The COVID-19 global pandemic created a variety of challenges in multiple and diverse personal and professional aspects of our lives. For the first time, the 2020 SIVB World Congress on In Vitro Biology was held online, and it was exceptionally successful and engaging. However, we all missed the in-person interactions, conversations, and social gathering—rather than social distancing—that bring the SIVB community together in our annual meetings.  

Continuing to stay engaged, inspiring each other, and learning from each other is now more important than ever for our Society. We hope that this new “You’ve Got This!” section will become a successful platform to share your stories about the challenges that you face due to this pandemic and the “new normal”, as well as ideas about how to overcome them. Regardless of your career stage and area of expertise, these reflections could inspire and engage many of our students, colleagues and members.

We look forward to reading your stories!

Oluwayemisi Awobode (left) and her research mentor Dr. Addy Alt-Holland (right)

I have the privilege to serve as the research mentor of Oluwayemisi Awobode. Oluwayemisi attended Pine Manor College (PMC) in Chestnut Hill, MA, a neighborhood in the Boston suburbs. She graduated in 2020 with a BA in Biology and a Minor in English Literature and Creative Writing. Pine Manor is a small liberal arts college that applies a one-student-at-a-time approach. A distinctive feature of the academic programming is the Internship Program, which offers voluntary Exploratory Internships and mandates a Senior Internship. These internships introduce students to environments aligned with their major interests, and allow them to explore and experiment, often leading to novel career decisions. As part of ongoing Tufts-PMC partnership, Oluwayemisi joined my lab as a research intern, and she continues to work with me after her graduation. Below she puts her creative writing to work, and share her COVID-19 pandemic challenges and insights.   

Dr. Addy Alt-Holland

 MY GROUNDHOG YEAR

Oluwayemisi Awobode

Research Mentor: Dr. Addy Alt-Holland

Recently, I watched the iconic movie Groundhog Day and was struck by its similarities to my plight. The main character, Phil Conners, an irritable man, is further ruffled when relegated to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Gobblers Knob, Pennsylvania. In the film, Phil is stuck in a time loop, forced to repeat a particular day until he changes his behavior. Although the continuous repetition does not bother him initially, it quickly gets old, creating the catalyst for Phil to redeem himself. Like Phil, I was also unbothered by the pandemic initial lockdown phase, but it did not take long for me to grow weary of the ample free time, and everything I tried to alleviate the boredom had no lasting effect. I found myself in a string of days that followed an almost identical schedule. Before COVID-19, I was a research intern at Dr. Alt-Holland’s lab at the Endodontics department of Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, putting my undergraduate degree into real-world practice. It never occurred to me that a pandemic would start in the last semester of my undergraduate experience. Apparently, there is no available manual detailing all alternate routes if a pandemic crashes into your life’s plan. I realized that I had no backup plans.

“…we all face the same uphill climb in battling the pandemics’ varied consequences.”

There is an image ingrained in my mind, comparing the long rows of hospital beds at the height of the 1918 pandemic to rows of beds set up in school gyms during the 2020 pandemic. A hundred years later the situation is nearly identical. Yet science has and continues to progress immensely due to scientists who dedicate their lives to research in the hopes that humans spend healthier years on this planet. An epic race against time. I was so immersed in my research internships that I never expected that my life would no longer progress as expected.

Deja vu? During my elementary school education, the H1N1 endemic broke out in Illinois, where I lived at the time. I did not understand its severity until my younger sister contracted the virus from her kindergarten class. Even then, it barely registered that the upheaval occurring in my home was happening all across the state, with some families facing much dire consequences than my sisters’ fevered hallucinations. Yet, the memory of that time retreated into the crevices of my mind and stayed there unperturbed. A few years later, I was in the vicinity of another disease, this time, the more deadly Ebola virus. A man laden with the virus and exhibiting symptoms boarded a plane to Nigeria where I was living. Delirious in this state, he often attempted to break out of the hospital where he was quarantined. Only one person was willing to treat him, Dr. Stella Adedovoh. When she died, Nigeria stood rigid. The disease began to spread amongst the healthcare workers creating mass hysteria and forcing people to take protective measures. Although the threat was short-lived and the diseases’ transmission effectively curbed, I finally understood the gravity of viral diseases.

These events solidified my decision to become a scientist and a medical professional. As a biology major in Pine Manor College, I found disease research fascinating, akin to an elaborate game of hide and seek. The amount of effort it took to determine a pathogen rampant in a community seemed to double when faced with finding a cure. This thrilled and terrified me simultaneously. I was grateful that the ongoing research for the “major bugs” meant salvation from ruthless Nature was possible. This overshadowed my college advisor’s comment that “in our lifetime, there is bound to be at least one pandemic.” In my youth and naïveté, I assumed it was many decades away. Science would have all the answers by then.

