Life & Science: Impact of the pandemic on early-career biologists

Sneha Das, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

2022-01-23 15:11:21



The development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics at a record pace brought the field of biomedical research to the forefront of public attention, but many biologists working on the frontlines of research and development silently grappled with life-changing impacts from the pandemic.

“I am sure each and every single researcher was impacted because of the pandemic, and their respective timelines delayed,” said Dr. Bishal Basak, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “Lab work cannot be done remotely, so shutting them down greatly impacted everyone.”

Research institutes in many parts of the world shut down partially or completely in early 2020, leaving biologists who work ‘at the bench’ feeling trapped at home. A global survey conducted by Nature found that early-career researchers felt professionally threatened by shutdowns, supply shortages, and strained collaborations, during the pandemic, and expect the impact to be long-lasting.

“Luckily most of my lab work was done before the pandemic started, and I was in the process of publishing my paper,” said Basak, who was then pursuing his thesis research at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in India. “I could devote a significant amount of time during the lockdown writing my introduction, and also drafting and organizing the other chapters of my thesis.”

Unlike Basak, many other researchers were in a more precarious situation. In densely populated countries like India where contact tracing can be more difficult, lockdown was the best approach to control the pandemic. Many of the country’s research institutes being residential, closed their doors indefinitely in March 2020.

“I thought I would submit my thesis and complete my Ph.D. towards the middle of 2020,” said Soumyanetra Chandra, a research associate at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). “But suddenly…we were asked to leave the institute…for an indefinite period of time…and work just stopped abruptly.”

Biological experiments often run for long durations and have to be stopped after systematic planning. Researchers can lose months of data by abandoning experiments mid-way.

“I still had a few last experiments to finish that would allow me to build the story,” she said. “I was not at the point in my project where I could start writing my manuscripts or thesis chapters.”

Returning to the institute after six months, she felt tremendous pressure to wrap up her thesis before her fellowship expiration deadline.

“At times I worked eighteen hours a day…[but] my deadline had to be extended for two months,” Chandra said. “[PhD] students do not get [the full stipend amount] from the institute once the deadline is reached…and the institute was not in a position to pay for so many people for the extra months they took [to graduate].”

Recent news reports also confirm that Chandra is not alone in her experience, and research scholars in India are requesting a one-year Ph.D. fellowship extension because of the pandemic.

Finding a postdoctoral position during these times can also be challenging. Communicating research work and networking at international conferences is crucial for this career transition, but many scientific meetings were canceled in early 2020.

“I was looking forward to these conferences where I could meet other members of the scientific community, and discuss my next career phase,” Basak said, as he was getting ready to defend his thesis. “I had applied for a [Gordon Research Conference] in June, but it got canceled. I was also planning to physically attend [The American Society for Cell Biology] conference in December 2020, which happened virtually.”

Though virtual conferences have some disadvantages compared to in-person ones, a poll conducted by Nature found that 74% of the respondents would like virtual conferences to continue, since they are more accessible and less expensive. It was at a virtual Royal Society scientific meeting that Basak first interacted with his current advisor and was offered a postdoctoral position in her lab soon after.

As research laboratories around the world started to re-open, the transition was not smooth. Anshika Gupta, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in an email interview said that orders for plastic consumables used in the laboratory were delayed by up to nine months.

“The delay in getting tips and tubes did affect our research to some extent,” Gupta said. “We also experienced delays in getting strains shipped from the E. coli genetic stock center.”

The Escherichia coli Genetic Stock Center (CGSC) at Yale University is a central repository for E. coli strains and is an important resource for biologists working with this bacteria. It has been over a year since Gupta ordered some strains but is yet to receive them.

The learning and teaching experience during the pandemic was challenging as educators were forced to adapt to virtual teaching in short notice. Research has found that student performance in online coursework declined significantly when compared to in-person classes.

