Kriza Sy is a postbac in the Microbial Pathogenesis Section (MPS) in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases. Kriza reflects on the postbac experience since the COVID-19 pandemic and shares her perspective on making the most of being away from the bench.
I have been a postbac in NIAID for one year under the supervision of Steve Leppla, Ph.D. where we work to develop cancer therapeutics using anthrax toxin fusion proteins. Anthrax toxin delivery is well-studied, so we can isolate the targeting and internalization components and swap out the catalytic domain for effectors of our choosing, such as other potent bacterial toxins.
Pre-pandemic, a typical day involved cloning, cell culture work, and running westerns, with relatively little time spent at my desk.
In mid-March we stopped all bench work and began working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I found this transition surprisingly difficult. Like many others, I had several quarantine goals like brushing up on my bioinformatics skills, formally writing up my project background, and researching grad schools, in addition to my recreational goals, like teaching my dog new tricks. Initially, it was hard to hold myself accountable to these tasks given distractions from housemates, current events, and working and relaxing in the same space.
Equally challenging was the mental shift from primarily planning and executing experiments to absorbing new information all day. With time and practice, the self-discipline required to achieve my daily goals, despite distractions, became easier. I continue to struggle with focusing at times, but productivity tracking (there’s an app that grows a forest if you stay off your phone), staying active, and drawing firm boundaries between work and recreation helps.
I take comfort in knowing that I’m not alone–similar challenges are felt across the postbac community. Our time at the NIH is relatively short and we have been away from the bench for over three months. For some, this was about the same amount of time spent on their project pre-pandemic, so it’s understandable that many postbacs are eager to return to the lab. On the bright side, working from home also gives us time to think critically about our projects and re-evaluate upcoming experiments. A fellow NIAID postbac in the Immunobiology Section, Claire Conarroe, was able to use this time to thoroughly analyze her data and improve her experimental outlines. “Overall, I feel even more prepared and excited to continue my research”, she commented.
One of the more bittersweet moments during quarantine is when postbacs finish their fellowships to move on to graduate or medical school. “Organizing my lab notes these past few weeks has been pretty sad because I had so many ideas that I [had] ordered reagents for, started, or even just wrote down, that never came to fruition because of stay-at-home orders” says Mia Sievers, a recent postbac in the MPS. It’s strange to think that postbacs have cleared their desks and moved out before the majority of us have even returned. Similarly, new postbacs have started their fellowships without setting foot on campus. These transitions are eased by the new normal of video calls, virtual lunch breaks, game nights, and open discussions to organize volunteering opportunities, all of which welcome both current and incoming postbacs. Seminars and journal clubs have also transitioned relatively smoothly to online formats, making them more accessible to trainees across campuses than ever before.
This experience has been a reminder that as trainees, our job is about more than accomplishments at the bench. I, for one, tend to forget this and often fail to set time aside for attending seminars and career planning. Working from home has allowed me to fully appreciate the resources available to postbacs, like the NIAID Training Postbac and Summer Seminar Series and the NIH Office of Research Training and Education (OITE) career-focused seminars. Achieving balance is an ongoing process and is something I will continue to strive for when I return full-time to the lab.