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Graduate Education

Grad students tell of the coronavirus’s impact

Delayed postdoc opportunities. Canceled commencement. Graduate students in chemistry describe how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their work and lives

by Linda Wang
April 6, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 13

 

With COVID-19 causing university closures around the world, we wondered how graduate students are holding up. Here are some of their stories, in their own words.

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A disorienting orientation

Aaron Perez, prospective grad student

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Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Perez
Aaron Perez

I finally did it! After 2 years of applying to different chemical engineering graduate programs, I was admitted to a university, and it invited me to attend its on-campus orientation. Little did I know that COVID-19 would impact the entire trip. Before accepting the invitation, I asked the graduate adviser if it was safe to travel to that state. The response I got was “Yes, we don’t have any cases here.” Although I was worried, I decided to pack my bags and travel to the university. I knew from the beginning that this trip would be chaotic. First, my flight was delayed for more than 3 h for additional temperature screenings. Second, several students canceled their visits, and my group decreased from 20 to 6. Third, several professors canceled their lab tours. This was especially disheartening because one of those professors was one that I was most interested in working with. Finally, the university dismissed everybody from campus, including prospective graduate students, leaving us all scrambling to get home safely. Now I am questioning my decision to go to graduate school. So far, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that universities are not prepared for an event like this.

 

Synthesizing hand sanitizer

Andrew Wang, University of Oxford, second year

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Credit: Courtesy of Andrew Wang
Andrew Wang

One strategy to keep COVID-19 at bay is frequent hand washing. When soap and water are not available, people should turn to hand sanitizers. But what do you do when hand sanitizers are in short supply? Fortunately, the World Health Organization (WHO) provides a recipe for making hand sanitizer. Having a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, I knew I could easily whip up a large batch with common reagents and share it with others.

Big bottle of isopropyl alcohol: check. Three percent hydrogen peroxide: check. Glycerol: check. Ultrapure water from lab: check. Glue-applicator bottles from an art store: check. Scents from a soap-making kit: now we’re talking. Precisely mixed with laboratory glassware, my “WHO artisanal” formulation was welcomed warmly by my lab mates and friends alike. Soon after, the campus was shut down, like many others around the UK.

Whether it’s immunology and infectious disease researchers sharing best practices, acquaintances giving masks to those traveling home, or housemates bringing supplies to those in isolation, we chemists are showing that even if we have to be socially distant, our community can still come together to support one another.

 

Learning new skills

Stephanie Smelyansky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first year

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Credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Smelyansky
Stephanie Smelyansky

The past few weeks have felt like a haze, one that’s clouding my mind and making it difficult to concentrate on even the easiest tasks. In the past few weeks, I had to watch my undergraduate students panic about how they’re going to book flights home with little time and little money, or what’s going to happen to their visas if they return to their home countries, all while explaining to them how to do videoconferencing for class. At the same time, I helped my lab mates shut down our lab and said goodbye to friends as we descended into a new regime of social distancing. The most painful part is I have no idea when I’ll see any of these people again in person. Despite everything that’s happening, graduate students are still expected to make headway on research and continue teaching. But I’m a chemist who makes molecules, not Word docs, for a living, so it’s hard to be productive from home. I’m focusing on learning new skills, such as programming and reading up on current literature in my field. I also chat regularly with my adviser and lab mates over Zoom, discussing recent papers or ideas for new projects in the lab. However, it’s incredibly difficult to concentrate on teaching and research when the mental and physical health of my students, friends, and family is at risk. It feels like my life and career have been put on pause, and I’m just treading water while waiting for the world to hit play again.

 

Postdoc dreams deferred

Shreya Ghosh, University of Pittsburgh, fifth year

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Credit: Courtesy of Shreya Ghosh
Shreya Ghosh

After I graduate this summer, I plan to do a postdoc, for which I have been applying since January. I have done a lot of Skype interviews. A few prospective mentors were impressed enough to invite me to their labs to give a talk, check out their facilities, and talk to other lab members. This is an absolutely crucial step, since I will be working in their lab for the next 2–3 years. Now with COVID-19 surging, all those prospective mentors have postponed talks until May (provided things are normal by then). This means I will not have an offer before June. I am an international student on a visa, and I need to have a job offer by the time I graduate, which now could be delayed by a semester. I also need to apply for work authorization and other paperwork. Applying for a postdoc is challenging enough, and COVID-19 has only added to the stress. I have asked my current principal investigator if he could keep me longer as a graduate student in case things don’t work out. He has agreed to it, but that would put a strain on his research funds. This whole situation has thrown my career and future into uncertainty.

 

Staying put

Ngee Kiat “Jake” Chua, University of New South Wales, fourth year

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Credit: Courtesy of Ngee Kiat "Jake" Chua
Ngee Kiat "Jake" Chua

One of my biggest worries during this pandemic is not the virus itself. I fear wearing a mask or even going outside because of xenophobia around the origin of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. What if I’m one of the unlucky ones, getting punched or receiving nasty racist remarks? The infamous case of a beaten-up Singaporean international student in the UK makes me cautious as I walk the streets as a Malaysian Chinese in Australia.

Another worry I have is for my future. I recently got accepted to present my first oral talk in the US and received a travel award to boot, which was exciting! However, the conference was canceled. This conference was a major turning point as I approach the end of my PhD with nine publications. I recognized names in the field, and some of them recognize my work (though I’ve not met them). Furthermore, I was more knowledgeable and competent than when I started grad school. “I’m ready; it’s now or never!” I told myself. I could network for jobs and finally engage with scientists who cite me (whom I happen to idolize). Regrettably, it is the final year I’m eligible for a graduate student travel award to the US, and this would have been my first time talking about my PhD work to an international audience. Although this missed opportunity hit me hard, I’ll have to work out alternatives around the impacts of COVID-19.

