COVID-19: Community insights

3rd Apr 2020


At the British Neuroscience Association (BNA), we're aware there's never been a more vital time to come together as a neuroscience community, sharing advice and offering support to one another.

We want to support our members and the whole community as much as possible. We've been listening to your concerns and needs and want to help you to try and find answers and solutions.

That's why we're asking members - from students to Principal Investigators - to share their experiences and insights: see below to hear what they said.

Can you help the community by sharing your own experience here too?
Please send to us via the BNA Office and/or social media (#neuroFamily #WFHButNotAlone).


Click on the links below to hear neuroscientists' thoughts on:

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On funding running out, or time to meet application deadlines . . .

"Keep in touch and be honest and open about your concerns with your line manager and HR department. Many people will be in this situation and understanding of the situation is complex, so do arrange a telephone call or video call if you can. Complex situations are sometimes easier to discuss over the phone that going back and forth via email.

Be honest and give people as much time as possible in querying timelines and asking for extensions. Don’t be afraid to ask for extensions. You don’t need to necessarily give minute detail about the reasons for wanting an extension, there will be hundreds of reasons at the moment, but if you don’t ask you won’t get. Now more than ever funders should be understanding."

Dr Emma Yhnell, Lecturer in Neuroscience, Cardiff University

 

"It appears that some institutions and funding bodies are (rightfully) implementing funding extensions for grants in place. · See the statement from the UKRI  and also from Wellcome. For graduate students, I read this in The Guardian. It seems that it may not be resolved or clear cut, but things are changing quickly these days. I would encourage all graduate students to reach out to appropriate personnel within their University to enquire about funding as soon as possible."

Natalie Doig, Postdoctoral Neuroscientist, Oxford University

 

"Each research project is unique in terms of expectations within a specific timeframe. If possible, see if the aims of the project could be adjusted to better suit research carried out remotely. If not, re-assess timeframe and discuss extensions with the funding body. It would be important also to modify applications to have flexibility on timeframe and the type of research (ie, mix of both dry and wet lab)."

Francesca Keefe, Research Associate, Cardiff University

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On research on hold, and setting up a good work environment at home. . .

"I can sympathise with how frustrating this is, particularly if you were in the middle of some important experiments or perhaps coming to the end of your PhD. The main thing to consider here is that there are lots of people in this position, the whole world is living in the middle of a global pandemic. Universities will be working hard to try and alleviate anxieties and work out what to do next. Universities are currently having conversations with funders in terms of getting extensions et. These things are on plenty of radars, but unfortunately, it may take time before things like this are sorted out. I know that this is frustrating but it will get sorted out.

Keep in touch with your line manager or supervisor, they may be able to make suggestions on how to modify experiments etc, and you should make them aware if you have any caring responsibilities or become unwell. It is good to check in regularly during these uncertain times, even if it is just to say hello.

If (and only if) you are able to, you could try and use this time to do some other tasks. You might be able to write the introduction to a thesis, use YouTube to learn how to use a software or do some background reading of relevant literature. If you are doing this, ensure that you take regular breaks. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, it is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to work as efficiently as you normally would, so take regular breaks and cut yourself some slack! We are all in this together.

Dr Emma Yhnell, Lecturer in Neuroscience, Cardiff University

 

"As I spent last summer writing my thesis at home, I was able to swing back into my work setup in my flat rather easily. Although peace and quiet is important, I actually found a comfy seat made the most difference to my ability to keep writing for long periods. This led to me setting up camp on my sofa and converting my coffee table to a desk!

Look for alternative lines of research or skill development that can be undertaken at home. In my case I’ve been focusing on improving my data analysis skills, especially those needed to use programmes like R (I recommend coding quizzes and classes online).

If lab work has been deemed essential and approved for continuation, I would recommend having multiple stop points introduced where samples can be collected and stored for future use. In my case I’ve managed to freeze down my multiple cell cultures at stem cell and neural progenitor stages, ready to pick up once lab restrictions end."

Francesca Keefe, Research Associate, Cardiff University

 

"Everyone is facing challenges – childcare, caring for family members, illness, and general anxiety about what is happening in the world! Don’t put undue pressure on yourself. My thoughts on how to practically work from home include:

  • If you can find time to work at home, then that is great. There are several sources of information about how to get the most out of your time, e.g. here from the BBC.
  • And here in the Science Mag – an amusing take the challenges of working from home
  • IT – make sure you have access to what you need. Each university will have its own IT guidance to working from home including how to remotely connect via VPN, check here for an example. If you need training, it may be available through your IT department.
  • And throughout it all – remember to care for your own mental health – here are just some resources that may help: NHSMental Health UK; NatureBBCMindAnxiety UKOCD UK 

Natalie Doig, Postdoctoral Neuroscientist, Oxford University

 

"This is an article which personally I really benefitted from reading: "Why you should ignore all that coronavirus related productivity pressure"!"

Dr Ros Langston, Lecturer, University of Dundee

 

"For those of us coming up to submission during the COVID-19 closures, it’s possible that you feel that your PhD research period has come to an abrupt end! Given that many of us are unlikely to see our supervisors and colleagues before submission it is really important to maintain these relationships through virtual contact. I realised that one of the things I missed most was catching up with colleagues in the imaging facility where I work, and have therefore initiated a weekly social “Zoom coffee catch-up” including all the academic and non-academic team alike. During these uncertain times, it can be really reassuring to see your work friends are keeping well and was a great start to the day!

As for writing-up, it can be particularly challenging to balance our workload and prioritise getting the thesis finished whilst also thinking about what comes next. If like me, you had still had some important research studies to conduct, it can be especially hard to see how the thesis will come together without these. I found it really helpful to discuss these concerns with my supervisors and also with a member of the progress committee, and after doing so, I felt reassured that the quality of my final thesis was not dependent on having gotten “everything done” but more about making sure that the last four years of hard and high quality work that had been done, was clearly presented.

