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Life as a researcher under Melbourne’s COVID-19 restrictions

November 10, 2020

Jennifer Hollands on science during a pandemic 

A thorough understanding of the scientific method has helped stem cell biologist Dr Jennifer Hollands cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic – at least to an extent.

“As scientists and as researchers we're used to having a hypothesis for an experiment, but we know that we might not see the outcome that we hypothesise,” she said.

“We are good at rolling with the punches and saying, okay, well, this is what the result is, it wasn't what I expected.

“We can use those skills in our general life. But even with that reset skill, COVID-19 induces a level of uncertainty that is even rattling us researchers. This makes me feel even more for the general public, because a lot of people aren’t used to that kind of uncertainty.”

Jennifer works at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, but her research capacity, ability to collaborate and even access to the institute have been dramatically reduced.

“Usually in the lab we are really collaborative but now we've got really strict rules about what we can do when we go into the research institute building,” she explained.

“We kind of pass by like ships in the night throughout the whole building. It all leads to reduced output. A lot of people haven’t been able to go into their institute buildings. We've been lucky to be able to maintain our experiments chugging along at a lower level.”

She said administration procedures could be improved to help minimise the negative effects of similar outbreaks on research.

But she said she doesn't know how anyone could have foreseen the troubles that the pandemic brought. 

And she is unsure if her research protocols could be changed.

“The research that we do is very hands-on,” she said.

“You have to be in the lab doing it, looking at cells every single day and following experiments. And you really need this higher level of communication between your early career researchers and your students.”

Jennifer said some international collaborators will not be receiving the cell lines they need in time to do experiments because cells can no longer be sent overseas.

She noted the effects of the pandemic on scientific careers will be felt for years.

“Some people have been able to work really hard during this time,” she said.

“But for others, their capacity is majorly reduced. That's really going to knock people off their trajectory for their career.”

Jennifer noted that research budgets are already dangerously low and “if the government doesn't boost funding for research, it's going to be even more precarious”.

However, there is a silver lining for her and her husband.

“I've got a son, so being able to see him more regularly for longer periods of time during the day has been amazing, because he's just grown so much and I would have missed out on all of that before,” she said.

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