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Chemistry faculty cope with coronavirus shutdowns

With university labs shuttered by COVID-19, chemistry faculty are getting a crash course in how to stay productive

by Laura Howes , Linda Wang
April 6, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 13


Over the past several months, life has changed radically for chemistry faculty around the world. As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread from country to country, university shutdowns have followed. Faculty quickly shuttered their labs and transitioned to remote teaching. Social distancing and videoconferencing became the norm. And everyone was left wondering how these shutdowns would affect their lives and careers.

C&EN spoke with chemistry professors from China, Italy, South Korea, Spain, and the US—places at different stages of the pandemic—about how they are navigating this new normal. Despite the geographic differences, their experiences are remarkably similar: all mourned the loss of control but learned new ways to stay productive and ultimately gained a new perspective on work-life balance.

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Shifting gears

When Wuhan, China, went into lockdown on Jan. 23 to help contain the coronavirus, chemistry professor Wenbo Liu of Wuhan University found himself stranded with his family in Sanya, China, where they had traveled to visit friends during the Spring Festival (Lunar New Year) holiday. Right before they were supposed to fly home, Liu’s daughter came down with a cold, so the family was not permitted to travel. Instead, Liu, his wife, and their two children had to check into a hotel. They ended up staying there for more than 2 months.

This is a photo of Wenbo Liu.
Credit: Courtesy of Wenbo Liu
Wenbo Liu of Wuhan University works outside the hotel in Sanya, where he and his family stayed for more than two months after Wuhan closed it borders and they were not permitted to fly back.

Initially at a loss for how to stay productive without so much as his work laptop, Liu quickly adapted to his situation. He purchased a new laptop and began teaching an undergraduate organic chemistry course remotely using the online education platform Tencent Classroom and the messaging app WeChat.

Meanwhile, back in Wuhan, chemistry professor Tingjuan Gao of Central China Normal University also had to quickly shift gears. With her students still back in their hometowns, she had to figure out how to move her undergraduate- and graduate-level courses to a virtual platform, such as Tencent, and find ways to continue her research.

This is a photo of Tingjuan Gao.
Credit: Courtesy of Tingjuan Gao
Tingjuan Gao of Central China Normal University in Wuhan had to quickly transition to working from home.

Even though she was no longer able to go to her lab and do any experiments, Gao continued to plan them out in her head. “I think about step 1, 2, 3, 4 and think as thoroughly as possible to prepare for any problems that can happen,” she says. Gao even found time to finish some papers she had been planning to write. “I actually submitted two manuscripts,” she says.

In contrast to the response in Wuhan, when the virus spread to South Korea in early February, universities remained open but began enforcing strict rules. Sungkyunkwan University chemical engineering professor Yung Doug Suh says that undergraduates were not permitted to return to campus after their winter break and that faculty, graduate students, and postdocs are now required to take their temperature before entering buildings. They also have to wear face masks at all times, and people are discouraged from talking to one another face to face. “If they really have to talk to each other, they will try to be distant from each other or consider using a phone even though they are in the same laboratory,” says Suh, who is also a group leader at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology.

This is a photo of disposible gloves at an academic institution in South Korea.
Credit: Courtesy of Yung Doug Suh
In South Korea, universities and institutions are taking extra precautions, emphasizing the use of safety gear.

Fast-forward just over a month, and University of Washington chemistry professor Julie A. Kovacs is in disbelief over how quickly life has changed. “I wake up in the morning with this blissful ignorance, and I forget what’s happening,” she says. “And then all of a sudden it’ll hit me like a ton of bricks.”

This is a photo of Julie Kovacs.
Credit: Courtesy of Julie Kovacs
Julie Kovacs at the University of Washington engages with her students through video meetings.
I wake up in the morning with this blissful ignorance, and I forget what’s happening. And then all of a sudden it’ll hit me like a ton of bricks.
Julie A. Kovacs, chemistry professor, University of Washington

On March 6–7, the University of Washington was hosting its graduate program recruitment weekend for admitted applicants to meet faculty and current graduate students. One-on-one meetings proceeded, but the planned dinners and poster sessions were canceled, and the situation quickly escalated from there. A few days later, Kovacs was convening her students to let everyone know they would be moving to virtual teaching, forcing Kovacs and her teaching assistant to get creative with how they taught a lab course. They decided to record themselves doing the experiments and engage with students through video lessons with the videoconferencing tool Zoom. “I’m figuring things out on the fly,” she says. “I think I’ve been working more than ever because of this.”

