Covid-19 is destabilizing an entire generation of young scientists

Uncertainty ahead.
Uncertainty ahead.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
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Samantha Calvez, an undergraduate junior at Rowan University in New Jersey, should have been at Saint Louis University in Missouri right about now.

Calvez, 21, planned to use the summer before her senior year to research acids found in the blood of people who are diabetic. Using a type of chemistry that separates liquids and gases into their molecular components, Calvez would chemically mark acid molecules to make them easier to detect. The goal is to one day be able to better analyze important trace components either in the environment or the body.

The work requires an instrument called a supercritical fluid chromatograph, or SFC for short. There are just a dozen or so in the US. But since the Covid-19 pandemic picked up steam in the US in March, Calvez has been at home in New Jersey. Her research is at a standstill. “I haven’t touched the instrument and haven’t been to Rowan since mid-March,” she says. If she were in St. Louis, she expects she and her team would be analyzing some of the collected data by now.

The pandemic has thrown a wrench in research plans around the world. But it’s placed a unique pressure on early-career scientists. Typically, young researchers try to jam-pack each stage of their education with experience, filling their resumes with well-executed experiments and publications in order to increase their chances of getting into competitive graduate programs and land postdoctoral research positions.

“It’s like compound interest,” says Heidi Elmendorf, a biologist at Georgetown University and director of its regents STEM scholars program. “A lack of investment now may have ramifications for a career.”

The US leads the world in the number of doctoral graduates—with a large portion of those students coming from overseas. As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts data collection, lab analyses, and funding opportunities in the country, the fledgling careers of young scientists from around the world are at risk of being permanently grounded.  

Calvez recognizes that the situation is out of her control. She’s not angry, but she is disappointed and bored. “I went from doing cool stuff to sitting in my room,” she says. As the days at home add up, though, there’s another feeling in the mix: anxiety. Her work in the lab of James Grinias, a chemist at Rowan, is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and it requires periodic progress updates. There’s pressure on Calvez, Grinias, and their collaborators at Saint Louis University to show they’ve advanced their research by the end of July.

Though Calvez worries the disruption will make her less competitive when she applies to graduate programs, it’s unlikely her career will be impacted long-term. Being earlier in along the academic pathway protects her somewhat. But the same is not the case for those at the next stage in their scientific careers: graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Becoming a scientist can take upwards of a decade, and each stage is more competitive than the last. To make it to the next step, scientists have to perfectly execute the previous one—and have the data to prove it.

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The graduate bottleneck

The four to six years that graduate degrees usually take may seem like a long time, but in scientific research, it’s the blink of an eye. To publish a dissertation—the body of original research that’s the crux of PhD programs everywhere—scientists have to do background research demonstrating why their topic is important, collect original data, and analyze it, before writing some 200 pages or so. (In the US, a PhD requires additional coursework, which is useful if a person wants to stay in academia.)

It’s easy enough to do background research online. But collecting data often requires in-person research.

Emily Schraudenbach, a fourth-year graduate student in political science at George Washington University, was supposed to be in France in mid-March. Her dissertation, on how different countries integrate Romani people into their societies, would have compared housing and other resources available in two French cities with one in the United Kingdom. Romani people have been the target of racism and persecution across Europe for hundreds of years, including through the 21st century, and Schraudenbach wants to see how local governments have (or haven’t) supported them.

“I wanted to spend two to three months in each city, so then that’d be nine months of field work total,” she says. “A year of field work signals to people [future employers] that you know the cases very well, and that you’re an expert.”

That field work is impossible right now—and it’s changed the way Schraudenbach plans to defend her thesis. Critically, she now has to try to connect with and earn the trust of the Romani people over Skype or the phone from her home in Chicago. “I’m going to have to lean really hard on non-governmental organizations to get me access,” she says. “I’m really scared that I’m not going to hear back from people.”

Even after collecting data, there’s the trouble of analyzing it from home.

Will Hoover, a geologist and geochemist at the University of Maryland in the fourth year of his graduate work, has seen the data collection for his dissertation come to a standstill. Over the past three summers, he’s visited the Italian Alps looking for eclogite—a rare type of metamorphic rock formed when one tectonic plate is forced under another. Hoover wants to understand how water travels through them over time, which, in the long run, could help researchers understand how earthquakes or volcanic eruptions occur.

