Light At The End Of The Tunnel: a world of possibilities - Part 3
As we come to the final installment of our three-part COVID-19 essay series, there now seems to be that long awaited light at the end of the tunnel after 11 long and dark months. However, if you look at history, this wait wasn't all that long. This pandemic set yet another record - that of the fastest vaccine development in history. Pandemics have their way to shove scientific and technological progress in our evolving system when the chronic, day-to-day push isn't enough. And it's all thanks to the immense will power and ingenuity of us, humans.
Speaking of which, in this last part of the essay, we meet two individuals, one of whom has had a reckoning about the intangible truths of life, and the other has turned an undesirable professional crossroad into an open highway of success. While you read their stories, know that this series represents only a tiny fragment of the whole spectrum of people's experiences. I just tried to capture some of them and I sincerely hope things turn around for the better. I also hope you have enjoyed reading this series!
Artwork by Manasi Pethe
Not quite the plan
When the news about COVID-19 first began circulating in the U.S. media around mid-February, I was not overtly concerned. I still recollect chatting with my family and friends, convincing them that the situation was under control, and that the U.S. administration and health professionals would nip the virus in the bud. My friends and I continued making our summer 2020 plans - the ‘best summer ever’ as we referred to it.
At the start of March 2020, the situation was completely different: Maryland had its first positive patient and after what felt like a mere seconds later, an employee from my university tested positive for COVID-19. Within days, the university announced a complete shutdown of in-person instruction and all research activities. As a researcher, the mere idea of terminating lab experiments almost overnight, terrified me. My lab euthanized majority of the mice colony and just like that, 3 months of experiments were obliterated from existence.
”This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,” my brain kept reminding me. ”2020 was supposed to THE best year; This isn’t part of the PLAN”
The ‘plan’ I am referring to, involved a 12-month timeline to complete a graduate law degree and to find a job, alongside completing the final years of my Ph.D. As an international student on an F1-student visa living in an unpredictable political climate, my life revolved around organization and deadlines. A ‘stay at home’ order with no end-date in mind was hard to accept. However, after accepting that lab projects will be affected, I found a healthy way forward. I stayed at a friend’s place for the remainder of quarantine.
While my professional life seemed under control, the personal situation was a different story. Being 8,000 miles away from family during a pandemic has a way of taking a toll of one’s mental health. My parents, both with preexisting conditions, are at higher-risk for COVID-19. When an international travel ban came in place, I knew there was little I could do to help my loved ones in India. I was particularly fond of my maternal grandmother, who was fighting a failing health in Mumbai even before the pandemic shut things down. A few years ago, she shared with me a hope that when her time came, she wanted to pass away peacefully in her home of over 50 years with her all her family and well-wishers by her side. In August 2020, only one part of that wish would be fulfilled. No amount of mental coaching could have prepared me for the reality of her death.
COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone’s professional and personal lives. I have been extremely fortunate that I have a strong support system in my university administration and Baltimore friend circle. While my research and graduation timeline may have been disrupted, I wake up each day with the assurance of a secure job and steady source of income. However, financial security does not lessen the personal loss. COVID-19 has torn apart families and humbled us in a way like nothing else might have. My one hope is that we all can emerge from this pandemic and 2020 as stronger but kinder individuals.
Sharat J. Vayttaden
I had been preparing for this moment for the past 18 years of my training in biomedical science – what kind of a scientist would I be after my training? Would I be a computational biologist? After all, that was my first serious, long-term foray into the scientific method. Would I be a quantitative system pharmacologist, since my Ph.D. work was on that? Or, would I become an immunologist after years of postdoctoral training at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), NIH? But not for once did I think that I would be a freelance scientist. Wait, what? Is that even a real thing?
For the past eight years I have been developing professional contacts in the industry, and as I got ready to leave NIAID, I had two competing job offers, and was close to landing a third one. Then COVID happened.
Everything shut down during my last weeks at NIAID. I didn’t get to say bye in person to the colleagues I had worked with for many years. As for the jobs that I had lined up, I started getting ghosted by some, and others responded that in light of the current uncertainties, they were not filling the role. So, what would I be after 18 years of training in science? A stay-at-home dad was a timely role to fulfill, given that my 2-year-old was home due to closed daycares, and his mom, being an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, had her hands full with patient schedules, pandemic or no pandemic.
As a scientist the one thing we are skilled at is pivoting – we are trained to follow the data even if it leads us away from our favorite hypothesis. That same ability to pivot comes in handy during out-of-lab situations. I couldn’t change the fact that I lost my job offers due to COVID, but I could definitely choose to enjoy the time with my family, being fully aware that our health and my wife’s steady income is a blessing that many other households lack in these difficult times. I started to look for freelance, part-time, remote jobs – they were something I could do.
This led me to discover a whole gig economy for scientists – there are opportunities to be a scientific writer or consultant on any number of projects on sites like Upwork, Kolabtree and Clora. One only needs to have the scientific training, an eye for detail, and a commitment to do quality work in time. The pay has been surprisingly good for the limited hours that I can work. The one thing I have difficulty getting used to is not knowing where my next project will come from, or when.
As a freelancer, I have worked for academia, biotech companies, boutique investment firms, and contract research organizations, from the comfort of my home and at a time of my choosing. I have done a wide variety of jobs on freelance and made a great many contacts! To me, the breadth of topics is exciting, and every day I look forward to finding out what “-ologist” will I be today!
Note: Sharat may be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vayttaden/