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— Research

My So-Called Pandemic Life

How the COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a major training experience for one graduate student-researcher

The thought of another day looking at a blank screen made me want to rip my hair out. We were one month into the COVID-19 lockdown, and after cleaning out my incubator of cells and brain organoids, and cleaning my mouse cages, I was tasked with writing a grant proposal. I had two months until the deadline. But there I was, one month in, and I had nothing.

It was difficult to stay motivated. Before our labs closed down, I had finally gotten the hang of culturing brain organoids, and I was getting promising data for my thesis project. I was in the third year of my PhD program — the year where you’re told you will be the most productive and get the majority of your data before the infamous fourth-year slump. I didn’t expect to spend this productive year at home baking sourdough bread and brewing kombucha while procrastinating writing a grant.

Staring at the blank screen wasn’t working, and I knew I needed help. I reached out to my classmate, Margaret, and she came up with a plan to stay focused.

The next morning, I hopped on a Zoom call with Margaret, and she said, “Got your coffee? Ok, let’s write.”

I minimized the Zoom window so she was in a small box in the corner of my screen while we wrote together, following a productivity hack known as the Pomodoro Technique. It was quiet for 25 minutes. When the bell rang for our break, we chatted while we sipped our coffee until the next bell signaled us to get back to work.

After several morning coffee Zoom calls with Margaret, I finished writing the grant with a couple of days to spare. It was the first time I had felt accomplished since the lockdown started. Although I later found out that the grant didn’t get funded, it was a major training experience for me. My experience writing it during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic changed how I tackle obstacles in my PhD journey. Now, I’m better at managing my time, and I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it.

Looking back, the third year of my PhD was a very productive year both at and away from the bench.