my scientific life in the pandemic


Every time Jen Lewendon has flown to Hong Kong International Airport, pictured here in May 2020, she has had to quarantine herself for 21 days.Credit: Tommy Walker / NurPhoto / Getty

I have spent more than two of the past five months isolating myself in hotel rooms in Thailand and Hong Kong, with no leave to go out. During these stays, I sometimes stood in front of a mirror just to appreciate an unmasked human face staring at me. I waited impatiently for the knock on the door indicating that a stranger, dressed from head to toe in personal protective equipment, is waiting to stick a tampon in my nose and throat. I looked through the peephole, excited by the distorted, goldfish sight of a hotel worker dropping my meal down the hall. And I lay in bed at 10 p.m. watching a scary thriller, only to jump in my skin as, without warning, someone wipes my door with disinfectant.

Hong Kong travel restrictions stipulate mandatory quarantines of up to 21 days on arrival and in some cases an additional 21 days in a low risk country (in my case Thailand) prior to entry. For the most part, those times spent alone in small, soundproof rooms are a strange departure from life as we normally know it. Nonetheless, I consider myself lucky. After completing my PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at Bangor University, UK in 2020, I faced the career abyss experienced by many early career researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic . Graduate students all around me had to suspend their studies, or in some cases drop out altogether, because their funding required research they could no longer conduct.

In 2020, I got a post-doctorate at Hong Kong Polytechnic University after more than a year of writing applications. Right after my doctorate, I was offered a job in Singapore. I applied for the visa and packed my bags when the pandemic hit. My potential employer – presumably hit by funding cuts – has stopped resending my emails. So when this job in Hong Kong came up, I jumped at the opportunity to work with a fantastic principal investigator on a project studying the electrophysiological correlates of speech processing. The fact that Hong Kong has some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the world was certainly an afterthought.

Dealing with the true scale of the complexities of travel restrictions is now a reality for me, as it is for many other researchers, with a family and professional life divided between countries that have totally different approaches to COVID-19.

Here are some lessons I have learned so far.

Isolate your work from your social life

Isolation will be different for everyone, but I’ve found that there are a few things you can do to maximize your chances of surviving quarantine while still maintaining a bit of sanity. First of all, take the opportunity to catch up with people. Reply to old unread messages and take the time to get in touch with your friends. And lab meetings may well become your only source of contact (albeit virtual) during working hours, so take advantage of the social input they provide.

Keep moving, keep eating, and don’t let work take over. It took me a while to realize that my step count should probably be higher than my word count, even when I’m stuck inside. Let your calorie count be an outlier – food can be a great source of joy and structure in an otherwise very limited world. Simple restrictions on movement weren’t going to hamper the Hong Kong food tour I had taken from the confines of my quarantined hotel room, via delivery services.

Finally, set professional and non-professional goals, if they are helpful, but be kind to yourself if (when) you don’t reach them. Some days, it can be quite difficult to muster the enthusiasm to get out of bed in the morning, let alone a particularly boring task you’ve been putting off for weeks.

Define your non-negotiable

If you are traveling to a country with strict travel restrictions and expensive entry and testing procedures, ask yourself a few key questions and try to answer honestly. How often do you want to be able to come home and see your partner, family or friends? How much are you willing to spend on tests and quarantines so that you can leave and return to this country? How comfortable are you with the idea of ​​total isolation and how long could you put up with it? Establish what you are happy with and write it down, so that you have a concrete baseline to refer to, because in the ever-changing world of travel restrictions and requirements, you can bet your non-negotiable items are going to be challenged. . .

Jeanne's room.

Hong Kong’s strict COVID-19 restrictions meant Jen Lewendon had to spend long periods confined to her hotel room.Credit: Jennifer Lewendon

I knew that, as with many language professionals, collecting data for my research would require extended trips outside Hong Kong, and I appreciated the opportunity – thanks to collaborations in Wales and Ireland – to being closer to home for periods of time during my work. Nonetheless, after two trips between Hong Kong and the UK, one involving 8 weeks of isolation, a “21-day maximum quarantine” rule is the latest addition to my non-negotiable list.

Push for flexibility

We are all living in unprecedented times, and you shouldn’t be the only one making the compromise. Don’t be afraid to explore the possibilities with your employer in terms of remote working, flexible work arrangements and collaborations that bring you a little closer to home. If potential employers are absolutely unwilling to engage in negotiations, take the time to determine if they are the right people to be hired during a global pandemic.

To be realistic

COVID tests, quarantines, more COVID tests, canceled flights, ‘fit to fly’ certificates and other realities of travel during the pandemic mean that if you are considering committing to a high restriction country that requires a trip, or wanting to visit the house, it’s going to cost you dearly. It might not even be a wise decision, financially speaking, to take the job in the first place. For me, the financial security of my first post-doctorate, after nearly a decade of study, was somewhat offset by travel protocols constraining a research project that requires international travel, and by the difficulty of returning home. at home and maintain a work-life balance. When considering a position, ask yourself: How much do you like this project? Are you purely motivated by research and opportunities? Because, as an early career researcher, if you’re doing it for the money, it might not pay off.

Act if you’re not happy

Ever-changing travel restrictions and entry requirements can sometimes feel like a bad relationship, in which goalposts are continually shifted and the compromises you’ve made are constantly being questioned.

For me, being denied boarding at the airport due to a slight discrepancy on a document (after immigration confirmed everything was fine), and waiting until 5 am for the results ” lost ”from a COVID-19 test (a few hours before a flight) were real low points. Continue to check with yourself to see if you’ve crossed the threshold and the situation is no longer working for you. It’s common in academia to accept being less than happy for short periods of time, in order to progress, but remember that being unhappy shouldn’t be the norm.

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