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Cancer researcher Dr. Grace Kong hopes for understanding as people learn to work remotely during COVID-19

April 20, 2020

What kind of research does your lab generally focus on?
Our research group focuses on conducting quantitative, qualitative, and experimental studies to understand the appeal and addictiveness of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products among youth to inform prevention, cessation, and regulation.

How difficult was it making the switch from working in the lab on campus to working remotely? What were/are some of the challenges you're facing?
Our research group is unable to continue with major aspects of our research because a lot of work relies on interaction with human subjects. While all such work is on pause we are focused on other work that could be done from home such as data coding, data analysis, and manuscript writing. Personally, a major challenge is dealing with expectation that academics should be productive while working from home during this pandemic (self and/or other-imposed). Perhaps this expectation makes sense for some but this is unfair and unrealistic for others. My husband and I have a 22-month at home since childcare is no longer available we do our best to take turns taking care of our toddler while trying to work, but keeping to a schedule and being productive is often extremely difficult. Toddlers are fun, but they are a lot of work and demand 100% of your physical and mental energy.

Have you ever had to do this before?
This is the first time our entire staff has to stay at home and our studies are halted, so this is all new to us. Prior to this pandemic, we could work from home if we didn’t have any meetings or study related tasks to be done at the office or on site. But we always had daycare and have never had to juggle work and childcare like this.

How are you staying connected with your co-workers from your lab?
We have weekly team meetings on Zoom to stay connected and to check in to see how everyone is doing. This is again an area in which the shutdown is impacting people asymmetrically. While Zoom makes it possible to be connected to co-workers, and many others find this helpful, I personally find meetings to be disruptive. In addition, a toddler-driven schedule is very fluid so it’s hard to commit to firm meeting times. I prefer to do all my communications via email because of the flexibility. I email and communicate with co-workers daily.

What are your biggest worries concerning your ongoing research/future research?
We have several studies that will start soon. These studies involve going into high schools to recruit teens and running study procedures with teens. The challenge is moving these in-person interactions to an online forum in the near future and this may compromise some study procedures. Personally, another concern is the impact on trainees and junior faculty’s career trajectory given the potential discrepancy in productivity between people who have children and other home responsibilities vs. who do not.

Are there any advantages working remotely?
Despite all of the difficulties with trying to work and child care, I am very lucky that I get to spend so much time with my son, especially at this time when he is growing and developing right before my eyes. Despite all that is going on, we are gifted with this special time and I know we will look back at this aspect of it with fondness.

Do you have any words of wisdom/message for fellow scientists for getting thru this difficult time?
Let us remember that this is a challenging time for everyone in different ways. For some, this may be a great time to learn new things and be more productive, but for others it’s just the opposite. We are living though an unprecedented time and doing our best to survive this pandemic. I just hope for a lot of understanding as people deal with their own unique struggles.

Submitted by Anne Doerr on April 17, 2020