“Restricted movement, working from home, what about research?!”

by Nur Syamimi Ariffin

The struggle is real

It has been over a year that we have been struggling with COVID-19 pandemic. Little did we know it would be dragged this long from when it was first hit the world in December 2019. Nor did we know it would turn everything in our life upside down. As a young cancer researcher, this pandemic is the last hurdle I wish would be thrown in my way. The research grant I obtained in September 2019 was a blessing from heaven to kick-start work in the lab. However when the pandemic struck, many labs were closed and research activities were put on hold. We were not even half-way through the project.

Nur Syamimi Ariffin
Many postgraduate students are stranded in their home country because of COVID-19 pandemic. Picture from Nur Syamimi Ariffin.

As weeks became months, we were worried. We thought of the worst that might happen when we were not in the lab. Moreover, reagents purchased might be expired. Worse, we were asked to submit progress reports despite the pandemic. How were we supposed to progress in research if lab work is discontinued? There was not much we could do with the strict rules and the limited time we were allowed to be in the building. Apparently, there is no pause for research output regardless of the pandemic. The struggle to meet the demand was real and for this, we needed to restructure most of our plans.

Consequence beyond imagination

Nur Syamimi Ariffin
Nelofar is conducting her project in the lab. She is bound to strict rules and regulations in the building. No students are allowed to be in the lab during the pandemic without the university consent.

The consequence of this pandemic is beyond our imagination. The impact is different for every person. For postgraduate students, having labs closed during the pandemic is hopeless. Some students have deferred their studies due to delayed experiments. Let alone the many who decided to quit their studies halfway through. This is the last thing a supervisor would want to happen. I have lost three students since the movement control order was initiated in March 2020 and I am still struggling with the pending lab work that demands attention. Sometimes, I think how those who work in in-silico study are very lucky for being able to set up their work station at home. This may be just how I see it from my perspective, although it may not be true for those doing computational work.

Keep the positive energy!

We are stuck with data obtained from the last experiment. To continue from there with a different approach is almost impossible not being in the lab every day. Keeping ourselves positive in this situation is hard knowing we under are pressure from the demands on the research outcome. It feels as if we have been put under the spotlight for not being productive and for not meeting the milestone. Apparently the pandemic should not be a reason for us not to deliver the output. Embracing the situation is the only way moving forward and we view it as a challenge to progress our research from home. Writing a review paper related to the research topic is the least we can do to produce something.

Nur Syamimi Ariffin
Nurlin is feeding and changing beds for the rats in the animal house. She is a staff in our faculty who is allowed to work at a minimum time limit during the movement control order.

Additionally, we are also working on new proposals. All of which will be useful for growing our research in the future. Having online discussions and attending virtual conferences, as well as webinars, has helped to build relationship with collaborators. Initially, it was difficult to cope with the changes. As time goes by, we make do of the situation. It would be a lie to say it gets totally better with time because obviously we are struggling with working from home 24/7. Working and living at one place is not easy, especially when the environment is only just enough to satisfy our everyday needs.

Moving forward, creativity is key!

Nur Syamimi Ariffin
This hallway is merely empty during the pandemic. Picture from Mastura.

We have gone through a few cycles of movement control orders in Malaysia. Research is very much affected in so many levels and to maintain the momentum in this pandemic, creativity is key! In addition to restructuring our project, we look for alternatives to take our research work to the eyes of the outside world. Joining research competition and exhibition organized by the university is a great opportunity to promote our work. The platform allows us to reach the community and students from inside and outside of the university although it is conducted virtually. Moving forward at this pace as a researcher is tough.

However, above everything that happens during the pandemic, we call it courage. Bottom line is to share our findings with others and attract people to science. We hope it will be rewarding in any ways possible. Importantly, we hope the pandemic will subside soon so we can live our life with no if not less restriction especially now that vaccination is actively conducted in the countries throughout the world.

About the author:

Nur Syamimi AriffinDr. Nur Syamimi Ariffin is a member of EACR Early Career Researchers and is currently working as a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Pharmaceutical Pharmacology & Chemistry, Faculty of Pharmacy, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia. She started her career in 2018 after obtaining her PhD degree in Pharmacology from the University of Manchester, United Kingdom in 2017. She is actively involved in teaching pharmacology and toxicology to Pharmacy students and is conducting research in breast cancer metastasis.