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Absence makes the lab grow fonder: self-schooled graduate studies in the midst of Covid-19.

Frozen samples, interrupted experiments, and forgotten GANTT charts. The sweeping coronavirus pandemic has rippled through education timelines and has left students uncertain about productivity and graduation. As a graduate student close to the finish line, me along with many other graduate students in our department, are slowly learning to navigate this detour at the beginning of our academic journey.

Lab closures and limited reopening’s: a reimagined graduate education at home

A few weeks ago the Lange-Orchard lab for insect neuroendocrinology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where I work as a graduate researcher, joined institutions across North America in halting operations and instructing researchers (not involved in research related to coronavirus) to remain at home. Between PIs arranging essential services with university administration and faculty revising their class curriculums, many graduate students found themselves defaulting to the “writing phase” of their programs.

Many students, myself included, are working towards compiling the final chapters for their degree thesis, while others are drafting proposals and analysing data. With many provinces passing through the “peak” caseload, many institutions are developing strategies to loosen restrictions. Reopening guidelines largely consist of regulated schedules, distancing, and spending the majority of your time at home with writing and data analysis. 

 Away from the bench: same work, new spaces

 “Writing from home” is far from a one-size-fits-all prescription, and my colleagues and I have been sharing our lives with each other by checking in by email or messaging each other every couple of days and learning about our routines. It was soon apparent that a household of two researchers is functioning very differently from a household with parents and siblings sharing the bandwidth, time and quiet spaces.

As my family and I, including parents and siblings, began fasting for Ramadan during the sixth week of “learning-from-home,” my routine had shifted from regular work-day hours. In a family with other college-going students, we have scheduled separate time for quiet studies and work. My time-slot falls in the afternoon and I have been trying to use this time for writing, teaching, and reading.

It hasn’t been easy, but from my own experience, and my experiences speaking with undergraduates going through exams and with graduate students away from the lab, I hope to share some tips that have helped us find motivation, community, and balance as we adjust to our own unique self-schooling experience. 

  • You can be productive – even without new data. 

Graduate studies in the natural sciences are often varied in bench work but alike in the breadth of literature driving our questions. For graduate students just beginning their programmes, take this time to conduct in-depth readings of journal articles related to your work and build a bibliography. This collection of articles may give you a foundation for future reports and manuscripts, and an interesting article read thoroughly now could make a great journal club presentation in the future. If you have other graduate students in the lab, setting up a common Google Doc can help build a common repository of reference articles to be used as a resource for new trainees and students in the future.

I have begun compiling a folder of papers sorted by where they might be useful in my thesis: classical foundational papers “for introductions” and towards making progress for my thesis they are divided by chapter, method-based articles for new experiments or optimising protocols, “for discussions” based on results and conclusions, “preliminary work” for results that need to be developed further for writing future directions, “for review”, “for defence,” “for conference presentations,” and papers according to answers/reading for common questions asked in defence.

Although I started these folders when I began my degree, they have only started to see some regular traffic since the isolation began. As I finish edits for my thesis, I also have a general “thesis revisions” folder, that contains revised versions from the first draft to the working document, so I can keep track of changes and compare additions and formatting for later drafts.  

Through teaching, my laptop has also accumulated literature on higher-level physiology laboratory courses and introductory biology courses which I am now making some time to organize. These papers are divided largely by course type and are in folders: “for student lab reports,” “for pre-lab talks,” and guides for troubleshooting.

For those who have results from lab work already, building thesis chapters for what you currently have might be a good way to spend your time. With uncertainty surrounding experiment timelines and new results, I have found progress in having my methods written in text and compiling result figures by chapter. I have used this existing data to write my introductions and discussions and received feedback on these from my PI. As a person who is easily overwhelmed by the different directions a research project can begin to take, this practice has helped me find gaps to fill in the story and a plan for streamlining the process of finishing targeted experiments once restrictions begin to loosen.

Keeping a future plan in mind while making some progress I can see on text has helped me find motivation in the opportunity to learn and polish important skills such as scientific writing, data analysis, and project planning. 

  • Make a personalized plan and schedule, and leave spaces for flexibility.

As social distancing days morph into weeks, by now many of us have a rough framework of what our schedules look like, and how they might be changed by other responsibilities and by members of our family.  As this schedule keeps evolving, try to find slots that rotate between dedicated reading and writing. As a teaching assistant, I’ve also tried to be careful to find dedicated time for marking and teaching over videoconference and allotting a time to respond to student emails.

As graduate students we straddle a privileged position of relaying concerns and feedback between faculty and undergraduate students. Finding this balance remotely is a new challenge for us to apply our troubleshooting skills to, and through this time, grow as communicators and problem-solvers. 

On slower days where my word documents remain largely minimized, I find myself browsing seminars and professional development opportunities. Remotely connecting with career counsellors on our campus, I have received critique on my CV and cover letters. Me along with other graduate students in Biology and Cell and Systems recognize the uncertain job market we will graduate into but we find some comfort in taking some steps to prepare and sharing our experiences with each other.    

  • Keep in touch – your support system may be wider than you think.

We keep hearing “self-isolation does not mean social isolation,” but with family all around me at home, I did find it difficult to get beyond the social network at home outside of weekly lab meetings. Ramadan helped me reach further: as members of our Muslim graduate community begins fasting, I have found myself drawing closer to a community over social media and in livestreams, where we can discuss changes in our hours, how to balance professional priorities and practices at home, and keeping myself accountable for both sides of my life. As we continue into spring and summer, I hope to maintain these connections and try to look beyond the pandemic.

Parallel to this, I have also been lucky to have a PI and lab members who keep me accountable for progress related to my thesis and my plans for the summer. I have found that community means different things from day-to-day and morphs based on what you are trying to accomplish: and that’s OK as long as you’re finding support from somewhere. 

 A few days ago I read Lei Su’s article in the Nature Column, and felt my thoughts echoed where he says, “Getting as much work done as possible is neither my priority nor my goal during this coronavirus crisis,” but trying to be productive in the different learning objectives I have set for myself, helps me find fulfillment and hope during this pandemic.

Finding a way to take ownership of our education is perhaps an early crash-course in navigating academic careers for graduate students and drawing together as a community has helped my mental health. 


Lei Su (01 April 2020). My lab is closed to me because of the coronavirus. Here’s how I’m planning to stay productive. Nature Careers Community.

Featured image is under Pixabay License and free to use.

About the Author
  • Mahnoor Ayub 0000-0002-3711-3194

    Mahnoor Ayub is a Graduate Researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga in the Department of Biology. She studies insect neuroendocrinology, particularly in the blood-feeding insect Rhodnius prolixus, under the supervision of Angela Lange and Ian Orchard. Since Rhodnius is one of the primary vectors for Chagas disease, transmitting the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, she hopes her research will contribute to the development of novel pest-control strategies. She loves student journalism and can often be found setting up camp in the student newspaper office. In her free time, Mahnoor loves to explore Toronto with her friends and family. Twitter: @MahnoorAyub

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