Undergraduate teaching at the University of Alicante in Spain has been suspended since March 16. “It was a very, very sad moment when I told my students ‘Go home; be safe,’ ” admits Javier García Martínez, a professor of inorganic chemistry at the university. “I was not prepared for that.” García Martínez, who is a member of C&EN’s advisory board, shut down his research lab on March 16 as well. He says the university is moving to online teaching, and there are already discussions about delaying the end of the semester to compensate for the disruptions. But “there is a limit of how much you can do online,” especially for practical labs, he says.

This is a photo of donations of safety gloves, masks, and alcohol.
Credit: Courtesy of Javier Garcia Martinez
Before Javier García Martínez shut down his lab, his team collected over 5,000 safety gloves and masks and 50 L of alcohol and donated them to local hospitals.

Meanwhile, Emilio Palomares, a chemistry professor at the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia, has been working from his apartment for over 2 weeks and is settling into a routine, which includes training for his next Ironman competition, a long-distance triathlon, as long as it doesn’t get canceled. “Ironman training is difficult when you can’t leave the house,” Palomares admits, but he is trying to fit in cycling training in his apartment when he can. And otherwise, he says, he has more time to focus on tasks he otherwise struggles to find time for. “I now have more time to write proposals, to think about the new topics, to try to be on time for the reviews for journals,” he says. “That’s something for sure editors will be happy with.”

Staying productive

One of the biggest hurdles Gao had to overcome when she began working from home in Wuhan was learning to juggle her role as a professor and as a mom to two kids, ages 6 and 9, who were home because schools around the city had closed. “We have kids to take care of; we have to feed them and take care of their schoolwork,” she says. “We have to manage all of these things.”

Suddenly sharing your work space with small children can make things a challenge, says Neel H. Shah, a chemistry professor at Columbia University. “I have a newborn child and a toddler,” he says. “I think it’s great to spend so much time with your kids, but they require a lot of attention. I’m still trying to figure out how I can squeeze in an hour or two of work in a day.”

When C&EN spoke with Shah, Columbia had been shut down for only about a week, and Shah stressed that he was not expecting his students to immediately be as productive as they were before the shutdown. Shah says the goal for his PhD students right now is to have small things to do and not get overwhelmed. He wants them to prioritize their mental and physical health. “Nobody’s productive right now,” he says, “and I don’t want the students to feel like they have to maintain a level of productivity on par with what it was in the lab.”

In another effort to stay productive, Shah spent the first days of the shutdown collecting gloves and other personal protective equipment from the chemistry, biology, and engineering departments at Columbia University. “The stockroom guys and I drove a van off to the hospital and dropped off a bunch of stuff,” he recalls. “It felt like I had a purpose for 3 days, and it kept me busy. I wasn’t thinking about the lab at all.”

When packing up the lab, García Martínez’s group also collected ethanol, gloves, and masks and donated them to the local hospital. And there are other ways chemists can feel productive, he says. García Martínez, an inorganic chemist, works on zeolites and says that when news of the outbreak first reached him, he did a literature search for zeolites and coronaviruses. “I found that silver and copper ion-exchange zeolites are extremely effective to kill coronaviruses,” he says. “Immediately I asked one of our postdocs to have a side project, and we prepared several grams.” In total, García Martínez’s postdoc made six different zeolites, which he has now offered to authorities for testing as disinfectants.

“We have been trying to be proactive on how we could help, from the simple things, such as donating protection stuff, to producing samples that could be useful in terms of killing the virus,” he says.

Learning new skills

This is a photo of Zhi-Xiang Yu.
Credit: Courtesy of Zhi-Xiang Yu
Zhi-Xiang Yu of Peking University says he has taken this opportunity to read more books.

After his lab shut down at Peking University at the end of January and students were not allowed to return to campus, chemistry professor Zhi-Xiang Yu found himself at home for more than 50 days by the time C&EN caught up with him in mid-March. Instead of dwelling on what he couldn’t do during this time, Yu decided to focus on the positives. “This is a good time for me to learn something new,” he says, noting that he has taken this opportunity to read several books on medicinal chemistry, a field he’s always wanted to learn more about. He plans to take his research in the direction of medicinal chemistry once he gets back to the lab.

Yu says his students are also learning new skills. Communicating with his students through WeChat, he asks them to propose new ideas, such as papers they can review together or literature searches they can conduct. Or he will have his students memorize more organic reactions to improve their synthetic skills. His students are also working with him to write several review papers. “This is a good opportunity for them to reflect on what they have learned and also reflect on what they are going to do with their life,” he says. “I also ask them to listen to English TV programs because I want them to improve their English.”

