had announced their shift to online and remote options in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In the weeks since, administrators, faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars have been scrambling to adjust to this new reality, as well as the uncertainty of the coming months. Questions related to graduate stipends, disruptions in research, and accommodations for those who are taking on care functions in their families and communities have been circulating. In the midst of the hiring season, the question of how this crisis will affect hiring has been on the minds of graduate students and postdocs, but also hiring committees and universities.
While many universities released statements regarding online teaching, social distancing, and remote learning in response to the pandemic, few made explicit statements on how the new regulations would impact the interview process and hiring. However, graduate students interviewing for postdoctoral positions and postdocs interviewing for tenure-track positions quickly realized that their job search would be impacted as offer letters were delayed, offers were rescinded, and interview processes slowed.
On March 24, Karen Kelsky, PhD, of “The Professor Is In” started compiling an informal list of universities that announced hiring freezes and suspensions, since many schools were slow to announce resolutions on this issue. Contributors to the list, which started as a Facebook post, pointed out the various ways in which universities are approaching the hiring process in light of the uncertainty. This includes reviewing offers and job searches on a case-by-case basis, announcing complete hiring freezes to current faculty and applicants, as well as rescinding offers for postdoctoral positions.
William Jones, PhD, is a research assistant at Uppsala University’s Department of Ecology and Genetics in Sweden. He is currently interviewing for postdoctoral research positions and has recently come to experience the impact of the pandemic on his job search. Applying for grants and postdocs, he had initially received two interviews for postdoctoral research positions, one of which was initially suspended, and the other suspended and then reopened with a slowed-down decision-making process.
Jones points out that field-based research positions are particularly impacted by the uncertainty that currently plagues the academic job market in general. If the position requires postdoctoral researchers to be deployed in the field to work on particular projects, or even internationally, the selection process will largely be governed by availability. It is currently not possible to foresee when travel will be possible again, or even if travel will be ethical in the future, as researchers traveling internationally could introduce the virus in other countries.
Tips for Job-Seekers in Troubling Times
Due to lab closures and layoffs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, postdocs and graduate students who are currently searching for new positions may expect to encounter difficulties. The obstacles and changes faced by researchers on the job market range from a shortage of positions to interviewing virtually, and the possibility of having to go through onboarding processes virtually as well. Below we have included several important pointers for postdocs and graduate students searching for new positions.
Acing Your Virtual Interview
Social distancing and travel restrictions mean that most job interviews over the next few months will likely occur via video conference platforms. Although virtual interviews require some adjustment, there are several easy steps
While virtual interviews require different preparation steps compared to in-person interviews, the same etiquette that applies to in-person interviews also goes for virtual interviews. For instance, be sure to research the department, company or lab ahead of time so you appear engaged and prepared while asking questions. Also, following up with your interviewers after your call to thank them for their time is a great way to leave a positive impression after your interview.
Staying Positive During the Search
During this unprecedented situation, the temptation to give up is very strong among postdocs who are looking for new positions. Seeing colleagues getting laid off during facility closures does not help with the feeling of uncertainty either. However, it is more important than ever to remember that this is also a time for self-care.
Staying home might provide more time to update one’s CV, browse Linkedin for jobs, or take advantage of online learning tools. However, it is also crucial to make time for exercise, meditation, mental health treatment, and/or hobbies during the quarantine. Furthermore, reach out to your other postdoc friends and colleagues who are on the job market and offer to support each other virtually. Maintaining a sense of community is especially important during a difficult situation and these interactions allow for the chance to provide each other with valuable feedback.
Besides caring for your physical and mental health, it is also important to utilize all of the skills and resources that are available to help you with job searching. For instance, NPA members have access to all myPostdoc monthly webinars, several of which focus on building interview skills and identifying new career paths. Remember that obtaining a doctorate has already made you a tenacious and resilient professional who does not back down from obstacles and challenges. Just as your most difficult moments in graduate school came to an end, this pandemic will not last forever. Finally, remember that everyone, including your potential employers, is adjusting to this new normal. Just try to be patient, try to silence your inner saboteur, and remember that you’ve got this handled!
Tanja Burkhard, PhD, is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, and an associate editor at The POSTDOCket.
Stephanie Davis, PhD, is the chief operating officer of the University of Kentucky Society of Postdoctoral Scholars, the current chair of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Young Scientists Committee, and a member of the Future of Research Board of Directors. She also serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Science Policy and Governance.
