Working as a researcher is a job that requires a lot of adaptability. This is understandable given that the core of the scientific method could be loosely described as “I recon this might happen but let’s find out” which obviously leads to some variation in outcomes (e.g. oops that explodes vs this would make a delicious pudding).
Even before getting to an outcome researchers often have to deal with all kinds of unexpected issues ranging from not having the right equipment to the equipment refusing to work because the last person using it forgot to calibrate it and you’ve just driven the expensive pipettes straight into the table.
This variability can be frustrating and has inspired more than a few angry tweets and several “I deserve this” doughnuts but after a deep sigh, some choice words about where a certain someone can stick the pipette, you adapt and find a way to get back to ‘finding out’ whatever it is that you’re working on. But these are just minor hurdles that are all part of the research journey, what is not a minor hurdle and yet something we are now all having to cope with is randomly not being able to do any research at all.
COVID has been merrily doing laps of the world for a couple of years now and I’ve written before about some of the challenges it’s presented such as needing to write up a lot of old data and dealing with delivery times that can now be measured in multiples of grant lengths. But as the pandemic rolls on more and more we are all facing a problem requiring a whole new level of adaptability, intermittent research.
Intermittent research is a term for what we’ve all been trying to do over the last 2 years. Research that is constantly interrupted by circumstances that aren’t ‘challenges’ to overcome but events that have prevented us all from even setting foot in our labs. For example:
You get COVID and now you need to stay home for 10 days and rest up.
Your University changed the social distancing rules and now only 2 of you can be in a lab that used to have 10 and you can only work every 3rd Tuesday.
You petted your Neighbour’s cat which then tested positive and Test and Tails tells you you have to stay home and self isolate just in case.
A country wide rise in cases causes a national lockdown and you have to ‘research from home’.
All of which bring any lab based experiment to a grinding halt because research institutions tend to be oddly picky about you taking things like HPLC machines home with you and Sigma Aldrich get a bit fussy about delivering litres of sulphuric acid to a flat. So we have to intermittently stop, and start and stop and start and… well you get the idea.
It has gotten so bad that I’ve taken to making sure that any time I stop working on something I write a little note in square brackets showing me where I’ve got to and what’s missing. Otherwise after an enforced break I kept finding documents or lab notes that seemingly end mid sentence and have to spent an hour trying to pick apart what on earth I was previously working on.
I’ve also started deliberately saving up paper work so that should I have to be away from the lab I have something to get on with, other than looking out a window and pining for my laser. I generally need very little encouragement to put off filling in COSSH forms so it works well. Although I can tell you that nothing makes COVID feel worse than trying to recover while writing up the risks of working with a mild irritant.
Perhaps we all need to adapt permanently to an intermittent working style. Perhaps we all need to be more understanding about shared space or we could start working in research teams to balance time lost. Or, ROBOTS. If we all had our own robot then we wouldn’t need to always be in the lab the robot could tele-research for us. Think of it, doing research from home while a robot mixes serial dilutions in a lab 30 miles away. Perhaps we should all look at the problem of intermittent research as an opportunity to finally find a way to do research while sipping lattes.