Nature India | Indigenus

Starting a lab amidst a pandemic

Just about to start her own dream laboratory, Poonam Thakur found herself in the middle of a pandemic. She shares her feeling of helplessness as a scientist not trained in any aspect of fighting the coronavirus crisis.

And, her sense of relief on being able to contribute to the fight in a small way and beginning to lay the groundwork for her lab during the lockdown.

Poonam Thakur in her lab at IISER Thiruvananthapuram.

After years of insecurity with short term postdoctoral contracts, international moves and personal sacrifices, I had finally landed a coveted faculty position in a reputed institute. I was over the moon. I had finally ‘made it’ in the highly competitive academia, beating all odds. In the first time in years, I was going to start a life that won’t be uprooted, at least in the next 2-3 years.

In early March of 2020, I joined the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Thiruvananthapuram — a vibrant campus in the lush green hills of India’s western ghats — with lofty dreams of unrolling my neuroscience research and teaching programme. The first three-four days flew by in administrative formalities and in dealing with the realisation of suddenly becoming a Principal Investigator with more responsibilities, in furnishing the workplace and planning for the courses I would teach in the upcoming semester.

In the middle of this frantic activity, an email landed in my inbox about the precautionary measures the institute was undertaking against the spread of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a highly contagious viral infection that was spreading through the world like wildfire and was beginning to escalate in India. Classes were suspended and students living in the campus were asked to go home. Faculty living on campus were advised not to go out unless extremely necessary. No outsiders were allowed into campus and social distancing was encouraged.

A few days later, the India government announced a countrywide lockdown. That ensued closure of on-campus daycare leaving many of my colleagues in difficult circumstances. All research plans and purchases came to a screeching halt. Soon the labs started to shut down or operate with reduced capacity as most support staff was gone. A campus bustling with life only a few days ago, was deserted all of a sudden.

We were in middle of a pandemic.

Slowly, a constant barrage of news on the rapidly deteriorating situation and overwhelmed medical systems worldwide began making me anxious. As a researcher, I was trained to be perennially productive. I was concerned about the inevitable delay in starting my research programme and losing precious time from my research grant. I wasn’t trained either in the techniques that may help in COVID-19 diagnostics nor in studying the virus structure or finding a cure. So, in addition to the frustration of not being able to jumpstart my lab, I was fighting the feeling of inadequacy and helplessness as a scientist for not being able to help humanity in this crisis.

Joining the cause

For me, the hardest part was to deal with my own expectations. I had Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius words to fall back on: “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength’. Once I was able to tide over the feeling and acknowledge that it was reasonable to feel agitated, frustrated or unproductive in these extraordinary circumstances, it was easier to put everything in perspective.

Although I could not fight the pandemic from the bench, I tried to help in other ways.

I volunteered to translate infographics on coronaviruses and COVID-19 in my regional language and shared them through social media. I informed the dos and don’ts of this disease to my non-scientist friends, neighbours and family, and tried dispelling COVID-19-related myths in close circles.

At work, I started contacting several vendors to obtain quotes for the equipment I would need to start my lab. Luckily, several of them were still answering calls and responding to emails. I interacted with my colleagues living in the campus. They offered me not just advice and experience on setting up labs but also offered to share their lab equipment and resources until I set my own up. These interactions helped me immensely as I developed collegiality with these colleagues quickly. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken much longer with everyone busy in their teaching and research schedules.

Life beyond lockdown

Gradually, I started to take the lockdown in my stride. I finally had time to step back, pause and reflect on my long-term research goals and strategies. With a fresh mind and fewer distractions, I started working on the book chapter I had been procrastinating for long. I was able to focus on preparing material for the courses I would eventually teach. I took to running, taking advantage of the huge campus surrounded by forests and falls. Being close to nature, has indeed helped me find peace amidst all the chaos.

Being a neurophysiologist, I am always reminded of the story of Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, pioneers in the study of action potential in nerves. Shortly after their first recordings of intracellular action potential, they had to take part in war-related activities and suspend primary research for seven long years. Once the war dust settled, they were reunited and resumed work on action potentials that ultimately fetched them a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine (1963).

Although we don’t know when the lockdown will be over, like everyone else I hope for a pandemic-free world where normal life can resume. Despite the fear that a battered economy may affect research funding, I am looking forward to conduct research with stronger resolve.

‘Was mich nicht umbringt, mach mich stärker’ (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger) — Nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

[Poonam Thakur is a DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance Early Career Fellow and joined IISER, Thiruvananthapuram as an Assistant Professor in March 2020. She can be reached at poonam[at]iisertvm.ac.in]

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