Josh Henkin, PhD, is the current treasurer for the NPA Board of Directors, a scientific program manager at the Tauri Group, as well as the founder of STEM Career Services. Josh conducts workshops at conferences, universities, and institutes across the country and provides career coaching to STEM graduates at all career levels.
The Power of Organizing People: Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19 (CRAC) Team
By Tomas Aparicio
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought science to an unprecedented situation: while coronavirus research has become a maximum priority, nearly all other research has ground to a halt for an uncertain period. Hundreds of clinical trials for vaccines and antivirals are being designed, reviewed, and approved on expedited procedures and launched. Funding opportunities for coronavirus research are starting to pop-up, laboratories in many disciplines drafting projects, applying their scientific expertise to fight the disease, or contribute to the knowledge on how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is impacting us. Meanwhile, to protect their human capital, most academic institutions have canceled all events and classes, sent students home, and ramped down or closed research labs forcing postdocs to stop all experimental work and stay at home.
For Alvaro Cuesta, a biomedical associate research scientist working at Columbia University Medical Center, it was clear that postdocs like him could do much more than social distancing regarding the looming onslaught of COVID-19 cases. With New York City quickly becoming the center of the pandemic in the United States, as soon as lab closures were announced he reached out to his office of postdoctoral affairs and the School of Medicine administration to inquire if any group of non-clinical volunteers was being assembled to relieve hospital staff workload, and if not, whether he could assist in helping in the process or organizing it.
The response from the medical center leadership was very positive, asking volunteers to organize themselves first. It all started with a questionnaire requesting volunteers circulated through the department's mailing lists. The initial project: to help in expanding the hospital's testing capacity using RT-PCR, a commonly used technique by most biomedical researchers. "I've never touched a pipette, but I really wanted to help even if I did not see an obvious way to fit in," said Natalie Steinemann, a postdoctoral behavioral scientist at Columbia Zuckerman Neuroscience Institute, acting in the team as a project manager. Steinemann, who was one of the first people to join, added: "Our organization quickly grew into something requiring diverse expertise."
For Miles Richardson, a graduate student at the Columbia System Biology department, what initially was a perfect fit quickly developed into an opportunity to build teamwork skills. "Working on microbiome research, I do a lot of PCR, so I joined for that." After the initial priority assessment, Richardson became responsible for internal team communications. The response to the questionnaire was outstanding; more than 400 people signed up to volunteer. The volunteers were mostly postdocs and graduate students, but also some faculty members who actively engaged with the team, becoming advisors for the organization. These faculty members suggested expanding the scope of the projects. "I had no experience interfacing with the many layers of the institution administration, and having faculty advisors helped so much in the beginning," Cuesta adds.
As communications with the hospital administration and its departments were more fluid, and the situation was developing, needs were identified, and relief projects, both bottom-up and top-down, started to take shape. Over the past two weeks, by closely working with the Medical Center administration, clinicians, and faculty, the team swiftly grew to enlist more than 55 fully involved volunteers distributed to six already launched projects and more under consideration and staffing.
These projects include setting up a COVID-19 patient sample repository that is already enabling COVID-19 research projects where Cuesta is currently focusing his efforts, making sure volunteers comply with the required safety protocols. Another priority that came up was assisting the Institutional Review Board with auditing ongoing COVID-19 research and launching clinical trials. The team is also creating a centralized COVID-19 research effort database and will organize a weekly remote internal mini-symposium, bringing together the university's advances in COVID-19. "We are at a point where many departments are reaching out to us, requesting our help," mentions Steinemann.
Dynamic Response from Remote Based Teams
A rapid response team for laboratory technical incidences was also established. As the situation is very dynamic, additional projects are being pre-planned and staffed if needed, like, for example, masks and other PPE sterilization in case of a supply shortage. Interestingly, for Richardson and Steinmann, in the new normal of social distancing, assembling the teams and communicating almost exclusively remotely has been remarkably productive. "We have constantly been meeting and talking to so many people over the last ten days; not having shaken hands doesn't feel that substantial anymore."
According to Chiara Bertiplaglia, scientific program manager at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute and social media manager of the team, outreach is also crucial to keep motivated their pool of volunteers. "We have seen so much willingness from postdocs and students to help. We are now trying to effectively showcase the work being done and opportunities that are continuously coming up to join the team and finding a spot for everyone."
