In early March, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in my city, Boston. Suddenly, our university inundated us with emails encouraging good hygiene practices and social distancing. Then, a few days later, we were informed that all noncritical research should stop and that mandatory work-from-home policies would be implemented. Anxiety spread like wildfire. I had not expected my work life on campus to stop so suddenly. My lab mates and I think of our workspace as a home away from home, where we enjoy interacting at lab meetings and over coffee. I felt a pit in my stomach as I realized all that was over for now. I was afraid of feeling isolated.
What worried me even more was the extent of the isolation. Within a few days of learning that I’d be working at home for at least 6 weeks, I found out that a conference I was planning to attend in June was canceled. Not only was I going to miss my work environment, but I was also going to lose a great opportunity to meet researchers from around the world, share ideas, and present my work.
On the last day we were all in the lab together, my postdoc adviser mentioned he wanted to start an online seminar series. At first I felt relieved, thinking that virtual seminars would at least provide some respite from isolation. But I doubted they would measure up to the experience of in-person seminars.
Together with another lab head, my adviser spread the word that they were starting a Slack group, where researchers in our field—the science of aging—could have discussions and sign up to give seminars. The group quickly amassed roughly 600 members, and the speaker list filled up. That seemed promising, but I still wondered how many scientists would actually tune in to the seminars, which were slated to take place once every workday.
One week after our university closed, I settled into my makeshift work-from-home desk and logged on to my first virtual seminar. I was pleasantly surprised to see some familiar names online, some from as far away as Brazil and China. Midway through the talk, I noticed that more than 250 researchers were watching. As I took notes, jotting down intriguing experiments and impressive techniques, the unfamiliarity of the experience faded. I realized that despite being alone in my apartment, I was taking part in an event with researchers from around the world, some probably motivated by the same fear of isolation I had felt.
We have continued the daily seminars in the weeks since then, hearing from senior scientists, Ph.D. students, postdocs, and others in our field. After each seminar, we ask the speaker questions on Slack and take part in a group discussion about their research. I’ve found the talks helpful for learning about new lab techniques and identifying researchers whom I might be able to collaborate with in the future.
My sense of isolation has faded, and … I feel more connected than ever.
We’ve also used our Slack group to connect in more personal ways, such as by sharing updates on COVID-19 cases in our respective countries and commiserating about struggles that we’re going through. I have been able to reconnect with colleagues whom I met at conferences years ago but had since lost touch with. My sense of isolation has faded, and—perhaps counterintuitively—I feel more connected than ever.
I began my work-at-home experience worried about losing the opportunity to connect with my colleagues. But I now realize that I am part of a global research community that can thrive online. I plan to continue my conversations with colleagues via our Slack group long after the pandemic is quelled. That will allow us to connect year-round, not just during our field’s annual conference, and to include researchers for whom travel is difficult.
If you find yourself lonely working from home, I’d recommend starting your own online community with colleagues in your field. We’re facing tough times and an uncertain future. But it’s also an opportunity to rethink how we interact with one another, in ways that will benefit the scientific community in the long term.