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Well-being and research

Pandemic lessons from the Recovery and Performance Laboratory


By Dr. Michelle Ploughman and laboratory members

As principal investigator of the Recovery and Performance Laboratory housed in the L.A. Miller Centre, I have been dealing with the questions about the local impact from a global pandemic.

“What do you do when your research lab is closed? The lab that was your dream for 20 years with new state-of-the art brain imaging equipment on its way? How do you manage four employees, five undergraduate students about to begin a summer of research, three PhD students, an MD-PhD trainee, three master’s trainees and three new graduate students beginning over the summer?”

We certainly found ourselves in a situation. We use the terms “we” and “our” because that is exactly how we were able to be nimble enough to pivot to a new style – a style that we first thought would be making do but is now part of new practices we plan to keep.

Fostering cohesiveness and community

It is now over two months since we attended Memorial’s first, entirely online PhD defense on March 19, 2020, which happened to be that of our first PhD student, Dr. Augustine Devasahayam.

Our team’s first weekly Zoom meeting occurred on March 25; the day with the highest number of COVID cases in Newfoundland and Labrador (32).

Despite feeling anxious about the whole situation, we shared our experiences of being at home and our two future international students chimed in each week from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Wednesday at 1 p.m. has become our anchor.

No matter our eating and sleeping schedule, we tune in and connect. Through their participation in our banter at a distance, our future students, Syamala Buragadda and Michael Babalola, have become key members of our team.

Their experiences and resourcefulness help shape our activities.

And on March 25, we welcomed our youngest lab member, baby Jacob, newborn son of our postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Katie Wadden!

The laboratory members on one of their weekly Zoom calls, including baby Jacob.
Photo: Submitted

“Out of adversity comes opportunity.” – Benjamin Franklin

We do miss the ubiquitous learning that takes place in the physical space of a research lab environment.

We can no longer huddle around a computer to ask: How should I organize the results of my literature search? What is the best software program for making figures? How do I do an ANOVA?

But, our weekly lab meetings have become a launch pad for new ideas.

One of our top priorities is to provide a meaningful research experience for our five undergraduate students and our high school volunteer, who worked hard to win awards (NSERC, USSIP, SURA).

First, I reframed their projects using existing lab data. Megan Kirkland, MD PhD trainee, proposed a summer workshop series for undergraduates.

Based on the individual experiences of lab members, she, I and other senior graduate students taught topics like, How To Do A Search in PubMed, and Critical Appraisal of Research, focusing on needs of individual undergraduate projects.

The students run a lab journal club on Fridays. Hannah Kenny, a psychology student, applied to have this new course designated as a Directed Study; the syllabus has received preliminary approval. Students from other labs and a Grade 10 student have chimed in and the Workshop Series will culminate in a Research Day on July 30.

Caitlin Newell, a research assistant, and Amber Critch, a psychology student, decided to launch a fundraising event in support of the MS Society of Canada’s #WeChallengeMS initiative, after learning about the financial hardship being experienced by health charities.

Our team created a WeChallengeMS video, which will be available soon. The link to donate to the MS Society is here.

Building a solid research foundation

Like most researchers, I had several small projects on the backburner, including our Guide to Graduate Studies in the Recovery & Performance Lab, co-authored by all the lab members. We decided to revamp it and it’s now in the hands of Michael Babalola, who is also an aspiring graphic designer living in Lagos.

We also gathered all our pet peeves and lessons learned about academic writing to create a new resource, Elevate Your Writing To Let Your Science Shine Through, which will soon be available online.

I created peer review teams to handle requests for peer review of journal articles from journal editors. Once approval is received, the team, which includes me and 2-3 trainees, meets to critique the research, creates a review and then submits it.

We completed two reviews thus far, with another in progress. Mentees learn important skills as peer reviewers, such as critical thinking and writing, while strengthening their CV.

There is no doubt that my and my students’ research has lost momentum because of the pandemic, but because of the initiatives that we put in place over the past few months, we feel we are better positioned to re-launch when the public health protocols permit.

We are stronger as a lab community and ready to take on the next chapter.

Laboratory members include Dr. Katie Wadden, Dr. Augustine Devasahayam, Megan Kirkland, Arthur Chaves, Wendy Lasisi, Ryan Pretty, Michael Chislett, Bruna Baldasso, Hannah Kenny, Hannah Murphy, Amber Critch, Alan Gao, Ciara Kavanagh, Marie Curtis, Caitlin Newell, Maria Williams, Niketa Soran, Isabella Burry, Syamala Buragadda and Michael Babalola.

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