Beyond Coronavirus: Adapting Penn’s 2020 PhD Career Exploration Fellowship in the face of a pandemic

The faint sound of an alarm permeates a vivid dream. It’s 5:27 am. I roll over, vaguely aware that I am no longer asleep. My eyes open, I groan internally before I step out of bed, a motion that marks the start of my weekday routine. I put on my running clothes, lace up my shoes and venture outside for my morning run on the Schuylkill River Trail. It’s March 10th. I’m not wearing a mask. I’m not squeamish about the close proximity of other runners, in fact I welcome their familiar company. On my way back, I casually stop at the grocery store for bananas, a single item. And when I get home, I certainly do not race to the sink to scrub my hands for two full-length renditions of “Happy Birthday”. In other words, I am, unknowingly, enjoying all the mundane perks of life before coronavirus. After breakfast, I walk to work, enter my lab, sit down at my desk and open my email. It’s 8:45 am. And that’s when my beloved routine comes to a screeching halt.

Before March 10th, I’d received approximately five emails about coronavirus, which I’d more-or-less disregarded. Of course, I was generally aware of the unfolding spread of disease. I’d watched the news documenting the devastation in China, Italy and Spain. And I’d listened- as any good, liberal grad student does- to the New York Time’s “The Daily” podcast warn that 50% of the population in the US could become infected. But these warnings did not register. They were intangible problems, affecting far-away places. 

Yet now, as I sat reading an email from Penn’s president Amy Gutmann, I realized, with horror, my own naivety. In her email, Dr. Gutmann described the gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic and laid out Penn’s response strategy, which included extending spring break, preparing to move all classes online and likely postponing graduation. This email was followed in quick succession by an email from the Vice Provost of Research, Jon Epstein, in which Penn’s biomedical research labs were instructed to pair down to “essential” personnel and halt all “non-essential experiments”. My head was spinning, what was happening? My mentor, our lab’s principal investigator, called an emergency lab meeting. She was visibly shaken, but calm and reassuring as she dictated our collective game-plan. This game-plan involved the continuation of a single project, the last in a set of experiments by our most senior graduate student, set to defend her thesis in the fall. The game-plan did not include me or my experiments. 

As I walked home that day, my head filled with a million, unanswerable questions. How long would this last? How long would this delay my already far-off PhD graduation? Was I going to get coronavirus, would my family, my friends? One moment I’d wallow in my own despair, only to feel guilty for wallowing in the next moment, realizing that my situation was privileged compared to the dire situation faced by others. There were people who suddenly lost jobs and were unable to pay for food or rent, healthcare workers without proper access to PPE, and patients with underlying health conditions increasing their susceptibility to the deadliest symptoms of the disease. 

Strangely, one thing I didn’t question, but took rather as an unstated truth, was that this marked the end of the Career Exploration Fellowship, the program I’d coordinated with the Grad Team at Career Services. I’d worked excitedly all fall and winter revamping the program, previously known as the “PhD Externship”. I’d given it a fancy, resume-worthy new name. I’d recruited a number of noteworthy new hosts, including scientists from four different departments at Merck, in an attempt to attract more STEM students. I’d written a small proposal and secured extra funding to hold bi-weekly morning meetings, complete with bagels and coffee, to foster community among the fellows and enhance their professional development. Those bagels would never be seeing the light of day. Cue the wallowing.

But, yet again, I had succumbed to my naivety. Penn’s Career Services is a professional office, of course they did not plan on letting this program die. Within a few days, my boss Helen Pho, an associate director on the Grad Team reached out to me. Just like my thesis mentor, Helen was calm and caring, asking about the status of my lab work and my mental and physical health before anything else. Helen then proceeded to discuss ways in which she envisioned moving the program forward, which included changing the in-person, bi-weekly breakfast meetings to a small-group, virtual format. I was skeptical but intrigued, as I began to brainstorm other ways in which we could adapt the fellowship. We decided that I would need to send an email to the hosts, informing them that we planned to continue the program but expressing our understanding if they needed to put their hosting duties on hold, given the unprecedented times and unforeseen circumstances– the hallmark phrases of any and all corona-virus related emails. At this point, I was still doubtful it would be feasible for the hosts to continue advising their fellows. I sent the email, complete with my, now standard, “be well!” sign-off, and awaited a response.

To say I was awed by the response is an understatement. Nearly every one of our 26 hosts expressed the desire to continue with the modified fellowship. Actually, a few even mentioned they had already met (post-corona, virtually, of course) with their fellows to discuss new, innovative ways to move forward. When I emailed the fellows, to update them accordingly, I was, again, floored. Many were actively and, apparently seamlessly, adapting their fellowships. One fellow had written a blog post for the Franklin Institute about the science behind the “6-feet rule” of social distancing. A fellow at Merck had an entire “virtual” workday, presenting her own work and then conducting 8+ informational interviews with scientists from various departments. Another fellow, working with Penn’s Online Learning Initiative, detailed the numerous ways in which she was assisting the rapid movement to all-virtual teaching at Penn.

The program is now wrapping up and we are in the process of gathering feedback, conducting debrief meetings with hosts and asking fellows to fill out post-program surveys. Though it might not have gone as planned, it seems, so far, that the fellowship experience was positive for both fellows and hosts. In fact, one host recently expressed that the transition to virtual meetings actually facilitated more purposeful communication not only between herself and the fellow but also between the fellow and her colleagues across various departments. As it turns out, this pandemic might have provided a new lens, one we didn’t know we needed, to help improve upon the program for next year and the years to come.

When you start your PhD, you are constantly reminded that this is basically a degree in creativity and in trouble-shooting. In pursuing your unique thesis, you are inherently navigating the unknown. And I’d like to think that navigating in a pandemic is just another part of the PhD journey. A huge, mentally and physically exhausting, trouble-shooting exercise that we are working through and around, to continue in the pursuit of our goals. I’m inspired by the way the hosts, and the PhD fellows, have responded, coordinated, and adapted. And no one (but me) has complained of missing those breakfast-meeting bagels. 

It’s 6:27 am, May 15th. I still groan internally, but wake up an hour later now, grateful that I can run after the sun has risen because I don’t have to rush into the lab. On my run, I avoid the crowded Schuylkill River Trail, opting for side streets and Fairmount Park, new places I would have never previously explored. When I get home, I definitely wash my hands, probably twice. And after breakfast, I walk upstairs and take a seat at my desk, where I can now appreciate, for the first time in the three years I’ve lived here, the warm sun shining through my east-facing bedroom. It’s 8:45 am. I open my computer, still in my sweat-pants, and load Zoom, just in time for our virtual lab meeting. My routine has been altered. But, just like the Career Exploration fellows and hosts, I’m adapting, determined to make the most out of it. 

By Katherine Webb
Katherine Webb