Make progress on your research during the COVID-19 quarantine

Scientists rely on the laboratory to safely run experiments. These experiments provide us with new information that we can piece together to write a story and ultimately impact human health. However, to prevent the continuous spread of COVID-19, we are staying safe by remaining at home. There are several ways graduate students can make progress on their research during this time. No, I am not suggesting to run experiments in your house. Whether you’re a first year or a fifth year graduate student, you can move your research forward in the following ways:

1. Summarize your project to-date

Look through all the data you have generated: have you reached a technical triplicate for each experiment? Did you run statistics on each triplicate? Combine all the data into summary figures ready for publication. This will help frame what you’ve completed so far, and what story you’ll continue to tell once you collect new data.

2. Make a list of experiments to resume immediately upon return

No one was expecting to go on month-long hiatus (or even longer). Make a list of the experiments that were stopped-short or you didn’t have the chance to start. Write out the detailed steps that you’ll need to take to hit the ground running (i.e. thawing cells, ordering reagents, etc.).

3. Where will you take your project next?

Now that you have a nice summary of your data and your next immediate steps, think through what other questions you want to answer. What knowledge are you missing to propose experiments to answer those questions? Spend some time reading new papers, drafting new hypotheses, and proposing new experiments.

Note: use a service such as Evernote to record summaries of each paper and a reference manager, such as Mendeley, Zotero, or EndNote, to keep track of the literature.

4. Meticulously plan future experiments to answer those new questions

Do you need to order a new kit or new antibodies? Create a spreadsheet with the proper information so that the order can be placed once research resumes. If your future experiments involve a new technique, obtain and study the protocol to prepare for your return to lab. Importantly, list the steps that must be completed in order to run your future experiments. For example, if you wish to run a qPCR, you need cDNA…which is made from RNA…which is harvested from a cell…which was growing in cell culture. Create a day-by-day schedule of the future experiments and prioritize which experiments should be completed first. To illustrate, it may be unnecessary to run experiment B, depending on your results from experiment A.

5. Identify conferences or symposiums to attend

A key learning experience of graduate school is to attend conferences and present your research. Search for conferences in your field and record key deadlines for registration. Begin working on an abstract to submit for a poster presentation. Unfortunately the current pandemic has resulted in the cancelation of several conferences, but some have moved online and are open access, such as AACR (coming April 13) or seminars from the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.

6. Prepare manuscripts

If you have enough data, start to draft different sections of a manuscript. Check with your PI to see if you lab has been invited to write a review article. This is a great way to obtain in-depth knowledge on the field. If you have some data, start to draft your thesis introduction. Your story may change as you gather more data, but at least you’ll have a strong backbone.

7. Explore professional development

It’s never too early to look into your future career. To get a head start, create an myIDP account. This website requires you to answer two questionnaires to give personal suggestions of potential careers. Additionally, most schools are hosting virtual career development sessions – try to attend to add structure into your day and learn about new professions or resources.

Spend some time updating or creating accounts on professional websites such as LinkedIn, ResearchGate, ORCID, Google Scholar, and Twitter.

Create a weekly productivity schedule

These are all helpful ideas, but they are only of use if you act on them! I like to create a weekly spreadsheet, detailing what tasks I’ll complete each day. To try to maintain a routine, I’ve assigned specific tasks to each day of the week, as shown below:

Tasks are assigned to each day. For example, Mondays are for reading papers about ovarian cancer and preparing for conferences. Tuesdays and Fridays involve reading papers about one of my projects. Wednesdays include meetings and working on my website. On Thursdays I spend time summarizing my data into figures, preparing my presentation, or writing an abstract. At the bottom of the spreadsheet, I list one critical item to complete and summarize what I finished each day.

I strive for 6 hours of productive work a day, broken into 45-minute sessions. After each session, I get up to stretch. If I notice I’m losing focus, I’ll move onto a task assigned to the next day to switch it up. Remember that despite having this “extra time”, prioritize your mental health before your productivity.

I hope this page can serve as inspiration during these strange times. If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments below!

Be well.

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