Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dealing with disruption: Tips from an academic scientist

Emory chemist Jennifer Heemstra (@JenHeemstra) will moderate a Twitter chat, #COVIDisruption, on Wednesday, March 25  from 3 to 4 pm. The chat is one of a series organized by Chemical and Engineering News Magazine on topics of interest involving academia and the pandemic. (Photo by Kay Hinton)

By Carol Clark

Efforts to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused K-12 schools to shutter, driven universities from on-campus to remote learning, and forced laboratory scientists doing research that is not immediately critical to saving lives to stop experiments and close their facilities.

Jennifer Heemstra, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University, is working to adapt to many new realities, like people across the Emory community and around the globe. By March 18, she had shut down her lab, which is run by a team of 16 students and post-doctoral fellows. Their many projects included synthesizing molecules as tools for diagnostics, gene therapy and drug delivery. When the lab doors shut, other doors opened onto new challenges for everyone involved.

Heemstra, who is also a spouse and parent of two young children, Tweeted: “Waking up and realizing I have two new job titles: Professor at an online university and first- and sixth-grade homeschool teacher.”

“It’s been really challenging,” Heemstra admits by phone, more than a week later. “It’s fun to spend more time together as a family, but I’m not a natural work-life integrator. I enjoy intense days at work and then coming home to be a mom. But blending work with the rhythm of family life is more difficult than I expected.”

It’s this kind of frankness that has earned Heemstra more than 48,000 followers on her lively Twitter feed (@jenheemstra). While her career is thriving, Heemstra is no stranger to academic disruptions and disappointments. She draws from her own experiences to encourage others to learn and grow from setbacks.

Heemstra writes a column for Chemical and Engineering News Magazine, a leading trade publication, called “Office Hours.” It covers topics like the importance of human relationships to science and how to create a supportive environment in a research lab.

“As scientists, we are trained to do research,” Heemstra says. “But there are many other things involved in managing a lab, like leading and motivating teams of people. Apparently, there was a gap that needed to be filled for chemists talking about the ‘people’ part of doing science.”

On Wednesday, March 25, Heemstra will moderate a Chemical and Engineering News Magazine Twitter chat, #COVIDisruption, from 3 to 4 pm ET, focusing on the impact on faculty. The chat is part of a #COVIDisruption series by the magazine (@cenmag), running at the same time each day from March 24 to March 27. Different moderators will take questions on topics of interest involving the pandemic and academia, such as the impact on employment, the switch to online teaching and graduate student mental health.

“This pandemic may be one of the biggest challenges many of us face in our careers and our lives,” Heemstra says. “One of the toughest parts of it right now is the uncertainty of the situation.” 

Heemstra invites anyone seeking community to join in the Twitter chat on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, here are a few coping strategies she recommends.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s important to reach out to family, friends and colleagues when you need it, and to tap any institutional resources at your disposal. Emory, for example, has a web site listing support services for the well-being of students, faculty and staff. “Dealing with the impact of COVID-19 is not easy for anyone, but I’m so thankful in this moment to be a faculty member at Emory,” Heemstra says.

Acknowledge the loss. Even though we’re in a global crisis, it’s normal to feel badly about how it’s impacting you personally. “It’s okay to let yourself mourn the loss of the experiences you thought you were going to have,” Heemstra says, whether you’re a senior who will not get to walk across a stage for commencement or a PhD candidate having to defend a thesis virtually.

Find some higher purpose. Missing out on lab research, or other experiences you had planned, means you’re helping to reduce infection rates by staying home. “That a huge purpose,” Heemstra says. “Look for opportunities to help others however you are able.”

Cultivate community. “During Zoom calls with team members and collaborators we spend a good amount of time listening to everyone’s stories about how we’re coping,” Heemstra says. “That’s been unbelievably therapeutic. Hopefully, one thing everyone can gain from this experience is going beyond texts and emails to having more real conversations.” If you’re feeling isolated, consider joining one of the many online social groups popping up, everything from virtual book clubs to Twitter’s #COVIDCafe, where researchers from around the world gather in small groups to chat about how the pandemic is affecting them.

Practice gratitude. Be thankful for the healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, and all the other people providing essential services, from cashiers to police officers. Learn to appreciate small things, like the chance to take a walk on a beautiful spring day. “When you’re going through a difficult situation, you realize that so much of what you put your energy into is just noise,” Heemstra says. “This crisis may be a chance to think about what really matters and to learn to focus on that.”

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