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Sunday, March 22, 2020:

I’m having difficulty resuming normal operations, including maintaining this blog. Rather than try to force out something related to the science world that might not be my best writing, I’m going to just share about my personal life. I know many other people right now are feeling the effects of this terrible global pandemic caused by a teeny little virus that happens to be really good at hijacking our cells and hitching rides on liquid droplets. I just wanted to be candid about how I’m dealing with it (poorly, but getting better) and maybe have this post to look back to when this crisis is resolved.

The Monday of this past week was my birthday, and also the day stay-at-home orders were issued for California and Illinois, and also the day labs were ordered to ramp down activities at UCLA. This is the makings of a great story to tell to my grandkids in the future!

On Monday, the day I was supposed to visit my high school to discuss research careers with students (but didn’t), I learned that California Science and Engineering Fair had been canceled, of which I was going to be a judge. This was disappointing, but not as disappointing as the startup accelerator my team at University of Illinois had gotten halfway through getting canceled. Even though it’s for the best, and everyone is experiencing this as well, it was a big blow to my motivation for science outreach. I’m working on rebounding.

But my parents got me a cake, and two of my friends came over with a second cake, and I really felt happy and lucky to be with friends and family.

On Tuesday, I kind of floated around in a haze. I got out my laptop, because I was going to work and I had flown the thing back home (it’s heavy), and my stack of research papers, and got through maybe about one abstract before I started clicking around on Coronavirus news and got lost.

On Wednesday, I flew back to Los Angeles because I had said that I’d return to the lab Wednesday afternoon. We lab personnel were pretty confused about the rules of can/cannot be in the lab during ramp-down week. I informed my PI and lab manager that I’d traveled through airports, and inquired whether I should come in or not. He told me I’d be able to come in for the rest of the week, but only in early mornings or after people had left. I spent the rest of the day stunned, went to the grocery store because my fridge was empty, and was stunned some more when I found out that all the frozen vegetables had been cleared out (I’m not kidding, frozen vegetables make up 23.8% of my usual diet). Then I contemplated reading papers about my thesis project, and instead consumed papers about COVID-19.

On Thursday, I entered the lab at 6:00 AM fully prepared to run my last blot for a long while. So I made my gels from scratch. Starting to get back into the swing of things, I began to plan out what I’d do Thursday/Friday as my gels were setting. Then I found out my chemicals hadn’t arrived yet. So I wouldn’t be able to run the blot. I ended up leaving at 12:30, which was probably a lot later than I was supposed to stay given that all usual personnel had arrived. I think I went to both grocery stores to see if I could score a dozen eggs from somewhere (I failed).

On Friday, California issued shelter-in-place orders, shuttering all nonessential businesses (including Starbucks). Confused about what this meant, I asked the lab manager if I should go to the lab, and was informed that I should be at home until further notice. So I spent the day at home planning how to write an application for 10k to use UCLA equipment, and spoke to my PI about what I was going to do next week, and asked if I’d be able to come in at hours when no one in the lab (the answer was no, but I was pretty desperate). Then I went in at 4:30pm after people in my lab had evacuated, and proceeded to euthanize mice that we couldn’t justify as essential, for the health and safety of animal facility personnel. At around 8:30 pm,

I
said
goodbye
to
my
lab.

I’ll be working from home starting Monday, March 23. I know it’s dramatic, but I really feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. The lab cave feels much more “home” than my eating/showering space in LA. In fact, I usually get to the Biomedical Library at 7:30 AM so I can hatch lab plans. I also know that I’m pretty privileged to be able to sit on my tush and eat snacks as I WFH, but that’s also precisely what I’m scared of.
Oh, and I got my first fellowship rejection in graduate school! A true milestone, but I didn’t feel crushed about it like I usually do. In fact, I didn’t really feel much at all.
I also threw in a significant percentage of my savings into an index fund that tracks the S&P 500, but recklessly- without making a careful calculation about how much of my savings I might need, or risk analysis research of doing this vs keeping my money, well, safe in a high-interest savings account.

Saturday, I felt like I ought to be working since I had spent most of the week in a daze. So I went rogue, and signed up for a bunch of online programming workshops, since I felt like I should be taking advantage of this time to broaden my skill sets, worked on concept development for some new ideas of mine, and assembled a team of six for a hackathon because sometimes I have these random spurts of high motivation and enthusiasm. I also overloaded my quarter, since classes are online anyways, which I may or may not regret later, and I talked to 5 friends that day . I didn’t exercise at all and ate way too much food (a scary preview of what could come if I let myself descend into undisciplined, unmotivated oblivion).

Today, I finally processed (somewhat) what my true problems are. I usually have this pretty big problem where if something doesn’t go the way I expect it to, I’m completely derailed for a bit, and then things snowball to the point where I’m behind on almost everything, and nothing is my best work anymore. Then I hit the reset button, and all of a sudden all the pans I’m juggling seem completely manageable, and I can do anything.

Here’s the problem: I’m horribly afraid of losing structure. I’m afraid that one day will blend into the next, where weekends and time off are just work-from-home days with a different name. I don’t even know if I should or am allowed to fold the clothes during the work day, because sometimes I need a break but it doesn’t feel right to allow myself to do “home” stuff. I have tasks to do in terms of lab work, such as data analysis and applying for funding, but I keep dragging it out because I’m worried I’ll not know what to do once those tasks are done. There’s also so many things I want to do, and then I’m not sure I want to do because I don’t know if I want to do them out of personal interest or because there’s a scary expanse of WFH time and I need to fill it up.

So, I decided that today I’ll just turn all aspects of my life into data and giant to-do lists, because then I’ll have more boxes to check, data to analyze and obsess over, and I’ll feel more in control of things. I’m going to be creating weekly reading plans for science literature, weekly plans for lab tasks, weekly startup plans, weekly scicomm plans. And I’m currently creating trackers for budget, exercise, papers read, lab tasks, and time spent on my phone.

Hopefully, these planning and tracking mechanisms (essentially, rule-setting for myself) will help me get back on top of everything.

Sincerely,
a lost PhD student

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