And I don’t even like coffee


As I finished another year into the PhD program, I spent some time taking a helicopter view of my work so far. One of the things that struck me, was that I could trace over a fifth of my research projects back to discussions around the coffee machine. So obviously, I was a bit bummed out when a couple of weeks ago, the department effectively forbade us to take group coffee breaks.

As labs went back to business in May, quite a few of us reverted to those two customary coffee breaks; some took a few more. One was typically at about 10 AM when experiments had just been set up and were about to kick off, and another one late in the afternoon when there would typically be something exciting to share or an equally distasteful outcome to sulk over.

Seating was always limited to four and shrunk further in view of social distancing norms, but that didn’t stop us from gathering up, “anderhalve meter” away from each other. All of this over some mild, often tepid, liquid intelligence spurted out of a temperamental vending machine.

As matters worsened a few weeks ago, COVID-wise, during coffee breaks my glance would often shift over to the corridors and stairwells, expecting some authoritative figure to appear and tell us off. A couple of e-mails, the seating being removed and a few designated standing areas later, that finally happened. And to be honest, I do see the point in it. If the past several months have taught me something, it is to give precautions a chance before actively questioning their validity. And I’ll try to hold on to that for as long as I can.

But I do wonder how it will play out in the long run. Lab-based research is, more often than not, a solitary experience. Save a passing glance or a quick strictly work-related check-in with collaborators, there can be days when one is so engrossed in experiments in a remote, pitch dark corner that a couple of conversations with a few familiar faces might just be their only contact. And like I mentioned at the get-go, these informal dialogues often nurture thoughts and ideas seldom expressed in more structured settings, at times leading to collaborative work thus broadening one’s scope of research.

So, I find myself asking, is there a better way to do this? To keep labs open, including their informal spaces, while still being safe and considerate? If so, personally, I’m even willing to trade in the coffee. I don’t even like coffee.

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