What’s next? The first time I realized that COVID-19 was nigh and deadly was over a weekend when my co-worker exclaimed at China’s rapidly rising death toll. She wanted to know how and why the travesty had come about. Drawing upon the virology I had learned, I tried to explain, but could not find the information to assuage her fears. Shortly after, my college abruptly suspended in-person classes for the remainder of the semester. This was an anticlimactic end to my college experience. With the stay-at-home phase in Massachusetts, my research internship with Dr. Alt-Holland paused as the lab halted its operations. Initially, the completion of my college online classes gave my time some structure, but that too ended. Then the cabin fever set in, and I soon realized I had not left my home in months. Year 2020, my year of great expectations, was running by, and I was still indoors. The most overwhelming consequence of this pandemic was uncertainty. The pandemic had made it painfully clear that we are vulnerable, and at times, that knowledge seemed too existential. At other times, I thought about the well-planned goals for my future and career that were blown to smithereens. Unsure of my next course of action and possibilities, I began to wonder what’s next

Being a college graduate with your life in your hands and the world ahead of you is in itself nerve-wracking. Attempting to decide what path to set your feet amid a pandemic seemed insurmountable. There was no end in sight for this pandemic or its repercussions, and I did not know what world I would be stepping into when the dust settled or, more importantly, what my interests would be when it all passed. My career plans shifted and changed so often until they became a muddle blob that weighed on my subconscious. I could no longer find anything to capture my interest and each day passed like a lucid daydream. To compensate for the lost time, I began to look into occupational opportunities that otherwise would not have garnered a second thought, in the hopes that they would keep me busy. As a child, I would read anything I could get my hands on. Books created a new world that overlapped with my life and I relished the experience. I cherished my imagination that often ran wild. Alas, despite the free time, I had also begun to lose interest in reading. Novels were no longer a treat to myself, or an outlet to discover new worlds, but rather a tool to while away the time. As I endeavored to acclimatize to this “new normal,” I knew, at the very least, I had to rediscover my joy in reading.

Why you need a mentor? I mentioned how listless and disinterested I felt to my research mentor Dr. Alt-Holland. Although my work in her lab had unceremoniously stopped due to the pandemic, she often gave me projects to work on to ensure that I did not fall through the cracks of my uncertainty. Unlike my research work in her lab, this internship included compelling and inspiring books, movies, TV shows, and TED talks that delved into the intricacies of the human brain and mind. Exploratory walks in my neighborhood to rediscover myself and appreciate nature around me accompanied these assignments. I began to view the human mind as a vast field of connected tubules through which all the information and stimulus of our daily existence is processed. I learned that our subconscious could be trained to recognize, bypass and react to many emotional responses. Understanding and practicing mindfulness is also imperative in learning healthy practices. By learning to refocus and calm the mind, we have the capacity to deviate from the cycles that only lead to self-deprecation and doubt. I was prompted to ask, “Why am I allowing the pandemic to derail plans, and change the way I viewed my abilities?” I found joy in sitting outdoors watching the seasons shift and found peace in recognizing my humble existence against the light of the universe. I accepted that my inability to change the world now did not mean I would not do so in the future.

“Understanding and practicing mindfulness is also imperative in learning healthy practices. By learning to refocus and calm the mind, we have the capacity to deviate from the cycles that only lead to self-deprecation and doubt. I was prompted to ask, “Why am I allowing the pandemic to derail plans, and change the way I viewed my abilities?”

My best advice. In speaking with my peers and “budding scientists” like myself, I have realized that we all face the same uphill climb in battling the pandemics’ varied consequences. Despite the difficulties, which often leave us despondent and quizzical of our talent, we are committed to being productive members of society. I realized that everything we try as humans, food music or hobbies is all about research. We then subconsciously or consciously use that information to determine what we prefer, and shape the world around us. In scientific research, every test, hypothesis and result pulls at the thread of the bigger picture. It is not an arbitrary mountain that we climb, but a winding path with unknowns at every turn. I realized that to progress and expand our horizons we must continue to try new and different things with an open mind and the intent of learning. In exploring new specialties and neighboring parks, I was able to slow the angry churning of my mind and allow my brain time to accept the changes in my life and discover new reasoning and observational skills. Even if not apparent, everything is connected; it is finding the connections that keep us evolving. This knowledge helps to view the scientific process with a broadened perspective; a concept’s current validity does not guarantee that it is beyond changing, for facts were only ideas before they were proven. 

The most significant takeaway from my exploratory research internship was the profound meanings of honesty. Being truthful about my challenges with my “new normal” created the catalyst to change, because every challenge is an opportunity. In my view, one must not be afraid to chart a different path; you are not indebted to the career path you once planned for yourself. You are charged with doing your best, which is only effectively carried out if you are willing to change tactics when plans go desperately awry. I will not pretend that this is easy to undertake, but circumstances always change and COVID-19 has made it glaringly evident that this is important. Individually, we must take our time to rediscover who we are, reinvent the way we work and remove the mental clock that places an unhealthy timestamp on our achievements. Each day is an opportunity to make life better for yourself and the world around you. Take the small steps until you can lengthen your stride. Be kind to yourself, take the time to stretch beyond your comfort zones – there is no rush. Time, in itself, cannot be wasted – it matters what you do with it. I appreciate that I was willing and able to let go of the idea of sticking to a path I had planned.

This global pandemic is unprecedented, but it created the avenue and the time for self-exploration. So, if ever in our personal or collective future, a challenging situation such as this were to arise again, I hope we remember to expand our horizons. There are new ideas, beautiful people and big futures around the corner, but we have to be willing to find them.