Fieldwork Prepandemic

For me, the pandemic seemed to come on very quickly and unexpectedly. One week I was making plans for summer field work, and the next I was left working at home. I was in high school during the SARS pandemic, and H1N1 hit Canada while I was in undergrad, but those felt like ripples compared to the tidal wave of an impact that COVID-19 has had on my PhD research. I’m sure many of you have similar stories.

The pandemic has changed things for everyone, forcing graduate students out of the lab and shutting down fieldwork. Long-term research projects with years of continuous data collection are being forced into hiatuses. Not only has the closure of MUN campuses put research on hold, the academic community has moved online, forcing students to navigate the challenge of staying connected while also juggling their physical and mental health. For many students this means a complete rethinking of their projects and possibly their future careers.

The pandemic is giving us all the opportunity to build some redundancy into our projects. Plan A for my project involves a lot of fieldwork. Luckily, Plan B uses data previously collected by my supervisor, collaborators, and other students in the lab. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to backup data, but it’s still possible to have a backup plan. For example, some research groups are offering historical datasets as a supplement for graduate students who are being forced to stop data collection. I recently completed my PhD comprehensive exam, in part using a meta-analysis approach to answer my question. Not only can a meta-analysis be completed without field or lab work, planning and implementing this approach to science is an excellent skill for any aspiring academic to acquire. Rethinking thesis chapters without conventional data collection is a great opportunity to gain some new skills.

Though research has come to a grinding halt, opportunities to be connected with the academic community have become more prevalent than ever. COVID-19 itself has sparked an unprecedented global research collaboration to develop a vaccine, treatments, and track cases. Climate scientists are investigating how the global lockdown has reduced carbon emissions. Biologists are learning how a reduction in human activity around the world is impacting wildlife. Many conferences have moved to an online format with substantially reduced registration fees, increasing access to students without travel funding. It seems there are new webinars and workshops each week. At least for now, it seems like the pandemic has resulted in a mostly positive cultural shift in academia.

The next several months are uncertain and this can be overwhelming, but the way research has weathered the pandemic makes me hopeful for the future. Generosity, sharing, and resilience are more apparent now in academia. When we emerge on the other side of COVID-19, hopefully we will have retained some of these positives.

Here are a couple of other blog posts related to the things I mentioned: