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Why the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to overdue change in academia

After an absolutely devastating year, academic scientists in some parts of the world are beginning to reopen their labs and see their colleagues in person. As the global vaccination campaign continues, scientists elsewhere will begin to take similar steps. Many of us are still struggling to cope with the consequences of the pandemic. But after the crisis passes, we may find that it leads to some positive change. In our labs, we have begun to look back on the past year to see whether there might be any useful lessons learned.

After the pandemic hit, we transformed our traditional lab meetings into remote meetings from our homes, worked nontraditional hours around child care, and adjusted our teaching. Jay even taught a class on his cellphone while he was trapped in an elevator with his kids. We struggled with our own mental health challenges as we tried to hold things together, and we mourned the loss of loved ones. Through it all, we had to figure out new ways to do our research, teach our classes, and support our students and colleagues. In short, we did the best we could in a bad situation. But we also learned a few things we might want to continue to do, or do differently once things get back to some semblance of “normal.”

Here are some of our personal reflections and goals for the future.

June: At first, I was suddenly without child care for two young children in a pandemic and scrambling to find time for anything. I was stressed about what trying to manage my job responsibilities over Zoom would be like and how I could support my trainees from afar. I was speechless as I observed some of my colleagues continuing with work as usual. But in the midst of much stress and uncertainty, I discovered an unexpected upside: Remote meetings allowed my lab to open up our weekly meetings to former trainees who’d moved away but wanted to stay connected. It also provided an opportunity to invite outside guest speakers. Now, we are discussing ways to keep the virtual format going periodically to maintain accessibility for trainees who may have busy schedules, child care needs, or work off campus, and to allow us to invite outside speakers to share their ideas.

Jay: I agree that moving to virtual lab meetings had some surprising benefits. We were able to include students and postdocs from several other countries in our regular meetings, as well as guest speakers from around the world. Our lab has become truly international. Moving lab meetings to a virtual environment also made it very easy to record videos of the talks and workshops that we hosted. We set up a YouTube channel and we have already shared over 30 videos. We also opened up our lab meeting for a sneak preview for prospective Ph.D. students. Although we are all eager to see each other in person again, we plan to keep a virtual component of our lab meeting going forward.

Neil: One of my lab’s main challenges during the pandemic was how to keep our work going. We do a lot of research that requires in-person work, but all of that had to be put on hold. The change led us to step back and shift our focus to other kinds of projects that can be done remotely, like reviews and syntheses about what is known and what we still need to learn. I also spent more time writing for the public and serving on task forces because my social science work was relevant to thinking about how to improve equity during the pandemic. In the future I would like to do more of that because I find it rewarding to do what I can to promote the use of science to benefit society.

Wil: I really do not want to credit the pandemic with anything positive. But because much of our lab research was shut down, one silver lining was that I started new collaborations working with computer scientists. Much of our research required in-person testing, and that just wasn’t possible anymore—so, we started running simulation studies. It was something I had wanted to do for decades, and the sudden change to our research gave us time to explore this new area and find new collaborations.

June: I identify with Wil’s ambivalence. The pandemic presented many more downsides than opportunities, and it was an incredible strain on my own and my trainees’ well-being. Yet as a scientist who studies emotions and mental health, I also knew we could not turn away from what was happening in front of our own eyes. Similar to Wil, my students and I decided to embark on a new line of work doing remote-based surveys to learn about college students’ mental health. This sparked important conversations and collaborations across the globe that we are still pursuing. With nearly 30 of my colleagues, we came together to co-author a call-to-action on the mental health crisis sparked by the pandemic. I also got more involved in writing for the public, and I created a free online course to address the stigma about mental illness. Never before did I see such unity and purpose in my field to creatively address a societal problem.

Wil: Highlighting mental health is important. One thing I learned during the pandemic is how quickly people can lose the basic support that allows us to function—in academia and in the rest of life.

Neil: I wholeheartedly agree. One of the most important things we did in my lab this past year was more frequent check-ins and open discussions about how we’re doing and how we can support each other.

Jay: In my lab, we started to have more explicit conversations about mental health before the pandemic, but struggling through the pandemic made these conversations more urgent. We regularly discussed our stress and struggles together and blocked off a number of weeks where we effectively shut down the lab to help people get a mental health break. I have also made a much greater point of urging people to take vacations, and I plan to keep these changes in place long after the pandemic. It benefits everyone in the lab, from the newest students to the principal investigator, to have a culture where people feel supported and refreshed. We need to make these topics part of the conversation in every department and constantly revise how we work to maximize our physical and mental health. I think I took these issues for granted in the past, but certainly won’t in the future.

June: The pandemic highlighted what we already knew—that the mental health of students (and faculty) is suffering and that academia does not provide enough support. Yet this reality check also sparked more open conversations around mental health. Moving forward, we must not forget that the pandemic showed us that change is needed in how scientists talk about and support mental wellness.

Wil: I also hope that the openness that we have found with each other continues and we will be there for each other for future challenges.

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