Wednesday, May 27, 2020

New Profs in the Age of COVID19 - @swannegordon


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


When Andrew (Hendry) invited me to contribute to a blog series showcasing how new PI’s were handling their COVID-19 experiences and worries, he also attached a few examples. I struggled initially to think about what else I could add that hadn’t already been eloquently said and was about to decline. I soon realized that even with all the similarities between the previous posts and anything I would write, I could still bring forward a viewpoint that is often not shared. Frankly, because it is a viewpoint that is so rare, and in many ways quite dissimilar from the majority of my peers. The viewpoint I refer to is that of an underrepresented minority in STEM or, specifically, a new black female PI in the field of ecology and evolution.

First, let’s start with the commonalities; where I have similar woes and anxieties as my peers, especially in my field. We should start here because how better to remember this crazy time than with a multitude of examples and representations all reinforcing the same things.

My lab focuses on variation in nature, why it exists and how it is maintained. Under that scope, we use a variety of techniques to examine topics such as color polymorphisms, rapid evolution, and the interaction between sex linkage and adaptation. Our pre-Covid plans for this spring and summer were to expand this research experimentally into three new topics: urban ecology and evolution, the role of behavior in eco-evo dynamics, and a more integrative approach to understanding animal behavior via neurobiology.

The current pandemic started interrupting these plans during what was the end of the big planning phase of our lab’s first field season to Trinidad in March. Our plans were to intensively collect Trinidadian guppies from freshwater streams all across the Northern Range Mountains of Trinidad between two collaborating labs that would become the main foundation of our upcoming experiments. We began hearing more and more about the threat of the virus, and so we adjusted our plans in case we were either not allowed to travel, or got stuck in Trinidad after we had traveled. One of the plan adjustments meant changing our pre-bought tickets so that we staggered the inbound and outbound flights of our four-person team.

I was the last person scheduled to leave; the day before my flight, my University canceled the trip and all international travel for its faculty and staff. The following week was one of mass confusion, anxiety, and long days. I had to shut down my lab including our undergraduate research students who also helped maintain the fish stocks we already had. (Sidebar: I have no graduate students or postdocs yet but will be recruiting into next year if anyone knows of any good candidates). The only other three people who could help with the lab were in the field. This meant I had to care for the stock by myself while trying to get the hard-working field crew back home as safely and as soon as possible. We ended up playing it safe and buying new tickets for the field crew to return early before they closed the borders; they eventually all made it home safely (including the fish populations they had managed to collect).

My current day to day life consists of mainly juggling the following things: 1) trying to motivate myself to write up the many papers I have outstanding from my postdoc ( so much to do, and so little motivation); 2) work and mentoring meetings (so much Zoom); 3) taking care of our rapidly growing stocks in our fish rooms between the four of us who were given special essential status from the University; and 4) the massive amount of work homeschooling two very bored, yet completely resilient and amazing kids (teachers really should be paid more!). All research is currently on hold although the University is now preparing research ramp-up plans across the Departments from 0 to a 30 percent opening in the near future. However, as far as I know, my summer plans to co-build outdoor stream mesocosms (especially needed for my new postdoc starting in August), run some cool experiments, and host six additional summer research students at our University field station are all canceled or postponed until way into the future.

Ok, what I have written above may seem like a lot of complaining. However, I am more than cognizant that my position during this pandemic is actually more privileged that many other people. This is why, in spite of everything, I try to focus on the many reasons I have to be grateful, even during a pandemic. I am fortunate to even be a New PI, to have a good academic job at an institution that has shown itself during this time to truly value its students and staff, when so many of my equally qualified peers are still searching. I am fortunate to have been given a start-up fund from Washington University in St Louis that should cover my research plans for the next couple of years should the funding environment crash post-Covid. I am also fortunate, so far, to be healthy (my family as well), whilst so many are not. I am fortunate to still have a healthy fish population, students eager to return to work with them, and for being given a year and a half off from teaching at the University so that I had the time during the early days of the pandemic to focus solely on my lab and my family. I am also fortunate to have some good colleagues, a supportive co-parent/research partner, and the best and most hard-working lab group. We are small, but mighty (come join us!).

