The coronavirus crisis: how are early career microbiologists impacted?

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12 / 10 / 2021

A recent survey conducted by Vitae and the Student Mental Health Research Network highlighted that around two-thirds of early career researchers (ECRs) are very worried about their future and finances, with only 10 per cent of those whose contracts end in 2020 having been granted extensions in the context of the pandemic.

In June 2020, the Microbiology Society ran a series of focus groups bringing together ECRs in the UK and Ireland to consider the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their careers and opportunities to bring about culture change. Inputs from these discussions and recommendations for funders and policy-makers will soon be articulated in a position statement. In this article, we hear from three members of the Microbiology Society about the challenges they have been facing since the pandemic started.

Rebekah Penrice-Randal started her PhD in 2018 evaluating the impact of therapeutic mutagens on viral replication using reverse genetic systems in vitro. Her work evolved into working on clinical samples from patients with MERS-CoV in Saudi Arabia, where she was part of a research group that designed an amplicon sequencing approach compatible with Oxford Nanopore technologies to facilitate phylogenetic and genomic surveillance studies. When the pandemic started, the group were involved in setting up containment level 3 facilities to receive clinical samples from COVID-19 patients for the investigation of the host response and viral evolution through sequencing methodologies. Rapidly, the COVID-19 research response became a full-time endeavour during which a shift occurred from independent research to team science. Projects that may have taken an individual months to complete were now being achieved in weeks. Despite enjoying the intensified collaboration with colleagues, Rebekah is unsure how this shift will translate into the future; will the collaborative efforts be maintained and will coronavirus researchers be expected to continue working with this level of urgency? These questions, amongst others, have led to what she describes as “ECRs feeling stretched, unsure and working through imposter syndrome”. Rebekah also highlights that the pandemic facilitated the abandonment of many research projects that had a successful trajectory and that it is important for those who hire and fund ECRs to recognise the impact that the pandemic is having on researchers’ lives and careers.

Dr Sariqa Wagley is a postdoctoral researcher and Co-Principal Investigator on a BBSRC–Industry partnership award on bacterial dormancy. In March 2020, Sariqa had nine months of grant funding left and was forced to abandon her experiments that had taken months to set up. Since then, she has faced a number of challenges. For example, by the time she was allowed back in the lab, staff allocated on the project had moved on to other positions due to the uncertainty around whether grants would receive a extension. Despite receiving a no-cost grant extension eventually, Sariqa was left to carry out the lab work alone: “a lack of research jobs and funding has meant that postdocs around me have had to take technician or lower-salaried posts”. Lab restrictions also meant that she had to work in short blocks of time and only carry out a few key experiments with the constant threat of another lockdown being announced. Prior to the pandemic, Sariqa had been advised to publish to support fellowship applications. Whilst lockdown gave her an opportunity to write and publish manuscripts, her application to the UKRI fellowship scheme did not get past the internal round, as she is now facing tougher competition with many established researchers applying for the same scheme. Sariqa notes that funding applications should include a statement where scientists can explain how COVID-19 has impacted them and reduced their outputs and productivity.

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A postdoctoral researcher who wishes to remain anonymous has been facing additional stress juggling childcare and working from home. With family abroad and financial challenges due to the pandemic, her husband, who is currently completing a PhD, has had to take on childcare responsibilities and delay the completion of his thesis. She sees similarities between current pressures and those that she experienced whilst on maternity leave and when returning to work, with the pandemic bringing into sharp relief issues that have been present in academia for years. She is unsure whether she will pursue a career within a system that “evaluates people in terms of outputs of papers and number of grant acquisitions whilst offering no long-term job security”. Given the widespread impact of COVID-19 on the research community, she explains that researchers have an opportunity to change the overall narrative in the research culture: “It would be great to have open conversations and reflections on how, as a collective, we can change and establish what kind of research culture we want to have and take it from there, but it will be a long road”.

Eva Scholtus

Head of Policy and Engagement

[email protected]

Image: Mongkolchon Akesin/iStock