The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated an unprecedented and coordinated response from every corner of the community, and this includes ARMI. To do our bit to help ‘flatten the curve,’ ARMI implemented its working from home plan in late March. For scientists who are often in the lab doing experiments, trying to troubleshoot by talking to the colleagues sitting around the, and presenting their research to large groups, this time has proven challenging- but not impossible. ARMI Director of Research Professor Peter Currie shares his perspective, tips and tricks on the current environment. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. This Part I of a two-part series.
Q: How is not only managing your own research group, but also an entire institute during this pandemic?
A: It’s certainly nothing I envisioned doing, running a research institute from my bedroom. I have a Year 12 student at home and if you think angst about life is bad for us- you should try being a Year 12 student at the moment. All priorities are being given to her to facilitate her learning experience and keep things on an even keel, which she’s doing magnificently. But my commute is very short. It’s about two metres.
There are challenges and there’s opportunities.
There are challenges and there’s opportunities. And well, also in the situation for me personally, the lack of the commute backwards and forwards releases time and I’m able to focus on other issues. But that’s been taken up with the fact that I feel very passionately that I should connect with each member of my group.
Because, although I do 30 Zoom meetings a week, they may only have one or two. And their mental health and wellbeing and keeping them connected to each other and to the lab and to me and letting them know that I’ve got their best interests at heart- I think it’s an important part of the process. So actually, even though the commute is less, I think my workload is at least a third increased.
Q: How do you feel about the increase in virtual meetings?
I don’t know how they [the Currie Group] feel, but I’ve personally really enjoyed, it’s a stripped-down version of communication, but I’ve enjoyed talking to each of my lab in particular. And we have much more in-depth conversations about science then potentially than we would have. And, they’ve got some time to reflect and so the conversations themselves are rich and very interesting.
But as most people know, it’s quite a demanding form of communication because you’ve really got to concentrate to pick up what people really mean. At the end of the day, you can end up sitting on your backside talking to a computer for eight hours- it does get a bit wearing.
But look, I don’t like to look at circumstances like this as depressing or difficult. I just look at them as a challenge. We have to approach things from different angles. And part of that, I have found it very interesting to see how I react and others react to the situation. So, it’s not something that I ever would’ve contemplated happening. But I think what I’ve been most excited about is the ability as a country to deal with this issue and then on a smaller scale watching everyone at ARMI.
But look, I don’t like to look at circumstances like this as depressing or difficult. I just look at them as a challenge. We have to approach things from different angles.
So there’s been some real positives out of it from internal culture perspectives. All I can say is how lucky we are to be living where we are. Looking around all the places that I’ve trained, like the US and the UK- they are going to end up as the two worst places affected. I could have easily been living in either of those countries. I try to see this as an interesting and challenging period. But if you turn it around, there’s some positives that can come out of it for sure.
Q: Speaking about the challenges, what are some personal challenges you found working from home?
You know, they are all around. At the moment, my daughter is doing a piano lesson downstairs and the house is reasonably soundproof. But, my older daughter is still working in a cafe. So, we’ve got to deal with infectious potential infectious issues, but we’ve got to keep my daughter’s schooling on track.
I’ve got to make sure that the Institute’s running on an even keel and in particular, with the staff that I have personal oversight for are functional and healthy, both physically and mentally. Luckily, I don’t have the challenge of small children. Trying to do this job with small school-aged children who aren’t so self-sufficient- I have a lot of sympathy for the people who juggle that.
But you’ve crammed your entire life into a small little box. And you go immediately from one situation or stressor to another without nothing intervening between it. And you’ve got to switch your hats very rapidly in those scenarios. So that’s been an interesting challenge. And of course, as families, we do spend a lot of time together, but we don’t normally spend 24 hours a day. There are interesting positive dynamics that have come out of that. But, of course, there are some [negatives], we’re all different people, even if we are a family. So finding a way to distance ourselves for our own personal space while we’re trying to function in the work or education space, that can be a challenge.
I’ve actually enjoyed having much more contact with my children during the period. I’m not sure what they would say, but I’ve actually enjoyed this. I’ve found out more about what my daughter is doing in Year 12 because, most teenagers, they don’t really open up after school. But, in the middle of a break, we’ll meet each other and make ourselves both a cup of coffee and I’ll say, “what have you been doing?” “I’ve been doing history. I’ve been learning how the Phoenicians were important and critical trade routes in ancient Greece.” “What have you been doing?” “I’ve been trying to construct my Institute’s going back to work plan” and we sort of nod at each other and then wander off. That’s the information that normally doesn’t come my way. Well, let me put it this way- to get it, I have to work really hard.