When graduate student Kate Dusenbury Crawford returned to the lab from her honeymoon on Jan. 20, she had no idea it was a fateful day in her nascent scientific career. The M.D./Ph.D. student in Dr. Jesse Bloom’s lab at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center studies the proteins that viruses like Ebola and rabies use to enter cells — work that could help scientists understand viral pandemics. She walked back into lab the same day that her state of Washington announced its first case of COVID-19.
“I was just back in lab, and a lot of people were saying, ‘Kate, you need to start studying this virus!’” she recalled. Understandably, she hadn’t been paying much attention to current events. The pandemic locking down Wuhan, China, still seemed a world away.
The news struck closer to home for Fred Hutch postdoctoral fellow Dr. Wei Li. He’d recently arrived to work in Dr. Slobodan Beronja’s lab — direct from Wuhan itself. Li had managed to miss Wuhan's severe lockdown, and now realized he’d made it to his new job just in time.
“If I’d come later, flights between China and the U.S. were stopped, so I wouldn’t have been able to join the lab,” he said. “I feel lucky.”
Li’s lucky feeling didn’t last long.
Beronja’s lab focuses on skin tissue development and how changes to this normal process can lead to cancer. To join the team, Li had switched scientific disciplines and arrived in January expecting to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a lab mate who would train him in new techniques.
But as the pandemic ramped up, society ramped down. Hutch leadership limited personnel to one per lab at a time and required at least six feet of separation. No longer could Li’s new coworkers safely train him. His fledgling projects stalled.
“It was terrible for me,” Li said.
Not every early career scientist has had their research and training derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as Li has. Dusenbury Crawford and other virologists found new opportunities in coronavirus research.
Others have been able to make progress from home by working on computational projects, analyzing data or writing new grants.
Nevertheless, for young researchers working hard to build careers in an already-challenging field, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new uncertainty as they learn new ways of connecting with mentors and work to lay the foundation of their future careers.
Now, as research re-opens and young scientists return to the bench, they take stock of how the pandemic affected their lives and their work, and consider what lies ahead.
Six months later, Li is still waiting for the training he needs, although he was able to spend the last few months performing experiments that will lay the groundwork for his main projects once they get back on track.
Some projects are stalled for other reasons. Many types of research studies, once shut down, can’t be flipped back on like a light switch. During early lockdown, scientists pared their lab activities to the bare minimum, which meant that many carefully established experimental systems couldn’t be maintained. Even now that the center allows the full complement of people per lab with new safety measures, many scientists who faced this dilemma are stuck in second gear as they rebuild their systems. This is especially tough for junior scientists who are trying to lay the foundations for their careers in just a few years.
The effects of social distancing even affected early-career scientists like Dusenbury Crawford who were able to pivot to COVID-19-related projects and continue work in the lab.
Postdoc Dr. Caitlin Stoddard was one of them.
Stoddard, who works with Hutch virologist Dr. Julie Overbaugh, holder of the Endowed Chair for Graduate Educationand director of the office of graduate education and training, had been implementing a technique to map where specialized immune proteins called antibodies bind viruses. When the pandemic hit, she quickly adapted it to study the immune response against the novel coronavirus.
“Around March, when Fred Hutch locked down … I was the only person [in the Overbaugh Lab] at that point working on a coronavirus project,” she said. “It was a very strange, surreal time — coming in for about six weeks, being pretty much the only person on this floor.”
Her friends in other disciplines faced an existential crisis.
“I’m talking to friends from the past,” Stoddard said. “Basic scientists doing biochemistry or structural biology — they’re really stuck at home. [Feeling] like, none of what I do on a daily basis seems to matter in this situation.”
To keep their morale up and their work moving during social distancing, scientific teams at many institutions turned to technology like video conferencing and Slack for connection and collaboration. But this didn’t really replace the chance conversations with colleagues that scientists luck into while in line at the coffee stand or in the hallways.
This was especially challenging for those early in their careers.
“The lockdown essentially stopped all personal interactions, all the one-offs that you would have with people, just talking about research, bumping into people at weekly seminars,” said Dr. Sitapriya Moorthi, a computational biologist who joined the lab of Hutch lung cancer researcher Dr. Alice Berger in May 2019.
New postdocs like Moorthi seek out these type of interactions as they build their projects, she said. In her first year at the Hutch, she’s missed out on six months of this kind of network-building, which will make finding future mentors more challenging.
Science-changing, career-driving chance meetings don’t just happen on campus — scientific conferences make them possible even across international borders. Dr. Tyler Starr, postdoctoral fellow in Bloom’s lab, had spent a year eagerly anticipating his first antibody-focused conference, scheduled for April.
“I come from the molecular evolution field,” said Starr, who studies how antibodies, the specialized immune proteins our bodies raise against microbes like viruses, evolve after infection. “This was going to be my first conference I was going to with data, where there would be professors and industry people who work on antibody engineering. I was going to meet all the right people, and really get out there.”
But, like most conferences earlier this year, Starr’s conference was canceled. He has yet to attend a virtual conference, but he isn’t optimistic that those will be able to recreate the energy and opportunities of in-person scientific get-togethers.
The shift to virtual also threw a wrench in the plans of those at the very beginning of their graduate training. During their first year of graduate school, students rotate through several labs, looking for the right fit of mentor and project for the next six or so years of their lives.
In spring quarter of 2020, this process also went virtual, which “was a little awkward,” said Andrea Brocato, who, as program operations director of research administration, helps administer the joint University of Washington/Fred Hutch Molecular & Cellular Biology Program. She and project manager Maura Do also support grad students from 10 other UW departments.
