Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories about how COVID-19 derailed the research of many aspiring Great Lakes scientists. It is edited for length and clarity.
By Amelia Cole
Emily Varga is a graduate student at the University of Windsor Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. She studies microbial communities in greenhouse ponds and works to determine whether they absorb phosphorus or act as phosphorus sources.
She balances the demands of research while homeschooling her children. She is partnering with a research institute in New Zealand to compare microbial communities between Ontario and New Zealand. She had hoped to spend her summer analyzing samples from study sites in New Zealand, but with the coronavirus shutdown, her samples are stuck overseas.
“Because my samples are at a research institute in New Zealand and they’re shutdown, there’s nobody there that can actually take the samples. Because they have to be stored at -80. So, I sent a liquid nitrogen tank there, and I’m waiting for them to put the samples in the tank, refill it, and then send it back. So, until any of those researchers can get back into the institute, they’re just stuck there. So, I guess it depends if they open everything back up soon enough. It’s possible if they sit too long, they’ll degrade, and I won’t be able to use them.
“I’m hoping that if they degrade, they would be willing to send me some of the samples they collect going forward. That whole project is on hold right now, but they have other areas they still need to go collect. So, I’d have to change the water bodies I’d be looking at, if they’d be willing to to do that, but we could still kind of follow the same plan that we have.
“I expected to have those samples by now. Had things gone as planned, I would be in the middle of processing them and extracting the RNA. That takes quite a bit of time. I probably would have taken the entire summer doing the extractions and then the actual analysis, and looking at what communities are in there, comparing them, and looking at differential abundance. Yeah, that was my summer plan, to work on all that. So now, I’m just trying to work with whatever data I have from my current project, from home, and analyze it with the limited technology I have.
““I’m actually just transitioning to my PhD. This is going to be taking my project from the master’s level to Ph.D. So, I don’t know what it means, going forward. I’m very nervous, very uncertain of what’s going to happen. I guess I could try to expand on the project I’m doing here; try to bring it to a Ph.D level, but I’m not sure that there’s enough there to do that.
“The hardest part is really working on my own. I had gotten to a point where I needed help with my data analysis. I’d never done it before, and I had a colleague who just graduated from our lab who was coming in and willing to sit with me and walk me through some of this stuff. But now I’m pretty much on my own, having to learn new software and technology from my computer at home.
“My husband’s also working from home, and there’s a lot of distraction, and the kids are home, and everybody needs me every minute.
“I get my daughter up by nine, she’s in grade one. And tell her she has to get ready, brush her teeth and her hair and get dressed for school. There was a lot of pushback the first couple days because she’d say, ‘I’m not at school’. So, we’re trying to keep her in a routine. And then, I sit with her, I homeschool for about two hours, every morning. I give her some lunch and then I retreat to my basement office and try to do my own work. And then we usually end our workdays by five or six o’clock, make dinner, and try to be normal.
“I definitely sank into a bit of a depression the last couple weeks. You know, there’s a lot of expectations of productivity continuing, and I don’t think anybody on the planet right now knows how we’re supposed to feel. But yeah, it got really tough there for a while. My family and friends have been very supportive, so they’re pulling me out of that.
“I think everybody will be a little bit kinder coming out of this—hopefully.”