Finding the right balance

The coronavirus pandemic is having far-reaching consequences on employment, the economy, education and mental health. Our scientists are not immune.

Melbourne’s first and second wave of infections and subsequent lockdowns affected laboratory work, funding and the ability to juggle childcare and homeschooling with work and career. Many mourned the loss of work and home life balance.

We asked four of our scientists how COVID-19 affected the them.

Dr Jaclyn Pearson

Research Group Head, Host-Pathogen Interactions

Dr Jaclyn Pearson from the Host-Pathogen Interactions Research Group at Hudson Institute of Medical Research
Dr Jaclyn Pearson

WORK-LIFE | As a lab we are operating at about 40 per cent capacity. Personally, I can only manage shorter experiments, which heavily restricts what I can achieve. On the plus side, I get more time to think and write when working from home.

This pandemic has literally stopped many scientists in their research tracks and generated an immense amount of uncertainly about their future. For some though, I can see it has generated a once in a lifetime opportunity to contribute to one of the biggest public health crises the world has ever seen.

HOME-LIFE | It has been quite an intensive time for us as a family, as my wife is the Director of Microbiology at Royal Melbourne Hospital – one of the first labs to develop a testing platform for SARS-CoV-2. She was also seconded to the Victorian health department three days a week. As a family we have tried to rally around her in her very long days, after hours work commitments and constant pressure to deal with a very real problem. We are all very proud, but at times we miss her very much.

For balance, we take time at weekends to walk, have nice dinners at home, laugh and spend time with our kids. ABC Kids has been a lifesaver! But also, it’s been about letting go of being precious about the house, letting the kids go outside, get messy, play in the sand, do some painting, spray the hose everywhere – that has been the key to us getting through.

Dr Beth Allison

Senior Research Scientist, Perinatal Transition

Dr Beth Allison from the Neurodevelopment and Neuroprotection Research Group at Hudson Institute
Dr Beth Allison

WORK-LIFE | COVID-19 and the related stress has impacted my research. Several times I have been unable to attend experiments, because either myself or the kids were unwell. But my team rallied to make sure this work continued where possible. I have analysed data, which has been awaiting my attention. However, one drawback is the reduced amount of philanthropic funding available for research.

HOME-LIFE | There was a COVID-positive case at our daycare centre, which meant we were unable to send my daughter for several weeks. This compounded the stress associated with using these facilities! I have had quite bad anxiety, which I have never experienced before.

Unfortunately, I feel like the work-home life balance is lost. These are now melded together. My husband and I attempt to have protected work time each day, however this is incredibly difficult as we juggle caring for the kids. We work in the evening and on weekends to keep up. Our kids are quite excited when we say we have an important meeting – this generally means ABC Kids time!

A big positive is having the time with the children. I have worked close to full-time for most of their lives, so having this time together is precious.

Associate Professor Michelle Tate

Research Group Head, Viral Immunity and Immunopathology, COVID-19 researcher

Dr Michelle Tate from the Viral Immunity and Immunopathology Research Group at Hudson Institute
Associate Professor Michelle Tate

WORK-LIFE | I have been busier than ever collaborating with commercial partners and performing experiments to facilitate drug development. The battle to find new treatments for COVID-19 infections is a global effort. It’s exciting to contribute by leading preclinical studies and collaborating with commercial partners.

The impact a pandemic can have, not just on public health, is now much clearer. The threat of a bird flu pandemic, which carries a potential 50 per cent mortality rate, will now hopefully be taken more seriously. COVID-19 and influenza viruses similarly induce hyperinflammatory responses leading to tissue damage and severe disease. There is now a greater need to identify new drugs that limit inflammation and treat severe respiratory virus infections. COVID-19 has cemented the importance of my research and provided a greater sense of ambition.

HOME-LIFE | I have had to juggle increased work hours and pressures with family life. I regularly sneak off to work on weekends while my son has his nap. I am lucky to have an extremely supportive partner who has increased caring responsibilities, especially with the loss of childcare access during Stage 4 restrictions.

Dr Michael Gantier

Research Group Head, Nucleic Acids and Innate Immunity Research group

Working on treatment for COVID-19, repurposing existing cancer drug

Dr Michael Gantier from the Nucleic Acids and Innate Immunity Research Group at Hudson Institute
Dr Michael Gantier

WORK-LIFE | The next round of grant applications is critical for my lab. Our funding ends in December. The pandemic has changed the grant evaluation process, meaning funding outcomes will be even more uncertain. On the other hand, the situation has created novel grant and commercial opportunities, which may help my team stay afloat. Any further funding for my laboratory at this very stressful time could be the difference between our vital COVID-19 research continuing or ceasing.

This is the first time in ages that science is at the top of news bulletins, every day. The only way out of this pandemic is biomedical research.

HOME-LIFE | Working at home with my three-and-a-half-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter has been challenging. Homeschooling my daughter has taken its toll on my productivity writing grants and publications, as my partner is also working full-time from home. We make it work, but I am not sure there is any balance! I gave in on two things this year – a trampoline and a puppy!

Dr Beth Allison's children drawing on the blackboard at home during COVID-19

From the issue…