"It took effort for everyone to adapt [to virtual rotations],” Brocato said, “but they did well!”
Previously, students could easily drop by the research admin office, a space made cozy and approachable with candy and a friendly pup or two. Now, Brocato and her team lure grad students to virtual office hours with trivia and home-baked desserts (dropped off by Brocato at the trivia winner’s lab).
Luckily, restrictions have relaxed enough that, with proper safety measures, this year’s rotating students will be able to do their autumn quarter rotations in person.
Despite the occasional virtual stumble, some researchers expressed optimism about science’s new virtual reality.
“I think the community is definitely adaptive,” Stoddard said. “We will rise to the situation and people will still be able to network.”
As a case in point, Dr. Christine Cucinotta, a postdoc mentored by Dr. Toshio Tsukiyama, and Dr. Pravrutha Raman, a postdoc co-mentored by Tsukiyama and Dr. Harmit Malik, worked with scientists worldwide to put together a virtual community, called the Fragile Nucleosome, for researchers who study chromatin, the protein packaging system that our cells use to organize DNA. The organization, which holds weekly meetings, has grown to over 800 members.
Young scientists looking ahead to the next phase of their career are feeling the effects of the pandemic and accompanying economic crunch. Moorthi said she has several friends whose job offers were rescinded. She worries that these effects will be felt several years into the future, as scientists who didn’t get a new position this year go on the market again, increasing the competition for what Moorthi expects will be fewer jobs.
Dr. Zhe Ying, a postdoc in Beronja’s lab, is readying himself for the next phase of his career: faculty member.
But the pandemic pinched the academic research centers where Ying and fellow postdocs would seek those positions. In March, the Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed university presidents, 83% of whom expected to implement hiring freezes. Ying saw open faculty positions evaporate.
“It was kind of dramatic in the beginning — I was super nervous,” he said. “At this time the previous year, there were 110 cancer-related jobs on Nature Careers. This year, only 28; a month ago, nothing.”
The effects are not being felt evenly, said Ying, who said it appears that smaller institutions are less likely to have open positions than larger or better-known research centers. (Fred Hutch is among institutions still recruiting new faculty members.)
Funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health changed some policies to help young scientists like these who are entering the job market at such a difficult time.
Last year, Ying received an award from the NIH called a K99 to study how certain mutations overcome cells’ cancer-blocking mechanisms and promote head and neck cancer. These awards provide funding for the last two years of a scientist’s career as a postdoc, and the first three as a junior faculty member. In normal times, K99 awardees need to secure a faculty job within two years, or forfeit the rest of their funding. To give Ying and others with K99s a little breathing room, the NIH will allow any who don’t get a faculty job this year to apply for a one-year, no-cost extension.
The NIH also gave potential K99 applicants a one-year grace period: Generally they need to apply within the first four years of their postdoc career, but next year’s applicants will have a five-year window. During the height of the pandemic, scientists supported by NIH grants, but unable to work full-time, were still paid in full, though that window appears to be closing Sept. 30.
In addition to the NIH, investigators often turn to foundations to support their research. But many of these rely on donations to bankroll projects — and these have plummeted. Some, like the American Cancer Society, cancelled application reviews in April and have now put new grant applications on hold.
Some scientists, like Ying and Moorthi, are worried about what the future holds. Ying believes that the pandemic’s full effects on research are long-term and have yet to be felt. His friends who got faculty positions last year — before anyone had any inkling of a global pandemic — don’t feel safe.
“They’re super nervous, because they’re spending tons of money: ‘I’ve already recruited three postdocs — what are they going to do?’” Ying said. “In the next three years, are they going to have to ask people to go? Are they going to scale down their research, or even put down the quality of research? We don’t know. If you really want to do a top-notch job, that’s super expensive.”
Dr. Karen Peterson, who directs the Hutch’s Office of Scientific Career Development, helped guide postdocs through job searches in the 2008 recession, and she sees some parallels. First off, she has good news for those, like Ying, with K99s: “I don't know anybody who had a K99 or R00 [a similar NIH grant] who did not get a faculty position,” she said.
She also recommends that postdocs don’t make big decisions based on short-term situations. If it’s possible to hunker down and “shelter in place” by extending their postdocs, that’s probably their best bet, she said. After academic job prospects cratered in 2008, she saw them rebound in a big way by 2010. For those who can’t buy some time with a longer postdoc, Peterson recommends considering positions in industry.
That’s the direction that Dr. Yiting Lim went. Lim is a postdoc in the lab of Fred Hutch prostate and bladder cancer researcher Dr. Andrew Hsieh. After a day-long virtual interview process, she recently landed a job at a Seattle-area biotech company — sight unseen.
“They’re going to mail me a laptop,” she said of the company, which recruited her based on her expertise in protein synthesis. “To this day I have not seen anyone in person that I’m going to be working with. I have not seen the space that I’m going to be working in.”
That kind of flexibility is exactly what’s needed now, researchers said.
Plus, an awareness that despite the challenges, at least everyone’s in the same boat. People have consistently met each other with understanding, they said, grounded in the knowledge that it’s human effort that drives discovery.
“Key to doing science are persistence and curiosity,” said Lim’s mentor Hsieh, who just hired a new postdoc after completing his first all-virtual hiring process. “Fortunately, even a once-in-an-era pandemic can't take those away.”
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at email@example.com.
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