I started my PhD in my current lab in 2016 and since then I have participated in over 5 national and international…
In today’s climate, it’s easy to get lost in the negativity. From societal issues like an impending flu season atop a global pandemic as well as a looming and tense national election, to more personal issues like illness, loss of a loved one or financial security in peril, these challenges only exacerbate the frustration researchers currently face.
Like many other student researchers now, we’re still struggling with many time-sensitive experiments that have been delayed or upended, shift schedules implemented with odd hours, growing fatigue with video conferencing, and burnout stemming from a myriad of work and non-work related factors.
It has been tempting to place blame on external factors, but this unfortunately cannot solve any problems (most of them are outside of our control). What is under our control, however, is the ability to be grateful for what we have. It is a much-needed ray of sunshine in a sea of almost never-ending despair.
Research is a path laden with failures. We as researchers have been taught to critically think about our experiments, which is necessary to obtain more accurate and repeatable data. This consequently amounts to finding all the things that can go wrong.
For us specifically, we have been compelled to be very meticulous when extracting and mounting tissue for mechanical testing or to be cautious with our hand and arm placement inside a biosafety cabinet to avoid contamination while doing sterile cell culture. Whenever erroneous data surfaced in a dataset, this meant anxiously trying to retrace our steps in our lab notebook to find out what went wrong where.
While this attention to detail has greatly improved protocols, repeatability and accuracy in our research, it has—on the flipside—bled into other aspects of our lives. We never settle and are always looking for ways to become better people. This is usually desirable and advantageous, but the constant fixation on the multiple tiers of never-ending problems has led to much personal anguish and exhaustion—especially now.
Recently however, we realized that we need to change our outlook in order to combat the burnout. Instead of getting hung up on what was wrong, it was time to be grateful for what was right. We needed to treasure the silver linings. We had more time to work on and publish manuscripts that had been put on hold, analyze and present data that had been sitting around for months or even years, and take care of other lab responsibilities and housekeeping on the back burner.
Courtney was able to present her research at an on-campus symposium and a national conference for the first time. This gave her the confidence to present data individually and take the time to critically think about the results, both of which are important aspects in the research field.
For Michael, he published his first first-author research publication among a couple of other recent publications. He was also pleased to still have the opportunity to train and mentor a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) student despite the program’s unfortunate but necessary shift to a virtual format. In the mentee’s first ever research experience, she gained skills in cardiovascular data analysis and interpretation and successfully prepared her first research report and oral presentation. Michael was ecstatic to know that she learned a lot and developed key critical thinking skills despite such a short and fully remote experience.
The time at home also helped us appreciate being healthy and receiving a higher-level education, things not to be taken for granted. A list—scribbled on a sticky note taped to a wall above our desk or even if mentally composed—of all that we still have in our lives has lifted rock bottom spirits. Calling friends and family weekly to discuss what we were grateful for and the positive outcomes during these difficult times has also helped.
Furthermore, we realized that there was no harm in being optimistic for the future, as hopefully one day we can return to pre-pandemic life. The above approaches have helped us improve our mental health, form stronger bonds with our family and friends, and showed that even a simple change in mindset can be effective and beneficial in our everyday lives, pandemic or not.
Even if the past several months seemed to be chock full of negativity, we have learned to reflect positively on what has come of it. In today’s world, even the smallest victories carry the biggest meaning.
Featured image is under Unsplash License and free to use.