Bryan Brooks, Baylor University and SETAC North America Student Advocacy Committee Co-Chair
Note from the Editors: We hope that everyone is safe and healthy as we work hard at flattening the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that the SETAC community is meeting the challenge with creative and inventive approaches. Similar to Bryan’s article, we would like to hear how you are addressing the impacts to your research and scientific activities or how you are reaching out to assist your local health care and first responders in the community. Please send us a couple of sentences or a paragraph to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would like to compile your responses in an article for the next issue of the Globe.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm. In addition to disrupting our daily routines, many of us know people who have been affected by the virus, and some of us have been infected. Shortages of personal care products and medical supplies seem to flood the airways, illuminating how leadership, planning and preparedness, along with public health delivery systems, vary within and among countries. COVID-19 has also affected research operations at universities around the world. Scientific conferences are being delayed, canceled or taken online. Our university wisely made the decision, like most institutions, to transition to online-only instruction for the remainder of the current term. Our town went to shelter in place over two weeks ago. WebEx, Zoom, Skype and reliable Wi-Fi are increasingly indispensable.
Now is a historic time, in many ways. In the history of SETAC, laboratory and field-based research efforts resulting in new data collection have never before been so directly suppressed. Our research team’s activities have similarly been disrupted. Team members planned on traveling to the Society of Toxicology meeting in Anaheim, California, the American Chemical Society meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the SETAC Europe annual meeting in Dublin, Ireland, and the South Central SETAC Regional Chapter meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas. Not so much. A faculty colleague from Europe, who was doing their sabbatical with us, had to return home earlier than expected. We planned to start hosting a graduate student from Europe for research collaboration as part of their degree. This work too has been delayed and repositioned. Many graduate students are now worried about their experiments and field studies, graduation timelines and career prospects.
I recall attending the SETAC World Congress in Orlando when the United States declared a new president. The next day felt like a dark cloud had descended over the conference center. If you were there, regardless of your political preferences, you know exactly what I mean. Everyone was talking about the election in disbelief; students were concerned how such an outcome could impact their career prospects. So the morning after, I called an impromptu research team meeting during a coffee break and relayed several key points to our research team: 1. Pendulums swing; 2. None of our research funders, including support from four US federal entities at the time, had called that morning to cancel their research sponsorship; 3. Now was a unique period in history when environment and health fields of study were exceptionally important; and 4. We are working on six continents, and global career prospects will remain healthy. Student and postdoc team members at our team meeting in Orlando finished their degrees or programs with us and have secured excellent positions in the government, business and academic sectors.
COVID-19 is forcing us to practice adaptive management. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Such prospects can be easier said than done, but here are some things our research team is doing during this unprecedented scenario. First, and foremost, we are following guidance from our university, which has placed student, staff and faculty safety at a premium. See this website for more information, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus. To minimize disruptions to our research efforts, we are placing priorities on parts of our work that do not require new data collection. Specifically, we are working off of two-week plans, in which students and postdocs first prepare their schedules and then we discuss their activities. This exercise helps us maintain focus, plan our time wisely, and progress toward meeting our research goals.
What are our team members actually doing, since we are not performing new experiments? Plenty. Depending on where the students are within their graduate program timeline, and what projects they are engaging as part of their research, team members are primarily performing literature reviews and meta-analyses, analyzing empirical data from recent experiments, writing papers (or parts of papers), preparing proposals and developing synthesis manuscripts. Libraries remain open in digital terms. If students have not started performing their experiments, now is a good time to perform rigorous literature reviews, which promise to yield fruit in the coming months and years. Critical review and meta-analysis work could become stand-alone manuscripts, if done well. Critical reviews sharpen research questions, while preparing students to have more concrete command of the existing literature.
Time spent wisely now by our research team is helping to finalize research planning, from experimental designs to sourcing materials and supplies. When we can start performing new experiments, we will be ready to launch. Students can also use random number generators to develop dummy data sets, with which they can perform practice statistical analyses and develop various draft figures that may be expected to result from their future studies. These figures can also be useful as mental models for forthcoming platform and poster presentations to visually relay testable hypotheses. Such exercises do not bias a researcher’s perspective, but instead they save time when data from future experiments become available for formal analysis and interpretation.
Most of the time the work of students and postdocs are pulled in many directions, much like faculty members. We rarely have some extra time to focus on specific items. Despite these unprecedented times, our research team’s enterprise has not slowed; rather, we have reshuffled the deck and adapted. I hope some of these ideas will be useful to your work.
We will get through this challenging time. I look forward to seeing you at the SETAC North America 41st Annual Meeting, if not before. Hang in there and be well.
Author’s contact information: Bryan_Brooks@baylor.edu