Researchers in lockdown: Exploring science careers during the new normal

zill e Anam


As a final year PhD student, the lockdown came as a bolt from the blue, which was followed by anxiety. The initial days passed by with the hope that the epidemic would subside and our lives would go back to ‘normal’ in our research labs. However, soon we were exposed to the ‘new normal’ and realised that we could hardly carry our work forward the way we used to.
A degree in science at an undergraduate, post-graduate, doctoral, or post-doctoral level not only allows one to enter academia but also opens up multiple other options in allied fields. However, one can never learn how to swim without going into the water. In order to imbibe the true flavour of these opportunities, practical experiences and assignments are important. Keeping this in mind, I decided to make use of this ‘new normal’ to try and have new experiences through new engagements. 

As a PhD student, it is difficult to give up the lab-based commitments that are important for one’s career progression. Hence, there is always a need to strike a balance. Being away from the lab during the lockdown made the process of career exploration easier as I had relatively more time to dive into various choices.

I started by exploring two career options: science communication and science policy. The lockdown turned out to be one of the best times to practically engage with both of these career paths.

I wrote my first science news article for Research Matters and submitted an entry for the Science Writing Competition conducted by BioRad Antibodies. Being away from the lab helped me come up with the first draft rather quickly, remove jargon, gain a big-picture understanding of the work, connect with the authors of the paper, ask questions, get quotes, work on the structure, and eventually get the article published. Collectively, these experiences have helped me look at any recent research from two different perspectives – a researcher and a science communication enthusiast. 

Meanwhile, I started reading about science policy in India and its history. I learned how science policies are framed, how they affect us, and the ways in which we can contribute. Fortunately, an opportunity to contribute to the creation, launch, and running of an independent forum, Science Policy Forum (SPF) came my way. This also demonstrates the importance of networking since this opportunity resulted from a brief interaction with one of the founding members of the forum several months before the lockdown. Here, being eager for interactions about diverse areas of science and having an elevator pitch ready came in very useful.

Being a part of SPF at a time when India’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (STIP2020) is being formulated, provided a fertile ground to actively participate in policy preparation. I was able to pitch in my experiences and suggestions from scientific research and science communication thereby helping in building a policy framework. This participation allowed me to understand various aspects of science policy better and put in perspective what working at a Science Policy Centre involves. 

As researchers, we majorly interact within a niche of subject experts without a lot of cross-subject interactions. Another aspect of being part of SPF is to be able to work with social scientists and get a holistic view of different aspects of science policy by integrating subjects and knowledge beyond science. For example, studying the funding differences in start-ups founded by men vs women in STEM fields through an economists lens was pretty novel for me.  Lastly, I was also able to apply several skills I learnt in the lab like multi-tasking, time management, and communication.

I have just taken my first steps towards science communication and science policy. The lockdown has supported this process and is allowing me to explore, engage, and experience the ‘new normal.’ I am hoping to take these ideas forward to the best of my capabilities even when we return back to ‘normal’.

Zill-e-Anam is currently pursuing her PhD in Directed Evolution and Codon Shuffling from Special Centre for Molecular Medicine, JNU, New Delhi.