With the ongoing uncertainty around funding and recruitment for both academic and non-academic jobs, I’m sure many people are anxious about having a secure position lined up. These concerns can be disheartening but it is important to recognise that this can be a useful time to work on CVs and applications (especially during periods of writer’s block!) and even consider putting in speculative job applications and initiating connections. This is especially true in academia where more people currently have time to respond to emails and are writing grants. I think the most important thing is keep up the motivation to finish whilst accepting that it is okay to feel anxious about what comes next. Just know that you are not alone in this!"

Jamie Thakrar, PhD Student, University of Bristol

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On supervising graduate students. . .

"There is not one right answer or tip when it comes to dealing with the fallout from the Covid pandemic. Some of us will have more time, some markedly less. Some will want to be absorbed in work and get things done; others will find it hard to concentrate or may feel anxious or unwell. The best thing to do in this situation is to discuss how you are finding it with your supervisor, and come up with a plan together. It may be possible to put your work on hold for a while; it may be possible to divert to new activities such as writing a review or analysing existing data. 

This is a situation which affects everyone, albeit in different ways, so you should be met with understanding and acceptance. Try not to compare yourself to others and give yourself a break. This will be a valid line on your (and everyone else’s) CV."

Catherine Harmer, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Oxford

 

"If you’re looking for ways to support your students through this experience, click here for an interesting article to read. I'm also a big fan of ‘Learning Scientists’ for all things "teaching". Look here for excellent online learning and teaching resources for students and teachers."

Dr Ros Langston, Lecturer, University of Dundee

 

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On cancelled undergraduate exams and not getting taught. . .

“My final year exams have been cancelled and I only have to submit a dissertation. This has placed a substantial amount of pressure on doing well in my dissertation. To help myself, I try to plan my time and ask for the support of others to help me read through my work. In general, the situation is difficult and it helps to support others around me by keeping them motivated in what is causing some around me to lose motivation.” 

Edward Holly, BSc Biomedical Science, University of Southampton.

 

"Keep checking your University’s advice page for details on online learning and exams. If you have questions reach out to your college/department for advice. Read all guidance about preparing for exams off-site, e.g. open book exams. If you are on Twitter then follow your University student account, they may have some helpful tips for you."

Natalie Doig, Postdoctoral Neuroscientist, Oxford University

 

"While we're unable to deliver any face to face teaching at the current time, teaching staff are working hard to deliver content virtually.

The specifics of this will vary depending on your University and some staff are using different software, but we are doing as much as we can. For example, I have recorded video messages and my lectures. Please do try to engage with the resources that are being put online, it is a significant time commitment to convert teaching online so teaching staff would really appreciate it if students engage.

If for any reason you are unable to access online resources, eg, due to lack of internet connection or technology, let your University know, they may well have contingencies and it is good to alert them to this so that they might be able to help.

Please remember that teaching staff are still here for questions, in a virtual sense. Many staff are still available over email, discussion boards and forums etc. Remember to keep an eye on your University email account as important information in relation to teaching and assessment will be communicated through these means."

Dr Emma Yhnell, Lecturer in Neuroscience, Cardiff University

 

"I would recommend undergraduates making use of the extensive online resources university programmes have on their learning central/blackboard. I would also recommend mixing-up the different media used to take in information, to limit those drawn out times of staring at a screen or a textbook."

Francesca Keefe, Research Associate, Cardiff University

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On staying connected with a closed lab. . .

"My group keep in touch by using “Slack” for managing projects, and “Zoom” for meetings. Both are free, and easy to use."

Professor Rik Henson, MRC Programme Leader, Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge University

 

"Virtual lab meetings or virtual journal clubs are a potentially good way to stay in touch with other lab members. You can check in with your colleagues remotely using software like WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams or Slack which can be easier and faster than email. If you don’t want to talk science, you can do ‘coffee mornings’ online or ‘afterwork get together’. Though remember that not everyone will be able to join or be flexible with their time due to their own personal situation. If these have not been established in your research group, then why not suggest it? At the end of this article in Nature are ‘tips for building a virtual lab community’.

Be kind and compassionate – you do not know what challenges your colleagues are facing. If you have time to work from home but are limited in what you can do without a lab then you could think about developing skills. Universities have courses available and are moving courses online so that they can be more accessible remotely. Have a look what your University has to offer. Some ideas of resources that are available include: Neuroscience related open online courses. Some webinars on topics that you might be interested from BBRF; and at Vitae Researcher Development Framework. Plus find some resources for finding free online courses at Future Learn, EdXCoursera and Open University

Learn to program with MATLAB and Coursera or see a list of tutorials here, or find a book here. You can also improve your reference management at Zotero and your science writing here at Stanford University, Duke University and Future Learn

In terms of patients, animals and cell lines – this must be managed by the Universities. At mine, we have volunteers available to check on animals and backups if people get ill. There is of course Home Office regulation on the welfare of animals."

Natalie Doig, Postdoctoral Neuroscientist, Oxford University

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How to stay part of the neuroscience community when events get cancelled – and get your voice heard. . .

"Join online discuss/forums on ResearchGate etc. Set up Zoom and Skype discussion groups with peers to help with research queries. Keep up to date with research and current opinions in the field through looking at science blogs and bulletins."

Francesca Keefe, Research Associate, Cardiff University

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Keen to share some of your own insights and learnings with the community?

Your insights can be as brief as you like, and range from personal experience to simple sign-posting. Contact: alex.campbell@bna.org.uk

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