Thursday, April 30, 2020

New profs in the age of COVID19 - @EcoEvoAmy


New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76


Dr. Amy Parachnowitsch is an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick. She moved her lab there from Uppsala University (Sweden) in the summer of 2018. She studies the evolutionary ecology and chemical ecology of flowers. You can find her on Twitter too often these days @EvoEcoAmy

My daughter’s school has started sending suggested activities and learning goals (all optional thankfully!). One is to keep a journal of your daily activities and feelings. The teachers emphasize the importance of writing about your feelings so you can look back on this time. I really wonder what I will think about the pandemic and how it affected me years from now. I haven’t written a diary for years but since I’ve experiencing writer’s block it seemed like as good of a place to start as any.

Today, like most days, I did some administrative stuff (read: answered emails, always emails), puttered around twitter and read too much bad news, managed my teaching obligations in this time of on-line courses, hung out with my 10 year old, and did a little exercise. I feel mostly fine but easily distracted. I feel overwhelmed yet underwhelmed and bored. I feel sad for all the plans my lab had for the summer that are now cancelled or in jeopardy of being cancelled. I feel relieved that my only child seems to be taking this new reality all in stride (schools have been closed since March 16th here). I feel worried and yet incredibly privileged to be on the tenure track after so many years of temporary employment. I feel unmotivated to science and guilty about all the manuscripts that I thought (pre-pandemic) I would be getting to as my teaching finished up. I feel like the floor has dropped out from under me, just as our research was starting to work. I feel uncertain about everything. Most of all I worry about the uncertainty for the students and post doc in my lab. There are things I can do for them but so much is beyond my control.

Some days I feel more positive than others. Some days my daughter and I bake or get outside for longer walks. The spring is slow this year but we have been able to start on a little gardening which always makes me happy. I go to our university greenhouses every few days to water plants that represent a hope that we will get to collect data from them before they all finish flowering. Sometimes this helps and other times I leave feeling powerless and wanting to cry. My partner and I seem to have punctuated the weeks by reserving the weekends for house renovations which I am sure we will appreciate in the long run. We bought our ~150 year old house last summer and the painting projects are endless, although those bigger renovations that my parents were planning to help with this spring are on hold. Who would have thought the borders between provinces would ever be controlled?

The thing I am not doing is writing. The writing I know I need to do for my career. I need those papers published for my tenure package. I need those papers for my next grant application. More than any of those needs, I would really like our science to get out. I used to like writing but I am not there right now. Despite the pandemic, I keep thinking about how easy I have it. Why aren’t you writing? It isn’t like you have a toddler at home (could be so much worse). Why aren’t you writing? You have a supportive spouse (could be so much worse). Why aren’t you writing? You have plenty of space and your own home office (could be so much worse). Why aren’t you writing? You haven’t lost anyone to COVID-19 (could be so much worse)! Why aren’t you writing? It seems like you’re using this pandemic as an excuse. Why are you so drained by on-line teaching? Why aren’t you taking this opportunity to do the writing that you say you want to? What is your excuse? I wrote all these dark thoughts out not because I think that they are legitimate but rather to be honest about how I’m feeling. Maybe it helps someone else out there struggling with productivity in a pandemic to see they aren’t alone.

I hope as this new rhythm continues, I will get my creativity and focus back. I know all the tricks (I tried one now to help me finally get over my writer’s block for writing this blog post), I know I will do fine eventually. I know I’m not alone in having trouble working. But I am early in my career here at UNB and back in Canada. I do feel like I need to show that my lab can produce new and exciting science. I want to do new and exciting science! And as much as writing up old data that I have from my previous position in Sweden is generally a great thing, I need new work based here to add to my record. As a field ecologist, to get that new data we must get outside or at least get to the greenhouse. We need to touch plants to collect our data.

I’m trying not to focus on what we cannot do and instead focus on the projects we can progress with. I deleted a whole series of paragraphs on all the stuff we cancelled or put on hold. It was perhaps cathartic to write but probably not particularly interesting for others to read. We’re making back-up plans for the back-up plans if we are able to collect data this summer. It helps. Yet, it doesn’t stop all those worries and anxieties from creeping in. We are lucky though. We do have options and are getting creative for plans to do physically distant science. The safety of the people working for me is more important than any research that will be lost.

I don’t know how things will pan out in the long run, but I do know I am not alone. I know I’m incredibility fortunate to have a stable job and live in a country that is implementing measures to help scientists (e.g. NSERC grant extensions). Science is being disrupted everywhere right now and I’ve landed in a relatively good place for that to be happening.

For now, my lab group has virtual meetings on Monday and Friday mornings to bookend the weeks. We talk about plans, hear everyone’s small stories about weathering staying at home, and occasionally see a pet. I hope seeing everyone is good for them. It is so helpful for my mental state to see them all smiling each week. It makes me optimistic for the future.

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