The CRAC team is an example of what a community of scientists can do to support their institution upon a situation of unprecedented uncertainty. They also are willing to help beyond their campus. If you are eager to help, follow their piece of advice: reach as many people as you can, start getting organized with what you have. You might find you have more resources than you think.
Tomas Aparicio, PhD, is an associate research scientist at Columbia University Institute for Cancer Genetics, New York.
Staying “Home” Away From Home
By Murielle Ålund
Social distancing is difficult in the best of times, but with most of the world now sharing this fate due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is the added worry about one's own health and safety and that of loved ones near or far. What does it mean to be living this crisis away from one's own country? I have turned to the international postdoctoral community to ask them to share their experiences, worries, and hopes in these challenging times.
The 14 postdoctoral scholars that kindly shared their stories with me come from 10 different countries and are either currently or were performing research in eight different countries when this pandemic started. While each of their stories is unique, there are many common themes in their worries relevant to working in their home countries. In this article, I attempt to summarize their perspectives, adding my voice to theirs as I myself am still unpacking from a very sudden transatlantic move back home to Sweden with my partner and children.
Many of our current worries are directed towards family, particularly our aging parents that many of us decided not to visit in order to negate any risk infecting them. Worrying about a family that is thousands of miles away across continents—and sometimes many time zones—is certainly taking a toll on the international community. Added to this are the concerns that travel bans and reduced flights will most likely mean that we won’t be able to visit if something happens, or that we won’t be allowed back in the country where we currently work if we do choose to leave.
Priyanka, a postdoc in the United States whose family is in India, writes that it is particularly hard not to be able to assist family when they might need it the most, for example by bringing food and pharmacy supplies. She also feels guilty that she actually still has the freedom to go on runs and hikes while social distancing, when her family is under complete lockdown back at home.
Should I stay or should I go?
This begs the questions: do we then stay in our host country or do we actually go “home”? Lilli, a Finnish postdoc that recently moved to the United States with her family wonders: “Would we be safer in a different state where we have networks of friends and relatives? Should we–after all these years in the US–travel back to Europe as soon as possible? Would we be safer in Finland? Do we risk infecting our relatives there if we decide to leave? What do we do with our home in the US?”
Karl and Rux are both postdocs in Canada, but their parents live in two different countries far away from each other (United States and Romania), where neither of them has lived or worked in some time. Because their parents are over 70 and with health problems, Karl and Rux do not want to risk being the source of their infection with COVID-19 and chose to remain in their host country. Like Lilli and her partner, they worry about a complete lack of a local support system: “Living in a small apartment with a four-year-old in the middle of a probably very contaminated big city is taking its toll on everyone. […], but what will we do if we both get sick at the same time?”
Aru, a postdoc in the United States, was looking forward to her first trip in three years to see her family back home in India, but was forced to cancel, and does not know when she will get the chance again. Her husband is also a postdoc, but they live in separate states, and the pair were also forced to cancel their monthly in-person reunions. “We are suffering the same as everyone else, just a little more lonely than the average social isolation.”
For Will, a postdoc in Japan, getting stuck in his host country for an unknown period of time was not an option. “I decided to come home to Australia last week, […] to be closer to friends and family, […] and [because] I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to return home if something happened.” Lola also just made it back home to Spain, putting a sudden end to a fellowship in the United States that she had barely started after having worked very hard to obtain and organize it. “The decision of going back to Spain was hard, at the beginning not even the Spanish government was clear about what we should do. My idea was to stay there and be careful. But finally, the Spanish embassy claimed that all Spanish under visas should come back to Spain before the cut off of all communications between the countries.”
Some of us are lucky enough to have funding sources that do allow us more freedom. Kirsty, a postdoc on a Swedish fellowship, was abruptly forced to shorten her fieldwork in Tasmania, and chose to return to her parents’ house in Scotland. She writes that she is very grateful for the flexibility her independent fellowship allows her: “Although it's inconvenient to my plans, I'm glad to have been able to come home and wait it out with my family […] and I'm very sympathetic to others whose work has been more impacted”. I share this sentiment as I was lucky enough to have finished the lab work for my own project, and my funding agency and advisor were fine with me working from home, away from my host country, until things go back to normal.
