Is COVID-19 a MythBuster?


Anyone who has worked in a lab, knows that there are good days and bad days - the times when things sail smooth and the times when a cog in the machinery (held together mostly with aluminium foil and duct-tape) fails to deliver and entire weeks are effectively ruined. I’ve had plenty of both so far, but my firm belief was that if I lose time, it would purely be because of my own incompetence. Thanks COVID-19 for you showed that our personal nature is just immaterial in the face of larger forces.

Since a few weeks ago, like much else, my bit in science too has moved into home-quarantine. The kitchen is where all of the chemistry happens lately and that seems to be the case for the near future too.

It started when a couple of housemates returned from a ski-trip in northern Italy. I decided to work from home the next day and not long after, following a barrage of e-mails from the university administration, a restriction to lab access was announced. It was a bit unnerving at first as I felt the advisories didn’t quite cover research activities at the university the way they dealt with education, especially when labs all over Europe were quickly going into pyjama mode. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time.

It's now been a few weeks, but I must confess that there still are moments of absolute cluelessness. I have the feeling that being an experimental researcher, the concept of productivity holds a specific meaning, and a critical element of it is spending hours in the lab. Take that chunk away and the idea seems to brutally fall flat on its face. And it’s not to say that there isn’t much else to do at home, for often there is: writing up manuscripts, learning to code and analyse data, reading up on new research or discussions with co-workers. But it is the myth that experimental work largely buttresses research accomplishment which is being tested at this point and I am quite curious if it changes the perception of my own work.

However, some exciting ideas seem to have overcome inertia as a direct consequence of the pandemic. Naturally, events of all sorts are slowly being postponed or cancelled globally. For researchers, one big piece of such events are the scientific conferences, some of which have moved online as a result.

Conceptually, they are still at nascent stage, but the advantages of going online are two fold, in my opinion. At first glance, there seem to be a greater access to such events, owing to the minimal travel (speakers are literally lecturing from their kitchens) and lower spending that attending them would otherwise require. Secondly, because they can be organized far more frequently and flexibly than regular events, a broader diversity of subjects can be explored. Of course, a place to improve at the get go is the nature of science communication on such online platforms because it’s a totally different ball-game. But we learn new things every day, that’s science.

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