How the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Us

By Sarah Williams

The Beckman Center News / Fall 2021

Across academic departments, Beckman Center researchers and administrative staff found lasting value in new ways to communicate and collaborate.

Until last year, the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology (MCP) at the Beckman Center never had a formal newsletter. Department updates were passed along through one-off emails or, often, through word of mouth as researchers, administrators, and students crossed paths in hallways or seminar rooms. But when COVID-19 stay-at-home orders took effect in early 2020, department chair Miriam B. Goodman, Ph.D., needed a new way to communicate with people throughout the department. So she launched the weekly MCP Community Newsletter, to share COVID-19 protocols and resources.

“As a department, we had to navigate a lot of things that we hadn’t previously needed to think about, in terms of work space and safety,” says Dr. Goodman. “The newsletter helped us share information about those topics.”

Dr. Goodman also quickly discovered there were benefits to the newsletter beyond a pandemic tool—she got overwhelmingly positive feedback from department members who said the newsletter helped them stay in the loop and feel connected with their colleagues. So today, she continues it on a monthly basis.

“The whole pandemic experience has been extremely stressful, but within that stress, we’ve been forced to think differently about communication, collaboration, and research,” she says. “There’s real value in that.”

Balancing Work, Life, and Community

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, few researchers would have believed that their work—or the work of their students or support staff—could be done from home. But of course, social distancing requirements kept Beckman Center members at home for months, forcing new routines and approaches to work. At the same time, school and childcare changes introduced complexity into the schedules of many employees.

“We realized during this time that we can be a lot more flexible with people and how they work and still get what we need done,” says Aaron Straight, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry. “There’s a lot that can be done to help our staff better balance their personal and work lives.”

Dr. Straight says he’s keeping that lesson in mind even as pandemic restrictions lift—he and his staff are now more open to allowing telework, and aren’t using presence in the office as a strict indicator of someone’s productivity.

In some cases, the new tools that staff used while working from home ended up having unexpected benefits on team building. Dr. Goodman says the MCP administrative staff, for instance, grew to love their new suite of online tools, including the Slack communication platform.

“It actually knitted our administrative staff much closer together, to such a degree that we’re struggling to keep that close connection as we make the transition back to in-person work,” she says.

 Refocusing Research

The weeks or months spent away from their labs, for most researchers, didn’t mean an automatic lull in their jobs. Rather, it meant a shift from wet lab experiments to more time spent planning experiments, analyzing data, and writing manuscripts.

“This meant a lot of people learned new skills that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Dr. Straight.

Dr. Goodman says the MCP department saw more fellowship applications than usual (“probably because people had more time to write”). She also found her own lab group discussing experimental design far more than usual.

“Because we had limited time in the lab, there was an elevated bar for what experiments we would do,” she says. “I think in the end that probably elevated our research quality.” She suspects that others experienced similar shifts in their experiments.

In addition, when researchers across the Beckman Center were first able to return to their labs, they often had to reorganize their physical space, or work staggered shifts, to meet social distancing requirements. In the MCP department, it meant moving some lab equipment into a recently vacated lab. In a coincidental turn of events, Dr. Goodman says, that led to a new collaboration—two research groups that might not have crossed paths otherwise were using a new shared space and discovered ways to cooperate.

Keeping Departments Running Smoothly

For department chairs, who already balance their research with administrative time and leadership, COVID-19 brought a host of new challenges.

The Developmental Biology and Biochemistry departments, for instance, worked throughout the pandemic to recruit a new faculty member. Normally, that involves in-person events for the new recruit to interact with students, post-docs, and other faculty. But not this time.

“We were able to manage a successful recruitment,” says Dr. Straight, “but it wasn’t the same process. I don’t think the person got as much exposure to the department as they normally would have.”

The various departments also managed to work together to coordinate building safety and the logistics of social distancing in the lab and staggered work schedules.

“I was really impressed with the ability of everyone to rally together,” says Dr. Straight. “The Beckman Center was a model for how to respond to this critical situation.”

Moving Forward Together

One positive outcome that many were able to take away from their weeks or months away from the lab was a renewed appreciation for the Beckman community.

“People have been pretty isolated over the last few months, and now being able to walk into the office and make personal contacts, have casual conversations, and hear laughter in the hallway is amazing,” says Dr. Straight.

A lot of Beckman Center labs, he points out, are interactive and collaborative, and the cross-pollination of ideas that happens between labs is often driven by casual interactions. So while valuable lessons have been learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Straight emphasizes that the return to normal is very welcomed by him and the rest of the Department of Biochemistry.

“We’re all remembering how much fun it is to sit around and chat about science,” he says.

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