Houston, we have a problem

Houston, United States

By Ansam Sinjab

Entering week six of work-from-home, week 10-ish of social distancing (depends when you started to take things seriously in this country), week four of my Nike Training Club fitness program, day six of my guided mediation program (last one was two weeks ago), day 20 of not watching Trump’s daily awesome, massive, more-than-any-other-country, huge COVID response press conference (I gotta admit, the first couple were really entertaining), and after resisting the urge for the longest time: day four of creating an Instagram page for our cats – @flokibindi – (not an entirely proud moment, I must admit). My quarantine has treaded on the tracks of most of my fellow humans, and it can be summed by a few creative wins, surprising oneself with things to be proud of, definitely a few things to be ashamed of, and things that are just pure bitter-sweet.

To me, the most astonishing yet grounding thing about succumbing to the decision to shut down the research labs and switch to work-from-home mode was realizing that importance is relative, even when you thought certain aspects of your career are immune to that. Life in a cancer research lab, working on weekends and holidays is never out of question. It is always a matter of “what is better for the cells or mice” rather than the researcher, and how soon can we get data from this experiment to answer that question that has been picking my brain ever since I read that publication. It was humbling to realize that while what we do is so utterly important, so timely, so necessary for the future of medicine, it does not stand a chance of “urgency” in the midst of the current alarming situation. Machines unplugged, specimen freezers locked (those same samples I was rushing to obtain and process a month ago like it was a matter of life or death), gloves and safety goggles set aside for pickup by Houston PD, PCR machine set aside for donation to the laboratory testing department… Yes, it is surreal, the gravity we thought had kept the world together is now gone, and with it, the weight of anything we once deemed important and urgent. Switching off my office computer, I came to terms with the fact that it’s not about me or my curiosity anymore, it’s about humanity, and it’s about the precious lives of all the cancer fighters at our institute. The hospital is a hotspot for immunocompromised patients, with one of the highest congregation of patients at high risk of COVID worldwide. Not going to work was not a compromise, not a personal gesture of heroism, but an unquestionable act of absolute and sensible humanity.

First day at home and my personal shock almost completely masked by the immensity of the horrific pandemic and the risks faced by first responders and their stories of compromise. The “get yourself grounded lady” moment kicks in, and much like everyone else, I went on to set up a daily routine for myself. I wondered at how the heck I will be able to do any wet-lab research from home, and that gave me a good laugh, basically because it was impossible. Yes of course I can write papers, plan for upcoming projects, and analyze data, but for someone whose every single day at work is as unique as our DNA makeup, and whose Garmin watch clocks more than 13k steps a day just from shuffling between the office, the lab, and other parts of campus, this whole thing seemed like a death sentence to the body and mind. Everyone’s talking about getting all creative, but (drama moment alert): how oh how will my problem-solving intellect not wane, how will I get through this? Fast forwarding into more scientific webinars than I can keep up with, more abstract deadlines than I can submit, and more data analysis courses than my slow typing fingers can code, I managed to contribute to the submission of two scientific articles (one of which is serendipitously related to COVID susceptibility in cancer patients), and two additional ones are en route. I also got hooked up on a data analysis program which I am now using to generate hypotheses for our next project, and caught up on a fair amount of scientific literature, well enough to realize that some of the research ideas I had thought were most exciting are just plain stupid (quite a normal thing for a self-critical scientist). So yeah, creativity in science can flourish when you are staring into a screen, but I still cannot wait to do the tedious, meticulous, and disgusting things (we do not really do that, but I felt the need to satisfy the readers’ imagination) I used to do in a research lab. 

Physically, it was amazing to see how restrictions on outdoor sports activities have varied across the globe. My husband and I are frequent runners, and going out for a quick run was pretty much the “out to the supermarket” trip everyone has been looking up to as their only escape from these four walls. In fact, I have been dreading going to the supermarket: first couple of weeks because I could still see, in the emptiness of shelves and aisles, the repercussions of an unprecedented depiction of void in social responsibility. And later, because I was sick and tired of having to disinfect every single item we bring back home. I figured I’d rather sweat it with a five-miler around the neighborhood and de-coronize myself behind the shower curtain. Thankfully, Houston has been a breath of fresh air in that respect: a spacious city (another reason to call it Space City!), the limited opportunity to crowd one park, added to an overall high level of social responsibility and health-related consciousness thanks to the Medical Center microcosm.

Speaking of microcosm, of facts, science et al, I can’t help but feel a sense of gratitude to see that my non-sciencey friends and family now have a pretty clear idea of what a “PCR” is (in case you didn’t know what the acronym stands for, it’s polymerase-chain reaction), they talk about “viral evolution” and know why “peer-reviewed” scientific output is important, they are excellent at reading graphs and interpreting trends, they analyze health-related news with a critical eye and are frequent fact-checkers who can debunk unreliable resources, and they also take conspiracy theories with a grain of salt. I am in no position to identify whether such a structured interrogative sense of science is inherent or acquired given the current circumstances, and I do not intend to turn my acquaintances into lab rats to answer that question. Yet, I have extensively used those positive realizations to calm myself down, to get it together when reading anti-social distancing/pro-clorox (figuratively, thankfully not encountered thus far) online threads. I have long acknowledged our duty as scientists to communicate our work to the public, but I had never wished I was better trained for this than today. It has been difficult for me not to get emotionally involved, and to remember to take a breather before getting dragged into an aggressive argument about how science is being mis-interpreted. I am struck with disappointment to see that while scientists, doctors, virologists, and public health specialists go into a spiraling practice of self-criticism every time they write (and re-write) “the virus may cause”, “is likely caused by”, “is associated with”, “ought to be further investigated”, the fact of the matter is that their efforts to protect the masses can be immediately thwarted by a single gesture of grandiose ballot-seeking political claims. We’ve all had our “low” moments during quarantine, and those may have been mine, where I contemplated the thought of giving up on trying to clarify scientific findings for what they really are. But then there were those moments of leading a calm, composed, and fact-based rhetoric, which won me over tiny victories with some online readers; to me those were big wins, they were my quarantine highs.

On a personal level, I would like to believe I am making the best of my quarantine time. After almost a year of being apart, my husband and two cats finally moved to Houston just before this whole situation exploded. I am soaking up every lazy or active moment with him, making up for lost time and missed existential conversations, and together getting ready to welcome our newnew life. As for having our social life physically distanced by oceans and continents, on top of the 6 ft, with friends scattered across the globe: my bitter consolation comes down to lack of FOMO on what our friends back home are up to (for obvious reasons), and not being worried about building a new social life once the beta version of life kicks in (it’ll be new to everyone, and everyone will want to make friends from 6 ft-apart at any chance they have!).

This pandemic has not changed my adult convictions, it has only strengthened my belief in the power of being grateful for what we have, loving what we do and being creative about it, and staying connected with those who matter the most. 

May 2020

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