Now that we have covered the viewpoint that any researcher or field biologist can see themselves in, let’s go over two places or points where my viewpoint or experience may be different. I think one thing the virus has also accomplished is to shine further light on inequality in America and around the world; in all regions, the virus has continued to disproportionately affect communities of color and the economically disadvantaged.

Even with my privilege of job security during the pandemic, as a black person living in America with two young kids, I live and breathe with anxiety. Threats of racism, police brutality, and inequalities in education, the justice system, health, income, and housing (among other things) plague our communities with no real end in sight. These issues are also worldwide, represented in every single facet of our lives, and will only get worse after this pandemic has weakened. When my husband and I were deciding which Universities to apply, and then which job offer to choose, we had to consider many more important factors than the average scientist. While others focused on the Departmental fit or job offer, we also had to focus on what were the repercussions of this choice for our black children. Would they be welcomed in their schools, in their neighborhood? Could they find representation of other people, or teachers, that looked like them? We were also moving them from Finland, so this was a big priority. Other than just the academic accomplishments of my colleagues (and Department) for future collaborations, I needed to also focus on where on the ‘racism or bias in academia’ scale did my potential colleagues average, and if high, could I handle it for a few years?

Table courtesy of the book, Presumed Incompetent, edited by Gabriella GutiĆ©rrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris. This book highlights the ‘intersecting roles of race, gender, and class in the working lives of women faculty of color’. However, a quick search on the US Department of Education website for the updated numbers show me the percentages of black faculty across the US has remained quite constant since then (e.g. still only total 3 percent for black women faculty).

With these thoughts in mind and having remained in academia all of these years as someone at the intersection of biases across both gender and race, I also knew my struggles in the time of Covid and post-Covid would look different than my peers’. Seeing all of the past mental and physical extra hoops and obstacles I had to go through throughout my career that my close colleagues did not have to make me worried about the future. I worry about how much more of a struggle it will be after the pandemic when resource limitations in funding, hiring, promotions, publishing, and collaboration will get worse and likely expand the flourishing biases in academia. Historically, underrepresented groups always suffer more of the consequences during these times. Academia, let us band together to change the cycle of this narrative and protect those around us that are most at risk; but, excuse me if I don’t hold my breath.

Finally, I want to mention that although we are all going through a pandemic, there are some among us that are dealing with larger mental loads related to it. I see some colleagues on Twitter who are quick to mention how they are taking this time to catch up on manuscripts and grants that are lagging, and that’s great. However, unlike these colleagues, this pandemic has also seemed to paralyze me. In my case, in the early weeks of the shutdown in St Louis, I had been bombarded by statistics including: 1) that the first few deaths in St Louis and the majority of deaths in big cities involved black people, and, 2) that 38% of black people have died from Coronavirus in Missouri, but black people make up only 12% of that population (numbers not recently updated). Although much of these facts are because black representation in the work force is disproportionately tipped towards frontline, essential, and/or lower income jobs, there are also enough cases I have seen on my Twitter feed that cross socio-economic lines. Given that I need to leave my house many times a week to go into the University to care for the fish populations, it is always such a mental hurdle for me when I get home. A mental battle to quell my fears of a disproportionate risk (whether perceived or actually epidemiological) of myself or family members dying from the virus in order to work relatively care-free on my papers or discuss science with my lab members. On top of this, our four-year-old son has an immune deficiency. I am thinking people with any immune deficiencies or other illnesses have similar if not worse fears. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

New Profs in the age of COVID19 - @yestuart


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


Yoel Stuart

I started my position at Loyola University Chicago in Fall of 2019 but didn't start teaching undergraduate classes until January 2020. I remember hearing about COVID-19 (then just called a coronavirus, in an unknown-to-me place called Wuhan) during the first week of Spring classes. We discussed it that week. We were primed to pay attention because I had assigned Spillover, by David Quammen, as course reading, and therefore had a stroke of pedagogical (bad) luck to be teaching about emerging infectious diseases during an emerging pandemic. Needless to say, I wish my material wasn't quite so relevant to current events. We read the SARS chapter the week I took my class online. 

Looking for lizards in Florida. You'll see I was into face masks before they were vogue.

The Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Things I cannot change

I cannot change being locked out of my lab and office.

I cannot change cessation of lab data collection.

