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What you need to know to get back to the lab amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Managing expectations will be key, says Jen Heemstra

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
June 16, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 24


Illustration of a woman in a lab wearing a mask.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Safety will be a priority.

Lights are coming back on and experiments are returning to life. After months of being shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, research activity is ramping up again in labs across the country and around the globe. As we feel the excitement of heading back to the work that motivates us and is critical to our career progress, it is also important to recognize that we are returning to a “new normal” that will require different ways of working and managing our time and projects. As we all adapt to this new normal, we can benefit from practicing a different type of management: expectation management.

Managing your own expectations. If you’re a grad student or a postdoc scholar, as excited as you may be to get back to the lab, it’s important to recognize that you have been away for several months. This means that you will need time to get samples and reagents back in order or to revive cell lines or other biological experiments before you can go about your work as efficiently as before the shutdown. There is also the reality that time away from any activity causes your muscle memory to fade. I took 4 months off to travel the country before starting my postdoc, and I vividly recall standing at my hood in confusion as my brain knew what needed to be done to perform a liquid-liquid extraction, yet my hands had inexplicably forgotten how to operate a separatory funnel.

On top of the challenges of readapting to research activities, it is likely that you will be wearing a mask, planning your movements in order to stay 6 ft. away from anyone else in the lab, and trying to fit all of your experiments into a rigidly defined shift schedule. Recognize that until you adjust to these changes, each of these things will require a significant cognitive load. So be kind to yourself if it feels more difficult than before to focus on your work. Finally, it’s important to manage your expectations on how long this new normal might last. While there were signs that the shutdown would likely last for a few months, the working conditions that we are under right now could remain in place until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, and that could be a while.

While none of this is ideal, there are still opportunities for each of us to gain valuable skills that we can carry forward. For example, the rigorous protocols around use of personal protective equipment and cleaning our labs and office spaces are likely to lead to a better overall safety culture moving forward. Also, being constrained to a shortened shift is likely to force us to learn better time management skills, which will be beneficial throughout our careers. Above all, I hope that we each learn to recognize that there are times when it is just not possible to operate at full capacity.

Managing your adviser’s expectations. Your adviser almost certainly shares your excitement about being able to go back to the lab. Perhaps even a little too much so. Hopefully your adviser recognizes the limitations outlined above and has adjusted expectations accordingly. However, there may be challenges that they are not aware of and you may find some of the responsibility for managing their expectations falling to you. As you approach this task, frequent and clear communication is critical.

There are two categories of challenges here: things that your adviser might be able to address and things that they likely can’t. It may be that the shift schedule prevents you from being able to set up experiments and then return to them at the time points that you need in order to gather data or stop a reaction. By discussing this with your adviser, you might be able to work together to adjust your schedule so that you can access the lab before or after normal hours (with a buddy so that you never work alone!), and thus able to carry out these experiments properly. You may also have situations that are more challenging to address. As most schools, day cares, and day camps remain shut down, you may be responsible for caring for your children for a significant portion of the day. This will likely be exacerbated if you are a single parent or have a partner in an essential job such as health care. While your adviser may not be able to solve your child-care challenge, communication can help you set reasonable goals for research progress given the circumstances.

Faculty, we also have a huge role to play here. Not only are we responsible for ensuring the safety of each member of our research group and supporting their well-being as we return to the lab, but we have the responsibility to listen, understand, and communicate with clarity about our expectations. Doing so can be a powerful way to reduce stress, and we could all benefit from that right now.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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