Better prepared for self-isolation
Patricia, a postdoc from Slovakia currently working in Denmark, highlights that some international postdocs might be better psychologically prepared for the current social distancing policy than others. “We are used to mostly talking to our families via chat or video conference calls, having friends spread out throughout the world, and being alone a lot until we build up a new network in yet another country. […] We might thus better cope with the idea of physical distancing and home office.” Julia, a Canadian postdoc in South Africa, adds that “we have the ability to work from home, we have reliable known salaries, flexibility to remain productive in our careers by adjusting the tasks we are working on, and those of us who have access to the internet can contact our friends and family abroad with ease.”
However, staying up to date with local official communications might be very challenging, particularly in a foreign language. Emma, a British postdoc in Norway, writes that the government “sent out a text message about the lockdown to registered numbers,” but she did not receive it, and instead had to research and translate the relevant information the best she could on her own. Simply even being aware of what sources of news to use in a foreign country can be challenging, and colleagues can be of great help in these cases. Will also says that it was really difficult to “get an accurate picture of what was happening in [his] host country, Japan.” Will and Emma also share worries about getting sick in a foreign country with Matt, a Swiss postdoc in the United States: “Not knowing the healthcare system here and having heard lots of horror stories about it, I don't know what to expect, even if I'm covered through [my institution], as opposed to Switzerland, where I know the system well and I trust it.”
Many postdocs may be in the very unfortunate situation of reaching the end of their fixed-term contract in an environment of great uncertainty about future job opportunities. (For more information see our article on The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Academic Job Search, above). The end of a contract for an international postdoc might unfortunately also mean the end of a visa, which often necessitates going back home to be renewed. Hugo, a French postdoc currently in the United States, is at the end of his current employment and is worried both about the financial burden of being stranded in a foreign country without salary and the risk of losing healthcare coverage altogether. He had another contract lined up in yet another foreign country that has now closed its borders, meaning that he would still need to go back home to get a new visa first.
Hugo, Karl, Will, Lilli, and Lola all worry about the potential negative consequences their decreased productivity could have on future job prospects in an already very competitive environment, as well as the hiring freezes already being announced. What will the job market look like after this? These thoughts are shared by Laura, an American postdoc currently on her own funding for postdoctoral research in Australia: “Some universities have given all graduate students an additional six months of stipend because of COVID-19, but my university has not done that, and as far as I know, no one has done something similar for us fixed-term folks that are no longer students.”
Let’s give ourselves a break
Eryn, a Canadian postdoc in Scotland, adds: “Even when I have time for science, I don’t have the mindset for it. I don’t think that this is unique to being a postdoc; I expect that this is the experience of anyone who is living away from family. I imagine that this would include people living just up the road from family, but separated by social distancing.” Patricia reminds us to be kind to ourselves: “I believe we all have to give ourselves a break, not feel under pressure to deliver results, and understand that we are all adjusting.”
Many of us have experienced a sudden increase in (online) contact with both friends and family, and even with lab members. It will be important to check in on everybody around us, particularly on students and postdocs that are new to the area and did not make it back home, as well as those that live alone at the moment and might be experiencing additional difficulties with this forced isolation. As Julia reminds us: “everyone deserves our kindness and compassion at this trying time.”
I would like to thank all postdocs that shared their stories with me and encourage anyone reading this to contact me if you need to share your questions and worries with a fellow international postdoc. As Kirsty highlights it, “the postdoc community online has been an incredible support. We will get through this together!”
Murielle Ålund, PhD, is a Swiss National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University, and associate editor at The POSTDOCket. You can reach out to her on twitter: @MurielleAlund.
Helping Postdoctoral Scholars Navigate Precarious Times
By Robin Brooks
Let us first acknowledge that, in most cases, being a postdoctoral scholar means being both in a place of transition and of vulnerability. A postdoctoral position is an in-between stage where former doctoral students have newly emerged with their doctorates in hand and are now in pursuit of a more long-term job whether in the academy, industry or elsewhere. In the wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, some postdocs are feeling even more vulnerable during this transitory period of their lives.
Universities and other institutions across the world are facing unprecedented circumstances and changing the way they initially set out to operate at the beginning of the academic year, which is significantly impacting the plans of postdocs and those around them. Whether it is the course they were teaching this semester, the lab they were helping run, or the projects on which they were working, postdocs have to reassess their strategies for achieving their immediate and long-term goals. To assist them with this endeavor and to help them cope with their new realities, here are some matters they may want to consider.