I cannot change that my technicians are quickly running out of work they can do at home (though see below).

I cannot change that classes are online.

I cannot change the absence of undergraduate students in my lab.

I cannot change daycare being closed.

I cannot change so many things.

I am trying not to worry about them.

Just me and my shadow in Nevada, looking for fossil stickleback. Socially distanced, right?

Things I can change, or rather, control:

I can control my writing. There are revisions and manuscripts to write. I can write for at least 30 minutes per day (and probably more, now that the semester is done).

I can control my grants. I have grants that would benefit from 30 minutes of writing a day.

I can control my data analysis. I have several projects that would benefit from 30 minutes of analysis per day.

I can train my technicians. Now is an opportunity develop their project design and writing skills. I can have them do literature searches for new project ideas and writing for completed projects. I can also help them apply to graduate school.

I can improve my courses. I had many ideas throughout the semester to make my classes better. I improve 30 minutes per day, starting by reaching out to my office of online learning.

I can keep a realistic calendar of things I want to accomplish each week. And then I can set about making those things happen.

I can change the way I approach my day, to reduce my stress levels and make me both a better worker and a better father and husband. COVID-19 means there is time for introspection. I’ve realized that my stress level is lowest if I get 30-60 minutes of writing done first thing in the morning. With two small kids at home, this means waking up at 6am (and forswearing that extra hour of faffing around at night). When I do this, I can be more present with my kids and spouse—a silver lining of the stay at home order. It also makes it easier to steal a few minutes here and there for administration and email later in the day.

I can donate to causes that need help and are important to me. This is a way to keep from feeling completely helpless.

I can count my blessings and acknowledge all the positive things in my life. I have a patient spouse with whom navigating this mess has been more or less smooth. I have two kids that play well together and give us enough time to stay sane. I have amazing co-workers at LUC and have received support at all levels here. Me and mine are safe, healthy, employed. I had great students; I’ll miss our tri-weekly meetings which provided landmarks during days that tend to blend together.

I can be gentle with myself and forgive myself for all the times that I fall short in my work, my parenting, my interactions, my gratitude. As much as one aims for serenity, false serenity is not helpful (Costanza, G., pers. comm.). We all lose it sometimes. That’s okay.


My son Lev, after playing "Windstorm" in the basement during COVID. Thank goodness for basements.

The wisdom to tell the difference

Can I safely conduct field work this summer? Can my graduate student safely conduct field work this summer? Can collaborative projects happen safely this summer? I ask the EEEE community for wisdom.

On the one hand, an argument could be made that solo travel to remote field sites is the social distancing. As long as I sleep in the truck, use gloves and masks at gas stations, minimize trips to gather food and supplies, quarantine for the 14 days before I leave, and otherwise, not interact with anyone, the risk of community spread is small. Right?

The counterargument is: the only way to minimize community spread is to stay at home. Full stop. Even gas station stops could be enough to contract and spread. And, were something to happen in the field: flat tire, broken arm, etc., I’d be creating a network of interactions that wasn’t necessary. And possibly taxing to a tired health care system. And, leaving my spouse with two toddlers, no daycare, and her working a fulltime job is not tenable. This means bringing a grandparent into our social circle. Risks there too.

How does one weigh the relative risks? How much responsibility do I have to granting agencies and taxpayers to conduct the research? Do I know the answer in my gut (stay home!) while my head tries to rationalize a field trip? I certainly recognize my conflict of interest. Preliminary data, personal advancement, and tenure are powerful motivators to build an argument that I could travel safely despite COVID having an R0 around 3. And yet… just because I have a conflict of interest doesn’t make safe travel impossible, does it?

What about post-doc collaborators and graduate students? They have careers and futures to secure in a way that I don’t. Does their field work warrant the relatively low risk of community spread in exchange for the very high personal cost of staying home—years of lost work, the end of grant funding with nothing to show for it, a year’s delay in receiving a degree, blank spots on the CV? Can one cap and trade risk? I’ll stay home but facilitate others?

More questions than answers. If there were a running header for COVID-19 during the first six months of 2020, I think ‘more questions than answers’ would be it.

New Profs in the Age of COVID19 - @swannegordon

- ----------------------------------------------- New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:     - by  Swanne Gordon  @swannegordon     -...