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Embracing the Crisis as a Mother and Early Career Scientist

Embracing the Crisis as a Mother and Early Career Scientist

Photo: Susan Yin/Unsplash.

I am not alone for I know that there are umpteen hoping there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. The COVID-19 outbreak has challenged every individual, and they are all trying with vim and vigour to surmount what barriers they can. As a scientist who is also a mother, I had to gather all my wit to come up with a recipe to embrace the crisis and keep widening my horizon. In this process, I have realised and accepted that it’s okay to be not that productive but developing resilience, agility, and prioritising mental health is key.

It was at the end of March, India declared a lockdown because of the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. Nothing much expected – it was smooth sailing, staying with family and following up on guidelines, understanding facts, overcoming fears.

Looking back in time, felt this was the most needed break. Life has been stressful with bereavement in the family, returning to home country after spending a decade in the US, and that followed by taking up a new job in India. In coping up with these life transitions for the past two years, I have evolved as a person and also a mother. Henceforth, this lockdown period helped in rebooting and reenergising my mind. Breaking the mundane routine, I was happy investing time with family and my 3-year-old daughter. I had super fun watching my sister trying out new recipes and my daughter relishing the food. It was a time worth spent with family sharing the household chores and watching movies together. It was indeed blissful confining to home enjoying motherhood.

As a scientist, missed the lab activities during the lockdown but could convince myself to take up this guilt-free vacation. It did not take much time to resume back to the teaching activities, as all the classes got virtual. Owing to the mentorship responsibilities and realising the fact, it takes time to resume back to bench work. We teamed up and embarked on finishing our pending writing assignments. Thanks to social media, specifically Twitter, which which I have been able to maintain my sanity, exchanging ideas, get updates on COVID-19, participate in webinars and read inspiring stories of other scientists and their experiences during this pandemic.

With offices and schools remaining shut, it was a herculean task juggling between teaching and childcare. Although the initial days were tough, the process became manageable with time. Although I wasn’t as productive as before, I could still manage and work to meet deadlines by resetting my internal clock.

The real challenges erupted after the lockdown was relaxed in Karnataka (where I work). The schools were still closed but I was wholly unprepared to get back to work. It did take a bit of effort to forge my path by embracing new normals in family, community and myself.

My family came to my rescue. Living in a joint family has been a blessing, and the COVID-19 crisis underscored its significance. As a mother, I knew my daughter was missing her school and friends. As a daughter, I also felt that it was not a simple task for my mother to take care of my child, considering we were already engaged full-time in managing household chores.

A conversation I had with a neighbour, an undergraduate student, helped me find a way. Being highly motivated, the student spent two hours a day teaching and playing with my daughter, which also helped her cope with anxiety, financial stress, and challenges associated with this unprecedented pandemic. My  priority was to have my daughter learn not alphabets, numbers or rhymes but social skills, and spend time playing – all critical for the healthy development of a child.

As an early career researcher, I faced a few challenges, and failures, while setting up a new team and had an exceptional learning experience. After submitting the first year progress report of the grant in March, a young team of ours developed effective project plans, as this is imperative to achieve our goals in the coming years. With the lockdown called, even before the rubber meets the road, we had to change our plans. Lockdown relaxation has not changed the scenario to a large extent in lab settings. Procuring consumables or chemicals have become even harder than before with reduction in working staff, delay in shipments and a mayhem persisting in the country.

Getting down to business, we are mainly focused on writing, preparing protocols for the lab, reading literature, and attending webinars. On a positive note, we meet more often than usual just to talk about hobbies, career plans, experiences, and share ideas. As a mentor ensuring that all of us are on the same page, alleviates stress and builds trust and confidence within the research team. This pandemic has made us realise our commitment to society and engage in science communication and outreach activities. Early career researchers like me are not an exception when it comes to anxiety, stress, and fear of uncertainty at this time of crisis, especially if we don’t learn to be kind to ourselves, keep ourselves focused on our journeys, restoring energy and recharging ourselves.

To be honest, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. Exchanging ideas within the group, self-compassion, and a strong support system have been the key to my work-life balance. The best thing this period has taught me is to live and love my life and define productivity on my own terms.

Divya P. Kumar is an assistant professor and Ramalingaswami Fellow at the department of biochemistry at the J.S.S. Medical College, J.S.S. Academy of Higher Education and Research, Mysore.

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