Research in the time of covid-19 (part 2 of 2), July 11, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global health emergency upending people’s lives and impacting them socially, economically in addition to being a health and human crisis. From the perspective of scientists, it has disrupted the typical functioning of academic research labs and hampered the ability to do research. For example, researchers who may have been in the process of collecting data to submit with their grant application or a manuscript for publication now could face inordinate delays. For a lucky few, this delay may be annoying but not debilitating to their academic careers. For others, this could result in the window closing on time critical experiments and needing to start all over again, if at all possible. And for the early career scientists, who are especially vulnerable with the tenure clock ticking, this delay could jeopardize their ability to secure tenure. I’d count myself as among the lucky few, who has his own funding for the next few years. In addition, I work in a lab where my mentor also has funding for the next few years. This has allowed me to stay patient and flexible with my plans, while also exploring other ways to be productive. 

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have been focused on the major K99 deliverables that include Postdoctoral Training, K99 Research Project, R01 Grant Preparation, Manuscript Publications, and Tenure Track Faculty Job Search. With COVID-19 pandemic, my planned approach for each of the deliverables has changed as follows:

  1. Postdoctoral Training: Over the next year or so, I am hoping to pick up skills in bioinformatics and adipose tissue biology to complement my cardiac electrophysiology and scientific computing & visualization background. The pre-covid19 plan was to spend 4-6 months in each of two mentors’ labs (Bioinformatics: Prof Crandall, Adipose Biology: Prof Li) and learn from them. However, with university and lab closures, the timeline has been delayed. But rather than wait for the labs to open back up, I have been attending online seminars, watching and/or reading online tutorials, textbooks and current literature to get conceptual and theoretical knowledge of these skills. Obviously, this approach is not ideal or perfect, and no substitute for hands on learning. But my hope is that when things open back up, I can use the conceptual knowledge gained now to accelerate the learning in the labs. Current Risk Level: Moderate
  2. K99 Research Project: The pre-covid19 plan was to conduct experiments and generate enough data for validating research hypotheses and eventually publish the results as journal papers. With Covid-19, there has been a delay of at least 4 months, which while concerning has not been debilitating, yet. With the labs opening slowly and in phases, I have been able to restart my experiments, albeit at a slow rate. If things continue to improve, I am cautiously optimistic that the delay will be overcome, and I will get back on track with my project timeline. On the other hand, if the Covid-19 pandemic worsens, it could elevate the risk level for this deliverable. Current Risk Level: Moderate.
  3. R01 Grant Preparation: I will be expected to submit a R01 grant application during my 3rd year of the award, at the earliest, giving me 3 years to prepare the application. As such there is no time sensitive work that needs to be accomplished immediately. Even so, my approach has been to do copious amounts of reading including current literature and attend online seminars and presentations to formulate and flesh out new grant ideas.  Pre-covid19, I would be inclined to attend more conferences in person and talk to resident experts and explore opportunities for future collaborations. This would also be in conjunction with doing proof of concept experiments to gather preliminary data for grant applications. With Covid-19, these activities are on hold. But there is still time and I don’t necessarily feel the pressure to try and force the issue. At this time, I am mostly engaged in lot of reading and thought experiments. Current Risk Level: Mild.
  4. Manuscript Publications: The pre-Covid19 plan was to design and conduct experiments, process and analyze data, present results at conferences and publish findings in peer reviewed journals. Rinse and Repeat. With Covid-19 the inability to conduct experiments has put a damper on this process. Thankfully, there are projects in the pipeline where data was already collected, and I was in the various stages of data processing and analysis, or manuscript preparation and revision. These tasks can still continue, and I have been busy on this front. I am hoping by the time these projects are completed and the findings published, the university and the labs will open up for normal function and I will be able to restart experiments on new projects and repopulate my projects pipeline for the future. Current Risk Level: Mild
  5. Tenure Track Faculty Job Search: Professional networking is a never-ending process. Typically, you meet people at scientific conferences and/or put the word out through your professional networking channels that you are looking for a faculty position in the near future. The best time to look for a job is when you already are employed. Even so, finding the right opportunity is a matter of timing and serendipity. Thankfully, I have couple of years to find a TT faculty position. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the professional networking process. Even so, I have used this time to refresh my social media presence and activated a passive job search process. In addition, my mentors are aware of the tentative timeline and are putting out feelers on my behalf. My role at this point is to stay prepared so that when the opportunity does arrive, I will be ready.  Current Risk Level: Mild.

At the end of the day, these plans are not set in stone. I will continually tweak them as needed until I get the expected results. The concept is similar to an airline pilot responsible for flying from one location to another. The pilot sets the initial destination coordinates and takes off. But during the flight, he/she makes continual course corrections to account for wind, turbulence, and storm patterns and eventually lands the plane safely at its destination. I intend to do the same :).