Research, COVID-19, other fantastic beasts and where to find them...

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The pandemic hit when I was starting my 6th month as a postdoctoral scholar at the Human Evolution Research Center (HERC, University of California in Berkeley), roughly one month after coming back from Spain. In this first moment, things were very confusing, nothing pointed to an isolation that would keep us more than 100 days in our homes and without any possibility of going back to the University.

In my case, this awful situation was like living it in duplicate: on the one hand, Spain, my home country, where my family and most of my friends are; and on the other hand, the US, where I am currently living,  I have my job and I also have friends. Viewing all things from a distance is really hard and the impotence invades you. Especially when all options to go to Spain were fading and the news began to rush as a waterfall. Nothing to do. Everybody locked up. Everything stopped.

Stay 6 feet apart.

My job here in the US was frozen. Basically, my job has to be done exclusively in the laboratory and the University was one of the first to take prevention measurements. Everything was postponed more than 100 days. Fortunately, I have been able to advance my research in other ways that do not require me to work at the lab, but rather to be stuck to the laptop writing and analyzing data. Besides tens of meetings via Zoom -the fashionable application of this pandemic-, this sometimes required a triangulation of schedules to organize people from different parts of the world.

Currently, I am back as an essential researcher after getting several prevention training certificates, all for the safety of the people who are working there and to control possible outbreaks. This return has been very happy, since it is really good to recover the routine of going to the lab every day. However, at the same time, it is very strange. Now, the hallways are empty, no students, and no in-person meetings (although some of us are physically in the same building, Zoom continues being the pop star)… And every time we meet with someone, we have to keep 6 feet apart, wearing our masks and, of course, we cannot spend time discussing or laughing as we did before.

First day at the VLSB (Valle Life Science Building, UCB), after more than 100 days locked up in our homes.

Regarding my fieldwork, I can say that it is currently non-existent until we know how things will evolve. My research is focused on archaeopaleontological sites mainly located in Spain, but this year it will not be possible to visit any of them, and of course nothing about going back to climbing Amalda. Not only because of the prevention measures in the excavation according to the “new normality” imposed by COVID-19, but also because of the new immigrant decisions taken by the US government that could block me from coming back to Berkeley. These decisions clearly hinder any option of progress in science research and education, not only on the part of researchers but also on the part of students. Things are changing very fast, removing any small option to anticipate or plan any decision in the short-term. This challenging situation that we are going through is becoming even worse by political decisions that add to it. Thus, my options for working in fieldwork this year are nil. I hope that my colleagues in Spain can dedicate and enjoy some days in the field, but in my case it will be impossible.

I suppose that the feelings, problems and consequences of this situation are very similar to those that are also dedicated to conducting research, especially for people that are out of their countries. In general, and always from my personal perspective, this profession is very satisfactory, but at the same time can be very ungrateful and full of uncertainties, even more when we are in a middle of a pandemic, the governments are not taking our profession seriously, and with constant threats that you may have to leave the country. All of these add more difficulties and problems to be concerned about. 

In my case, I can say that I am surrounded by incredible people, and my center, the University and the Union of Postdocs and Academic Researchers are very focused on the situation and always helping us so that our investigations can go ahead, trying to keep our works minimally affected by the pandemic. After so many months, and despite everything, I can say that I am happy to be working here, and I could summarize this period in one word: resilience.

Go to the profile of Laura Sánchez-Romero

Laura Sánchez-Romero

Postdoctoral scholar, Human Evolution Research Center, University of California, Berkeley

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