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  • Writer's pictureMohor Sengupta

Pandemic Pandemonium: our stories during COVID - Part 1

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

We are nearing the end of 2020, a difficult and as yet untamed year for millions of people around the world. Among those are STEM professionals, not to mention the thousands of healthcare workers who took a deeply personal hit. The middle of 2020 looked bleak to many. As the pandemic's toll ebbed and flowed, there seemed to be no breaking free from its limitations on travel and work. Layoffs loomed and obstacles on multiple levels of getting a new position, or continuing with the one you were still able to hold, created a general sense of helplessness. Ways of life began to change with lasting impact on minds and accepted norms.

It was around this time that I interviewed seven individuals with different backgrounds, lived experiences and stories about how COVID-19 changed their professional lives, and sometimes even their outlooks or decisions on future career paths. It made some of these people stop and reflect on life's fragile impermanence, and for others it created a mental space for resilience that they did not know existed. Yet others found that they could tackle all obstacles with time and patience, or bump into a previously unrealized potential they unknowingly held.

Here is part 1 of 3 of their combined stories in their words. We hope it gives you, the reader, a chance to see that you are not alone in this.

Challenging times

Kshama (Doshi) Oza

I am an oncology research scientist, having spent the past 10 years of my career validating targets and therapeutic agents for cancer treatment. The year 2020 has introduced mankind to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that armed itself quietly to cause the most novel and fatal natural disaster – COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic has affected millions of people in different ways, by inducing fatalities and health issues, causing global economic downhill, isolating individuals from their families, and causing job layoffs.

My turn to be affected came in late January 2020, while I was on a trip visiting my family in India. I was informed that given some resource-related reprioritization, my company had laid off 35% of its staff, including me. This news took all of us by shock and dismay, and learning about it from 8,000 miles away was especially brutal.

Being a part of the biotech industry, I was not unaware of restructuring, reprioritizing and layoffs. Despite the awareness, most people encounter the ‘why me’ sentiment when reality hits hard. I would however like to compliment my (ex)-employer and some of my colleagues for their thoughtfulness and constant efforts in making my ‘transition to next step journey’ smooth. This was indeed a stressful period – given my visa-related timeline and the long distance from my husband (who is based out of North Carolina).

The increasing prevalence of COVID-19 and panic among companies regarding the balance between new positions and internal layoffs, made things tougher! I decided to take this challenge head on while still being cognizant of the backup options I had - moving on my husband’s dependent visa or starting school (yet again!!).

My first preference was to maintain my visa status. Based on the visa I was on, I had two months to find a new job. My strategy was to leverage the professional connections I had developed over the course of my career to the best extent possible, while also making new connections within the scientific community using introductions made by my now ex-colleagues. Reaching out to people, networking, and sending out online applications helped me secure multiple hiring manager interviews which then translated into six virtual onsite interviews. I received four offers and was humbled to see light at the end of the tunnel! I decided to accept a role in California and moved there from Boston, Massachusetts.

As I look back into the events of 2020, I believe that my husband and I survived this well. We were able to overcome multiple hurdles, including the pandemic, the long-distance marriage, the visa-related clock ticking away, and moving coasts, with much grace. I am incredibly grateful for the relentless guidance and introductions by my ex-colleagues and professional networks, as they helped me make meaningful connections and expand my reach. As most people would agree, moral support from my family helped me keep my head high and stay prepared for unfavorable outcomes.

New home, new norm

Sunita Sathy Shankaran

On September 9, 2019, I was making the journey from USA to India for the first time in five years. Surrounded by a couple of boxes with all my worldly possessions, and my 14-year-old cat in her carrier, I was making my way back after 18 years of leaving home to earn a Ph.D. and then doing academic research. I was leaving behind my life as a faculty at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, and relocating to India to be closer to my parents.

After completing the arrival formalities at Delhi, I found myself pushing my luggage cart to exit the airport and feeling a blast of the hot, humid September air. There were people bustling around, taxis honking and various sights and smells around me. Yes, I was finally back home! After my initial adjustment phase in Delhi, I travelled to my village in Kerala and stayed with my parents for close to six weeks. It’s fascinating when you realize that your mind and your body tend to remember the circumstances of your initial years at home. To my amazement, followed by relief, I could adapt and find joy in my new surroundings.

I got back to Delhi in early December and started looking for a job. Both the Aadhar card and PAN card were required, none of which I had. I also had no voters ID or ration card. So, I could not open a bank account, I could not give the relevant information for job application packages, and neither could I get a cell phone or gas connection.

I went about collecting documents from my village Panchayat office in Kerala, attesting to the fact that I was indeed my father’s daughter, and that I had a permanent residential address in my family home. The Aadhar card took close to four months to be issued.

By the time I started looking for a new position in academic research in India, news about the coronavirus cases in China were already circulating. I was concerned, but not enough to put my career on hold. I had fewer options as most of the permanent positions were for those younger than 40 years. After clearing an interview, I accepted an offer to join a lab on March 17 as a senior scientist. By that time, the COVID-19 case numbers in Delhi were increasing at an alarming rate and the institute asked us to work from home for the rest of the month. I was not able to even lift my pipette after officially joining work.

The research funds are being redirected to COVID-19 research, and so the funding for future research is uncertain. Job security is historically low. I find graduate students struggling to meet their yearly thesis progress report deadlines, which helps them secure funding for the coming year. There is a lot of discussion on cutting short project times and completing the objectives as best possible. It is uncertain how much research funding will be available to continue ambitious projects.

I did return to India in September 2019 to be close to my parents and considering the challenges of immigration policy and H1-B visas in the U.S., I don’t regret it. I am glad to be back home and closer to my family during this pandemic. We will take it one day at a time.

Read Part-2!

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