Develop a Plan
First, it is crucial for postdocs, but also PDOs and PDAs, to determine their changing needs and responsibilities in terms of their professional and personal lives so that they can develop an intentional plan to fulfill goals in these areas. This can simply be a revision of the yearly or semesterly plan that may have been made months ago. It is fine if all of the details are not clear or apparent just yet, and is likely to be expected given the unanticipated conditions we currently see in our environments. The key is to be realistic as postdocs determine what they must do versus what they would like to do, and to work towards achieving practical solutions.
Reach Out to Academic Units
Once postdocs have a clearer idea of existing and potentially-needed adjustments, they should reach out to official entities in the institute with which they are directly connected. The department, center, institute, or program in which postdocs are assigned is the first line of defense for mitigating any interruptions if postdocs find that their lives are interrupted beyond what they can handle personally. Many people’s lives are undergoing changes, so it may help to remember that there is no reason to be bashful or embarrassed right now about needs—no matter how out of the ordinary they may seem.
Postdocs should let the appropriate authorities know of their circumstances (including if they suspect that they or someone in their household has COVID-19) and then ask for what they need. It is important to reach out to their academic units even if they think resources may not be available for their personal situations because a lot of policies and procedures are changing; in fact, there are simply no protocols in place for certain pandemic conditions.
Look Beyond the Home Discipline
Additionally, postdocs should look beyond their home discipline units for further assistance if they need it. A vital contact to make is with their university’s office of postdoctoral affairs (or an equivalent) and/or the university’s PDA if it has one. Even before the onslaught of the novel coronavirus, a number of universities have had dedicated people with a variety of titles (dean and director of postdoctoral affairs, associate/assistant dean of postdoctoral affairs and initiatives, associate dean for research, vice chancellor for research, etc.) to support postdocs navigating this transitory phase of their careers.
To aid them in achieving their goals, postdocs can seek out these offices and the key point people to learn what resources are available, including newly created resources such as COVID-19 funds that many universities and alumni associations set up to assist university members impacted by the pandemic. Furthermore, these offices may know of community organizations offering relief resources, such as food and toiletries, and may be able to offer additional information on existing benefits such as waived co-pays.
Network Far and Wide
While many conferences across disciplines are canceled, postdocs also should remember to continue networking—an important tool in their arsenal. While conferences are ideal sites for networking with like-minded colleagues and prospective employers, networking extends beyond such gatherings. Brainstorming with others (both other postdocs and current or potential employers) to figure out ways to navigate current circumstances and advance their career plans is crucial for every postdoc, now more than ever.
Professional needs will vary by field, and different fields are likely to respond to the ramifications of the pandemic in a variety of ways. If postdocs do not have one already, now is a good time to establish a mentoring network with an array of people in their fields, which can include colleagues who are an arm’s length (or, better yet, six feet) away. They should not forget about their past faculty mentors who are still willing to help them, but they should aim to cultivate new relationships even during this pandemic.
Postdocs can forge and reforge relationships via email, phone, and video conferencing. Many seasoned scholars are sympathetic to the hardships of emerging professionals and are open to assisting them. Postdocs can identify such willing mentors by taking note of those offering talks/lecture series for postdocs, free webinars, career coaching sessions, and advice columns. If they can splurge, postdocs can hire professional academic and life coaches or obtain a membership to organizations that can support them in maintaining productivity on a variety of fronts like Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity.
Most importantly, postdocs should be compassionate and gentle with themselves. Making sure they are mindful of their health (physical, mental, spiritual, etc.) and recognizing that what is best for their personal situation may look different from what is best for others are important matters to remember. Even though they are in territory unchartered by past postdocs, they do not have to throw up their hands in defeat. Instead, they can maintain their overall research agenda and make progress towards their goals, even as they make multiple revisions or modifications to their plans and temporarily adjust or lower their standards.
Having a plan to tweak can allow a postdoc to focus on steps to take and goals that can be achieved, resulting in a better outcome than having no plan at all. Rather than focusing on lost opportunity, be creative and look for opportunities that this pandemic is opening up, including new research and grant projects. In the midst of remote teaching and remote operating altogether in many regards, postdocs still can win.
