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Grad School: The Pandemic Year

How a year of shutdowns and Zoom meetings has shaped the research and lives of the college’s next generation of scientists
10 November 2021

In research, the unexpected is to be expected. Even the most thoughtfully planned experiments can have surprising outcomes. So, five years into my doctoral research on virus evolution under the guidance of Penn State virologist Moriah Szpara, I figured I was prepared for anything. For my dissertation, I analyze data tracking virus mutations that occur within genital herpes infections. I had carefully written my research proposal, and even when the data came out differently than I had planned, it was exciting to be learning something new. The unexpected shutdowns and isolation of the pandemic, however, brought a less welcome turn of events. Before long, I found myself one of many graduate students perplexed as to how they would keep moving their research and lives forward. This was a type of uncertainty that I was not accustomed to, and like the virus I study, I had to learn to adapt.

Just Keep Moving

Rathbun sits on camp chair with laptop with dog in car behind her
Molly Rathbun running bioinformatics analysis for her research at a trailhead in North Carolina. Image provided.

Fortunately, my computationally intensive research and supportive advisor had privileged me with an abnormally flexible schedule for a STEM graduate student. Even before the pandemic, I was able to work from home as needed. I could even preset automated bioinformatics code to operate while I would head out to run on the trails in Rothrock State Forest.

For me, the stationary nature of working from home during the pandemic created a major challenge to staying productive. Just as in running, I’m more productive when I’m on the move. I realized that to adapt, I’d have to reorganize my days and find new locations to work. I started analyzing virus genome sequences and writing papers from various parks and trailheads. I enjoyed this new lifestyle so much that I decided to take my mobile research routine on the road and explore more places, like the southern pines of North Carolina.

As I continued on, I became curious about how my peers were adapting to working from home during the pandemic. Hearing their stories, I realized there is no single right way to adapt. Our experiences have all been different and depend on what works best for each of us.

Finding Perspective

Bonnel at lion shrine holding plush mosquito
Victoria Bonnell holding a crochet mosquito. Image provided.

Victoria Bonnell is a graduate student in the Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) program, working with molecular parasitologist Manuel Llinás. She studies the life cycle of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for causing malaria.

“The clinical symptoms of the disease occur when the parasite is in the blood stage of development,” explained Bonnell. “There are many biochemical factors influencing how the parasite regulates itself, and I study how these factors work together to cause disease.”

Bonnell’s research requires maintaining live parasites inside blood cells in the lab as well as hands-on experiments on a precise schedule. But once campus labs were shutdown, the sudden extraction from her experiments and parasites left Bonnell with a monotonous routine of constant blue-lit screens and Zoom calls. Bonnell stressed the importance of keeping to a schedule to manage at the start of remote work.

“I’d wake up at the same time and dress as if going to lab,” she said. “But this was not a normal situation whatsoever, and it is hard to focus in a small apartment when your partner is constantly on the phone for work in the background.”

Bonnell decided to brush up on her coding skills to enhance her data analysis. She was surprised with how much data she had accumulated.

“Before the pandemic I was constantly in lab, and I measured productivity by the experiments I completed and those that failed,” she said. “My approach to science has really changed across the pandemic, and I spend a lot more time now thinking about what my data reveals.”

Bonnell brought this new perspective with her once she was back in lab. As she returns to her experiments, she is also writing a first-author manuscript, a major graduate school milestone. For Bonnell, working from home offered a chance to reflect and see the bigger picture.

Building New Alliances

Stewart, wearing gloves, at table with coral sample
Julia Stewart subsampling a diseased coral colony at the National Marine Sanctuaries office in Key West, Florida. Credit: NOAA

One of the major challenges during the pandemic has been finding the time and means to share science between labs. Sharing our findings is what moves science forward, and as biology graduate student Julia Stewart learned, sometimes the best scientific progress comes from “focusing on what we can do together.”

Stewart conducts her research under the guidance of biologist Mónica Medina, studying the relationship between coral species and their associated microbes. Before the pandemic started, she was working offsite at a National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) laboratory in South Carolina, investigating a mysterious disease that causes tissue decay in over 20 coral species. The disease, called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), is spreading unusually fast and has left behind countless graveyards of coral skeletons since its initial discovery off the coast of eastern Florida four years ago.

“We're comparing healthy and sick corals to identify the chemical toxins that cause the disease,” said Stewart. “If we can trace the toxins back to specific pathogens, then we could potentially design a treatment strategy.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic forced NIST to shut down its labs to visiting scientists like Stewart, so she packed up her samples and returned home. While she began working on other projects, SCTLD continued to spread, reaching as far south as the massive reefs of the Bahamas.

Despite the disappointment of halting her research, Stewart found reassurance in the emergence of an international coral reef rescue effort to manage the spread of SCTLD.

“Not only are researchers fighting against time to understand this disease, but rescue teams are going into the water to collect healthy corals and put them into aquariums across the country,” she said.

This sort of collective merge of expertise across research labs, museums, and aquariums is innovative for the coral disease community. They meet via Zoom, which provided Stewart with new connections to scientific collaborators. The rescue effort has brought Stewart a sense of hope that when we put our minds together, we can accomplish great things.

Carrying On

The pandemic has brought many lessons on how to adapt to the unpredictable. We can’t always anticipate these challenges, and hearing the variety of experiences from my peers led me to appreciate that how we work best and overcome obstacles is specific to every person. Working from home during the pandemic wasn’t always easy, and the isolation required each of us to find our own way forward. As we welcome a new normal, perhaps we will remember that our unique circumstances and individuality can be our greatest strengths.