“The classes which I took in-person [pre-pandemic], I could see other people asking questions and we would have groups to study together before exam, [and] hop into office hours of the professors,” said Anish Bose, a new graduate trainee who started in the Molecular and Cell Biology program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in August 2019. “The amount of learning you can do through chalk and talk doesn’t translate well to zoom…I had to work harder [during remote learning] to grasp concepts of biological systems.”

Working in shifts and reduced contact with research advisors and senior lab members made learning new techniques tricky and time-consuming for new students. Hence, major milestones in graduate school like qualifying exams and committee meetings had to be postponed.

“I kept reading papers but I wasn’t getting to understand the systems which I will be working on,” Bose said. “A lot of the preliminary data and figuring out what the thesis would be got postponed by many months.”

His first experience as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate laboratory course was also outlandish. The course supervisor had to teach hands-on experiments remotely from home.

“We would take the flask and put Gatorade in it instead of cell culture,” Bose said. “For [the students] it is going to be much more difficult when they try to replicate these experiments in labs, simply because they haven’t done it themselves under a learning environment in-person.”

Disruptions caused by the pandemic was particularly harsh on women and parents of young children. Nature news reports that in a series of surveys it was found that being a mother or a person of color exaggerated the impact of the pandemic on research productivity.

“[My wife and I] used to divide our day into two parts [during the pandemic], half-day I worked and half-day Rikky worked, and that way we would manage things,” said Dr. Maruti Nandan Rai, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Rikky Rai and Dr. Maruti Nandan Rai came to Urbana-Champaign from India in early 2018 with their two young children. Like many parents, as daycares and schools closed during the pandemic, the Rai’s also struggled with work-life balance.

“I worked late nights and early mornings when the children would be asleep,” Rai said. “Since I knew I have less time in hand, whenever I was working my productivity was super high.”

As postdoctoral research contracts are short-term and tied to grant duration, Dr. Rikky Rai had to move from Illinois to Florida in November 2020, at the peak of the pandemic. Being an international scholar, Rai could not be unemployed for even a single day to maintain her valid visa status in the US.

“I was not sure if I should go…but I had to because of the visa issues,” said Dr. Rikky Rai, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida, Citrus Research and Education Center. “I was always worried if something happens [to my family]…how soon can I come back? If I fly back… should I meet my kids? I was in so much mental dilemma and really upset.”

Lack of family and financial support and additional visa restrictions can make difficult periods more exhausting for international students and scholars in the US.

Basak also had his fair share of visa troubles earlier this year. The US Embassy and Consulates in India had limited interview appointments for non-immigrant visas and the country was also going through a catastrophic second wave.

“From the side of the university, all the paperwork was done very proactively, and I had all the necessary documents,” he said. “[But] travel was banned [from India to the US], and visa offices shut.” Luckily, his advisor was empathetic and made adjustments for a later joining date.

The ‘publish or perish’ culture of academia takes a severe toll on the mental health of early-career scientists and the pandemic has only made it worse. A recent survey by Student Experience in Research University (SERU) Consortium and collaborators found that indications of anxiety amongst graduate students rose by 50% during the pandemic and were most common among those in biomedical research.  

Sarah Lipson, a public health researcher at Boston University in her interview with Nature mentioned that students in the COVID-19 era are struggling with a “sense of hopelessness”.

Despite groundbreaking scientific developments in the field, biologists have struggled in their professional and personal lives during the pandemic.

“I went through a very personal loss during the second wave of the pandemic [in India], and was extremely anxious to leave my parents, who had not been completely vaccinated till then, to pursue my post-doctoral career,” said Basak “I think it’s even more important now to connect to your family and friends and reach out to anyone who is facing isolation.”

To avoid social isolation and gain a sense of purpose, Basak  volunteered for The Bangalore Life Science Cluster (BLiSC) COVID testing facility for three months during the lockdown. The facility tested  patient samples for SARS-CoV-2 viral load and was operated by student and staff volunteers.

“Working in the testing facility was a positive way to spend [my] time,” he said. “[it was] very gratifying to help my countrymen during the pandemic.”