Robin Brooks, PhD, is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and a 2019-2020 Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellow.
A Bulging System and a Blurry Vision of the Near Future
By Aaron Reifler
New guidelines and regulations have come down from our universities, state, and federal governments to shut down in-person work and begin physical-distancing for an unknown duration. In addition to the emotional turmoil amplified by the distance from home and loved ones, many postdoctoral scholars are facing choices between safety and major interruptions in experiments. And the question hangs in the air, “What does it mean to be essential?”
It is challenging to create a blanket description for the role and impact of the postdoctoral community, especially when the position is obscure, has been marginalized, and undefined for so long. However, postdocs are a critical part of the academic research system, just as lecturers and teachers are a critical part of the system of academic instruction.
Individual postdoc contributions measured at different levels
At the highest level, when tallying up major contributions to new research, publications in high-impact journals are dominated by postdocs holding authorship; at the institutional level, a great deal of work in the research space is taken on by postdocs in the form of ideas and data that turn into grant dollars; at the local level, postdocs contribute to guiding and mentoring students in research, contributing to the academic experience that makes the University successful. During normal times, postdocs are everywhere in scholarship, keeping things running smoothly and holding things together.
These are not normal times.
Our system is currently stressed in a way that most of us have never experienced
My studies as a postdoc were on retinal circuitry and structure. Normally, retinas are beautifully layered and predictable, even as they are complex and diverse at the individual cellular level. Yet they work together like a symphony. The cells in the neural retina are supported by nutrients from the choroid delivered by a thin layer of epithelial (surface) cells. When the body faces certain kinds of stress, the choroid can exert more pressure than the retina can withstand, and the retina can buckle and bulge creating a Central Serous Chorioretinopathy (CSC; Figure 1). The cells’ connections and individual functions are intact, but the vision becomes warped and distorted.
A blurry view of the future
Structures are still in place, and our wonderful, diverse, individual components are still functioning, but the picture is warped due to the immense stress on the system. Certain things are not possible during this time. Even connections and interactions are stretched and tested. Unlike CSC, for which there is no current treatment available, institutions are working to create solutions and ways to “un-warp” our current scene. While we each must determine what parts of our work are “essential” and weigh risks to ourselves and others by choosing what work to continue, we should keep connected through our technologies, believe that the landscape will flatten out, and the broad array of curiosity-based research that postdocs do will once again create an improved vision of the natural world.
My call to action is to encourage everyone to find resources online and social networks to encourage and help one another. We are all losing valuable time to do the work we had planned, but we still have that time, and we need to find creative ways to grow and continue moving scholarship forward.
Aaron Reifler, PhD, is director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Michigan State University.
COVID-19 in the POSTDOCket Community: Your Words.
By Our Postdoc Community
As this global health crisis sweeps the nation and the world, The POSTDOCket would like to take a few moments to record and share the reactions of our members, collected below. Light editing was done to remove personal information and for clarity or grammar. Some speak of hope and some of pain, some of determination and some of dismay. Some are inspiring and some inspire us to action. We are choosing to share all of them as a way of embracing our postdoctoral community and the diversity of effects the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our community and our struggle to rise up and meet this unexpected challenge. Please be kind to each other as we move through this time.
My name is Maor Farid, PhD, and I'm a Fulbright and ISEF postdoctoral fellow at MIT. I'm the founder and CEO of Learn to Succeed, a nonprofit organization for empowering youth at risk, both Jews and Arabs, in the Israeli periphery, and the director of Science Abroad―the center for Israeli scientists at MIT.
Three weeks ago, after several Israeli undergrads at MIT contacted me regarding their housing issues at the MIT dorms, I initiated the project "Adopt a Student," which offers immediate assistance in housing, storage, and food issues by a network of more than 150 volunteers in the Israeli and Jewish community in the Greater Boston area who are eager to help in any way possible to any student and person in need, as covered on Haaretz Journal ( English version).
As a former Captain in the elite Unit 8200 in the Israeli army, I was one of the initiators of "Beating the Coronavirus Hackathon" which was a collaboration between Unit 8200, MIT, Science-Abroad, and Taglit program. The Hackathon aimed to give technological solutions for the COVID19. It was great fun and a major success with more than 100 participants and 40 remarkable solutions!