Hoover is still working, processing backlogged data from his research. But what he needs to do soon is study his rock samples in the lab, which has been closed since mid-March. At the suggestion of his advisor, he’s cut the scope of his dissertation down by about a third—analyzing fewer rocks, with fewer chemical analyses.

Elmendorf says there’s a lot that individual universities can do to ease the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic on early-career scientists. Like in Hoover’s case, their advisors and professors can help them restructure their research goals so they can be met on a compressed timeline.

But universities have little control over academic fields as a whole, which may be less understanding. When someone is looking for jobs and they had to cut down their PhD dissertations, they’re going to have a hard time explaining that gap, says Elmendorf. Field work may be vital to getting a faculty position later, which could prohibit some grad students from making it onto the coveted tenure track.

Hoover’s advisor is confident that he’ll still earn his PhD—but it certainly won’t be the dream dissertation he had envisioned. Although Hoover is proud of the research, he’s anxious about having fewer published papers—which is a metric some hiring institutions value highly.

The odds of making it in the sciences are already slim, and getting slimmer. Knowing that, some early career researchers impacted by Covid-19 lockdowns may decide to abandon the profession altogether.

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Funding funnel

Covid-19 also has the ability to unseat careers that are already well on their way—those of postdoctoral researchers and professors without tenure.

“There’s a certain rhythm that we’ve come to expect,” says Elmendorf. While finishing their PhDs, researchers apply for competitive postdoc gigs so they can start immediately after graduating. These positions are short—just two to six years depending on the field—but provide them a chance to learn how different research settings work. They’re a crucial opportunity for young scientists to get a new kind of lab experience.

But right now, it’s not clear that many labs are going to have money to take them on.

To understand why, you have to follow the money in academic labs. Universities that house these labs only foot some of the bill; the rest is expected to come from extremely competitive grants that faculty apply for and earn (universities take some of this money to account for the overhead costs of hosting the lab, too). Some grant money goes to equipment, but a lot goes to paying for graduate students and postdocs.

Labs don’t shut down immediately without funding. But if assistant professors can’t get grants over time, it bodes poorly for their futures. Universities offer tenure track jobs to a handful of assistant professors who have demonstrated success: conducting research, mentoring postdocs and graduate students to do the same, and teaching. That’s a lot harder when you can’t pay for students to mentor.

Grinias, who mentors Calvez, is hopeful that in the coming months, grant funding agencies will be understanding about the circumstances created by the pandemic. But it’s not clear how long-term funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation will respond.

Similarly, universities have had to tighten their belts, which puts additional pressure on assistant professors. Many are reinstating hiring freezes, or postponing the start dates of postdoctoral researchers until they’re less financially stressed. Any grant money researchers do get will immediately go to these postdoctoral researchers in limbo, potentially delaying taking on any new graduate students. It creates a bottleneck of early-career scientists.

Both Schraudenbach and Hoover should have been supported by their institutions for a set number of years. But now, their timelines are dependent on the grant funding in their labs. “Given my initial plan, [my degree] should have taken six years, and now I’ve got to finish it in five unless I can find external funding,” says Schraudenbach. Hoover’s funding runs out next year, too. Their advisors should be able to help them scrounge up the money—but there’s still the stress of uncertainty.

Hoover says that this added financial pressure is one of the reasons that he’s become less enthusiastic about becoming an academic researcher. “There aren’t that many jobs being added,” he says. “Even if you’re lucky enough to graduate in a year when a lot of people are retiring, it depends on what’s en vogue at the time,” he says. He worries that if institutions aren’t hiring now, it’ll be even more competitive when they start up again. And even if you are lucky enough to get an assistant professor job, you still have to hustle to get grants.

On top of all of this, scientists almost always need to have a track record of research to apply for new funding. The cycle is never-ending.

Elmendorf is passionate that later-career scientists—with established voices and job security—need to do their part to support younger scientists right now. They could prioritize the work of younger researchers as their labs slowly reopen, or take on more teaching responsibilities to free up time for younger faculty to conduct original research.

These efforts could make the space for some of the early-career scientists to catch up and fill the gap in their work before it’s too late. Without help, however, the next few years’ of scientists run the risk of falling out of the pipeline altogether. “This is the time,” says Elmendorf, “for people who are secure to recognize their privilege and step forward to help.”