Emerging stronger: The impact of COVID-19 on the work of scientists

Emerging stronger: The impact of COVID-19 on the work of scientists

By Hannah Bruce, King's College London

In the past few months the world of scientific research has come to the forefront of the popular media - a notion that is basically unheard of. The work of the world’s scientists, that previously went on in the background, is now coming under scrutiny from the general public who are eager to know when advances in the field of virology can put an end to the current pandemic. 

For many scientists, the publicity highlighting their work is a double edged sword: underscoring the importance of basic scientific research to the wider public and validating their life’s work; while also serving as a reminder that if advice from scientific advisors had been followed in years gone by, we may have been more readily equipped to deal with the current situation. 

Researchers across the globe have had to change the way they work. For those involved in vaccine development and virus research, workload will have dramatically increased; for most others the opposite is true, as labs focusing on non-Covid related research have shut their doors.

The Centre for Developmental Neurobiology (CDN) at King’s College London hosts research groups with diverse interests in the field of developmental neuroscience. A key aspect of working in the CDN is the ability to work in close contact with other scientists and collaborate to unite different areas of expertise when working on research projects. However, with London currently in lockdown, we’ve all had to adapt to a new way of working. The impact on ongoing research projects has been variable for different groups, largely dependent on the methods used. For some researchers, where large data sets are readily accessible and analysis is computational, it has been possible to continue aspects of their research. For others, whose work relies on wet lab experiments performed at the bench, research has ground to a frustrating halt, and instead many have turned to writing scientific literature reviews as a productive use of their time.

Whether able to continue with research or not, everyone is facing the struggles that come with working from home, those issues especially prevalent for those with children.

As the number of weeks in lockdown have built up, so have the innovative ways in which CDN scientists are keeping the community spirit and collaborative efforts alive. Weekly seminars which used to take place in a meeting room have now been moved to webinars, allowing us to continue to stay informed about the ground-breaking research that goes on within the centre.

Furthermore, the recently debuted CDN Instagram page (@kcl_cdn) has been a platform via which different labs have been able to share their lockdown experience with the rest of the centre, reminding us that we’re all in this together.

At the time lockdown was announced, many had plans to go to overseas conferences, however, social distancing and changes in tourism regulations due to COVID-19 meant that a physical presence at these events was now impossible. Instead, many research conferences have moved to online platforms, still allowing for interactions between scientists all over the globe. Such innovation is an example of changes that may last past the current pandemic, as in recent years there have been questions raised over the sustainability of overseas conferences in regard to the carbon footprint of travelling.

At the CDN, the Postdocs and PhD student-led seminar series, NEUReka!, will also be undergoing a virtual reimagining, with our first online speaker joining us from the Francis Crick Institute. With the seminars moving to an online platform, it has also opened up the possibility for the invitation of international speakers without the need to fly them over, therefore reducing air miles. As the ethos of the NEUReka! Seminar series is to encourage young researchers to ask questions and discuss their own research with the invited speakers, we are hoping to move our after seminar drinks/get to know the speaker session online with an informal drop in zoom ‘meeting’ with the invited speaker.

These are just some examples of ways in which the current situation has had a positive impact on the work of scientists, and although it’s easy to list the negative impact and inconveniences we’ve all had to face, it is also important to remember the good that has come out of these unprecedented times.

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