Our neuroimmunology and behavior lab was put on a skeleton crew to keep an eye on breeding animals and pup litters with all chronic experiments postponed indefinitely as of Monday, March 16, 2020. I had to forego doing a preliminary behavior experiment for my NIH fellowship grant due in April. Right now, my major time is taken up with grant writing but I'm also working on a manuscript. My mentor has been exceptionally supportive of using this time as an opportunity to read, plan, and write.
This pandemic came right in the moment we were planning final experiments in our lab for a manuscript currently under review. With basic research activities having been ordered to pause at our university, we are stuck and have little chance to move on in the publication process. Working remotely is simply not a good option for many researchers who depend on bench work to obtain new results.
We were doing sea urchin experiments on the island before the COVID-19 virus started to explode. Due to the increasingly serious situation, our university has to shut down all non-essential on-going experiments so we have to stop everything and sample all the cultures although we know those samples are useless. What became useless as well is our almost-one-month time and efforts on the island. Instead, we have to work from home and wait for the sea urchin season to pass by without doing anything. What a pity!
Our institution completely failed to coordinate and communicate in an organized fashion. At first, leadership, including some PIs, tried to ignore this completely and downplayed the likelihood of shutting down and the need for contingency planning. Then, over a weekend, the decision was made unilaterally to limit animal services, cull animals, and force labs to take on additional animal husbandry duties. This resulted in postdocs having to shut down and disrupt experimental plans at the last second while taking on new, uncompensated duties. I get the impression that no one in a leadership position is making rational decisions.
I have been fortunate that most of my lab work is done. So working from home has not put a stop on my research. However, the first week of transition was hard and I saw a decline in my productivity. This week onward, research seems to get back on track. I am looking forward to analyzing data and working on my manuscripts. And thanks to Zoom, I can still be connected with my colleagues and see how they are doing.
I was working on an industry project and everything was going fine. The project was on camera development and building a prototype. But now my PI thinks my work is done and the project can be handed over to someone else.I feel like a cow after milk is done then sell it to the slaughterhouse. During this pandemic, PI fired me and now I can’t even go back home.
Most research labs are closing down except for essential work performed by rationing time.
Given the situation right now, a postdoc being away from the benchtop may have brighter ideas on return. Clearly, there is more time to read papers selfishly. Even if completion of the project is a couple of years away, this break will grant quality time to confront what is known and what one has done that’s truly new. It will force us to think about our work at a deep level that is difficult to achieve otherwise. There is always a lack of effort expended on data analysis, relative to the efforts put into physically performing the experiment.
On the contrary, biomedical research is as dependent on interpersonal relationships as any other human endeavor, and probably more than most, since progress is so dependent today on collaboration. The suspension of regular lab routines now may affect organic interpersonal interactions that may be productive. We need to find a way to nurture them during this time.
“How are you holding up?” – A daily inquiry from my PI. Until a few weeks ago, my actions centered on one goal: publish. Publish and share results with the community. Publish to be a better candidate for a K99. Publish to justify the last three years of long days and weekends in the lab. When COVID-19 took me off the bench and halted my ongoing studies, these priorities fell apart. Today, I heard that NIH will be flexible with fellowship extensions and career development award eligibility. But it’s difficult to feel relieved when my friends, family and neighbors are losing their livelihoods.
My research is focused on highly pathogenic human viruses with pandemic potential such as Ebola, Influenza... We aim to look for antivirals and antibody cocktails to fight them. Even for us the impact and magnitude of this pandemic is far beyond what we could have ever predicted. We have turned our research to study SARS-CoV-2 to come up with treatments that can help to save lives, there is no bigger motivation to go to the lab than this. Also, the fact that the labs around us are empty reminds me every minute what we are living and why what we are doing is important.
Thank you and stay safe
My COVID-19 experience has been fraught with uncertainty. When I compare myself to friends and family in other careers, I count myself among the fortunate: I am young, so I am unlikely to experience severe symptoms from COVID-19 if I do get it. I am a virologist, so I am armed with knowledge on how to protect myself and my loved ones. I have a flexible job, so I am not one of the 3.3 million people currently applying for unemployment in the United States. Yet despite these fortunate circumstances, I am filled with stress and frustration at my current situation. My university is closed to all non-essential researchers for the foreseeable future. I am in year three of my postdoc. My institution expects postdocs to advance within five years. I planned to apply for a K award this year and for a tenure-track faculty position the following year. In the spring of 2020, I planned to add a handful of experiments to my existing manuscript with the hope that it would be first seen by reviewers as rigorous, mechanistic, and compelling. Now, I rest atop an unclear story as my PI pressures me to submit. I cannot deny her logic: I need this publication to be competitive. Physicist Albert-László Barabási wrote, “Time is our most valuable non-renewable resource.” What will happen if I run out of time?