In Europe, group leaders who are confined to their apartments are also using the opportunity to try out new ways of working. Chemistry professor and C&EN Talented 12 alumna Mónica Pérez-Temprano of the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia has been downloading apps to stay in contact with her group. “Not only for chatting but also for organizing tasks,” she says. The important thing, she emphasizes, is that while she is confined indoors, she can use the time to explore new ways of working that she wouldn’t have time to do during her normal working life.

Columbia’s Shah says his graduate students are also learning new skills, such as compiling data from various sequence databases and trying some bioinformatics analyses. Some projects are suggested by Shah, while others come from the students. The group is also trying two different virtual journal clubs via videoconferencing: one is a more traditional analysis of a scientific paper, and the other is a deep dive into a topic. The great thing about this approach, he says, is that the work is exploratory, which means that it is probably going to fuel further questions for his students. “At some point, it’s going to be something they really want to test at the bench,” he notes. “But for now, we’ll try and see how much of it we can explore just online.”

This is a photo of Maria Laura Bolognesi.
Credit: Courtesy of Maria Laura Bolognesi
Maria Laura Bolognesi is keeping safe in her apartment along with her son, Guglielmo, who took this photo.

University of Bologna chemistry professor Maria Laura Bolognesi says she is currently devoting most of her time to keeping her PhD students positive and motivated via a combination of messaging apps and video calls. But in the coming months, she will focus on how best to teach undergraduates, ideally by combining remote and in-person formats. “We’re learning a lot,” she says. “And this will be very good in terms of internationalization because maybe we can interact better with other countries” and offer teaching to students in different countries.

In Bolognesi’s opinion, it is important to find the good that can come out of the current situation. “These are very hard times,” she says, but Bolognesi hopes that with people working together, science can come out stronger. “We have to trust in humanity as much as we can,” she says.


Moving forward

Shah, who is pretenure, is worried about the impact of a longer shutdown on his research. “I’m still quite optimistic that we’ll get through this, but if this goes beyond May, I think it’s going to be really hard to come back from it in a reasonable amount of time,” he says. “If your lab is shut down for that long, you have to start to wonder when you get back up and running, What did that time delay do to you?”

Others are less concerned about the impact to the lab of a long shutdown. Shu-Li You, a chemistry professor at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, says that before the pandemic, the idea of hitting pause on his research was unthinkable. “I thought, ‘I cannot stop my research; I have to keep things moving.’ But from this coronavirus outbreak, I found that we can stop. It’s OK to stop. Now we have stopped, and we’re still alive. When you have a difficult situation like this, you don’t have much choice.”

I thought, ‘I cannot stop my research, I have to keep things moving.’ But from this coronavirus outbreak, I found that we can stop. It’s OK to stop.
Shu-Li You, chemistry professor, Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry

He had a busy travel schedule lined up this spring. In March, he was supposed to go to the Florida Heterocyclic Conference in Gainesville, Florida, followed by the International Conference on Organometallics and Catalysis in Goa, India. After that, he was supposed to go to Rennes, France, for the International Green Catalysis Symposium, followed by several conferences in China. All his travel plans were canceled, and he suddenly found himself with a lot more time on his hands. “It’s not so bad,” he says. “I finally found time to do some exercise, and I built up more muscles.” He’s also read the literature and talked with his students about ideas. “Everybody can seek out something else they can do during this difficult time,” he says.

What’s more, he has been able to spend more time with his family. “Now my wife and I finally have time to get to know our son better.”

Suh of Sungkyunkwan University says that this experience has made him realize that there’s much more to science than bench work. “Science and research is not only done by data, not only done by the lab work, but sometimes we do need thinking or reading articles or writing manuscripts or preparing the next conference abstract,” he says. “We have tons of things to do at home. My students and postdocs have all become a little more mature because they are getting better at discussions, getting better at reading journals.”

Both Pérez-Temprano and Shah say they hope that this time will make people take a step back and reflect, and that may lead to a global reevaluation of priorities of many things, including academia. “There’s this mentality of being cutthroat and ‘publish or perish,’ ” Shah says. “You want to show that you’re productive, but it doesn’t have to be aggressive.”

“Maybe we can do our best papers if we sit down and write in advance, or if we read more,” Pérez-Temprano suggests. “Who knows? I think that each of us needs to find our way, but my guess is we are going to discover that there are better approaches for doing better science.”


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