 

Study abroad cut short

Barbara Preti, University of Bern, third year

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Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Preti
Barbara Preti

In December 2019, I received an award letter from the Swiss National Science Foundation saying that I had obtained a fellowship to spend one year of my PhD studies at the University of Southern California. I am a chemical biologist, and I have always wanted to study and work in the US. On Feb. 24, I flew to Los Angeles, thinking that I had left just in time, since cases of COVID-19 were beginning to spread in Europe. I started to work in the new lab under the supervision of a very knowledgeable and kind postdoc who was able to teach me a great amount of new techniques in only 1 week. But then COVID-19 began spreading in the US as well, and my supervisor suggested I return to Switzerland. After 10 amazing days in the new lab, from both a scientific and personal point of view, I had to interrupt my stay abroad and fly back to Switzerland. In just a few days, my biggest dream became a nightmare. Now I am working at home, waiting for the day I can pursue my dreams of studying abroad.

 

Defending virtually

Mark Mantell and Lindsay Michocki, University of Michigan, fifth year, engaged to be married

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Credit: Courtesy of Mark Mantell
Mark Mantell
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Credit: Courtesy of Lindsay Michocki
Lindsay Michocki

After carefully planning to have our defenses on the same day so that we could have family and friends easily attend both, we were disappointed to receive the news that the University of Michigan would be switching to remote defenses, forcing our loved ones to cancel their travel plans. We didn’t have much time to linger on the disappointment, though, as our focus shifted to adapting our presentations to be done virtually and working out the technicalities of the remote defense. Each of our defenses was held with just us and our principal investigator in the room, and everyone else was online. Despite how frantic it felt in the lead-up, the defenses themselves went remarkably well—and were free of technical difficulties! Everyone was incredibly kind and willing to adapt, and we still even got to have out-of-town loved ones attend the defenses—just virtually! Despite how odd the circumstances were, the defenses still felt like a major and special accomplishment, complete with our audiences joining us for a remote champagne pop and toast. The closure of all nonessential research was announced during Lindsay’s defense, effectively closing the building. It was a fitting cap to a week that felt completely surreal and still remarkably heartwarming.

 

Commencement ceremony canceled

Isabel D. Colón-Bernal, University of Michigan, recent graduate

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Credit: Courtesy of Isabel Colón-Bernal
Isabel Colón-Bernal

As I’m scrolling on Instagram to unwind from my busy day, I come across a statement from the University of Michigan. The university has decided it is best to cancel all commencement ceremonies. My immediate reaction is, “Oh no, this is what I feared. My parents won’t even get to see me walk.” This breaks my heart because they did not see me defend my PhD dissertation. Commencement would have been the day they would see how all my hard work and moving to the US were worth it—all those years they have missed me, wished I were there next to them at dinner, and all the holidays I missed because I was achieving my dream.

Despite obtaining my PhD in the summer of 2019, I’ve always thought of graduation as the culmination day, this phase of my life coming full circle; it’s a day of celebrating hard work, achieving dreams, and defying the odds. I’m not sure when I created this elaborate depiction of graduations. Is it the cultural influence from growing up in Puerto Rico, where we perceive graduations as an honor and a privilege? Is it the fact that I did great in school and was always highly recognized? Or could it be that they have always served as motivation, end points that I could refer to in hard times?

Commencement would have been the day I could say: “Mami y Papi, I did it!” Now I don’t know when or if the day when I will be hooded will come.

 

Managing depression

Xiaofei “Fay” Lin, University of California, Los Angeles, fourth year

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Credit: Courtesy of Xiaofei "Fay" Lin
Xiaofei "Fay" Lin

I struggle with major depressive disorder, and social distancing for COVID-19 has greatly challenged how I manage my mental health. As a grad student, my research is 100% computational and can easily transition to remote work, but staying isolated at home worsens my depression, and that puts a damper on my productivity.

But I’m realizing that social distancing does not have to mean social isolation. For example, I schedule morning video calls to motivate myself to wake up for a timely start to my day, and video calls throughout my week help me keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues through informal chats and wellness check-ins.

Also, gym closures do not mean it’s game over for physical exercise. I started focusing on my at-home yoga practice and going on runs outside where there’s a scarce amount of people.

Finally, I’m being kind to myself even when research pressure is not. Graduate students have always faced pressure when it comes to research productivity. Much of that pressure remains during COVID-19 in the form of strict deadlines and stigma against “taking breaks” in academia. I remind myself that a global pandemic is not normal, and it’s OK if you’re not productive. While I’ve implemented methods to adjust to social distancing, there are some days when it’s still hard, and I’m just making it through each day. And that’s OK.

 

Starting a new chapter in Wuhan

Bin-Qing He, Central China Normal University, third year

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Credit: Courtesy of Bin-Qing He
Bin-Qing He
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I would never have believed it if someone had told me that a city with the population of nearly 11 million could be shut down within such a short period, but just over 2 months ago, it indeed happened to my beloved hometown of Wuhan. Given the very nature of the coronavirus, extra caution was needed in my daily life: wearing a mask when going out, disinfecting myself when coming back, buying food online.

Besides worrying about the virus and keeping food on the table, keeping my sanity suddenly became a problem. Polishing my thesis, exercising regularly, and listening to music all became indispensable parts of my schedule. Additionally, the virus didn’t stop me from sharing ideas from newly published papers during group meetings using WeChat.

Fortunately, Wuhan’s shutdown has been lifted, and the restrictions are gradually being abolished, thanks to a lot of dedicated people. I am so glad that we finally made it this far. I sincerely wish the same triumph for the rest of the world.

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