I'm a postdoc from the School of Medicine, Stanford. I am working with my previous colleague to predict the compounds that could bind to the ACE2 receptor, a critical receptor for the COVID-19 infection. Based on the molecular docking methods and literature, we identified several compounds that show potential for preventing COVID-19. We published our preprint and it gained a lot of attention, with almost 10,000 downloads and a lot of inquiries from the readers. We are now working on screening and testing the effects of compounds by collabora
Here is the link of our preprint: https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202001.0358/v3
As a computational chemist, accessing resources remotely does not hinder my ability to continue my projects besides the request to help colleagues who work in wet labs run some calculations to support the papers they are writing during shelter-in-place. However, the hardest part of this experience is probably the lack of daily interactions with co-workers, from the good mornings and lunch breaks to the occasional breaks for small talk. Makes one in isolation go a little stir-crazy. Work is work, but the smaller things in the day-to-day routine really help shape this whole experience.
Coming from a lower socioeconomic tier of a developing country, there was no home for me after I left home to pursue education at the age of 15. Since then, the studying/working space of a lab has always been where I thrived. I never knew how to study/work from home, because I didn’t have one. I chose the cheapest possible accommodation after I came here to the United States for my postdoc, as all I needed was a place to rest. It never gave me a feel of home nor had the necessary amenities/environment to work. It’s a pandemic now, and I am supposed to work from home, in a home I don’t have.
I am a postdoc working in the field of neuroscience research, focusing on Parkinson's disease. Thank you and all your NPA team for safeguarding our interests and providing platforms like this to share our experiences
Due to social distancing laws, our campus has shut down all research activities except for essential animal care to sustain genetic lines.
My university reduced activities weeks before the state issued a shelter in place order, which means that only essential personnel can work in the lab. This has widely reduced the productivity of the lab because only two people can work at the same time and they need to be six-feet apart. During this outbreak, I had to adapt and make the best of my time at home. Now, I have plenty of time in silence and without distractions, which allowed me to take the time to read literature, finish writing manuscripts, and review articles.
Stay Safe; Stay Well
Thankfully, our passport, along with the renewed visa stamp, came back in time. Unfortunately, the flight got canceled due to travel restrictions, and our return to the postdoctoral laboratory, which is currently ramped down, is completely uncertain. During difficult times, should we be happy that we are with our families who need us? Or should we take the risk of traveling with our five-year-old to get back to the States? Just like us, will our experimental organisms make it through this crisis? To our relief, thoughtful and reassuring words by our advisor: ‘Be safe and healthy. We will happily welcome you when you return.’
Share your stories with The POSTDOCket!
As we unite in worldwide efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, The POSTDOCket would like to hear your stories of how COVID-19 has impacted your research, your lab life, and your postdoctoral experience. In an effort to document the ongoing impact of this virus on research, on grant applications and visa renewals, on lab culture and the postdoctoral experience for all postdocs, on the efforts of PDAs and PDOs in this time, we will be compiling articles in The POSTDOCket to share with the community and with posterity our experience of this worldwide pandemic. EVERY MEMBER matters, and together we are strong!
Please contact The POSTDOCket editor in chief, with the subject line “COVID” to share your story. Thank you in advance for your help!
The POSTDOCket welcomes a variety of content and viewpoints from our members beyond that specifically related to COVID-19. So, please contact us with your story ideas!
Thank you to new and renewing Sustaining Members of the NPA!
Sustaining Members are a vital part of the NPA. Sustaining Members represent a range of professional societies, postdoc associations, postdoc offices, and other organizations that serve the postdoctoral community. Students, postdocs, faculty, and staff at NPA Sustaining Member institutions are eligible to join the NPA, at no cost, as Affiliate Members. Check to see if your institution is an NPA Sustaining Member.
Welcome to the NPA!
Thank you renewed members for your continued support!
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!
Thank you to our associate editors for this special issue!