Over the next few weeks, we will be posting blogs from ecologists across the globe on how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting them and their research. In this post, Mehdi Abedi discusses how this is affecting researchers – and students – in Iran.

Mehdi Abedi
Mehdi Abedi

My name is Mehdi Abedi and I am from Iran. I am currently an Assistant Professor in Tarbiat Modares University (TMU), and the head of Range Management department. My work focuses on the study of dryland ecosystems with a special interest in functional ecology.

What measures has your country and your research institution adopted to prevent COVID-19 expansion?

Iran was one of the first countries strongly influenced by COVID-19. In February and March (2020) the situation was critical. In early April, the number of cases started to reduce slowly and now it is under control. Due to the US Sanction that limits bank transfer and company contracts it was difficult to support the extra medical services necessities, but thanks to the government and the important contribution of volunteers from different parts of society, this situation has been successfully handled. The important point is that Iran has high number of recovered cases thanks to the great effort of medical staff. Recently, most people have returned to work following special safety protocols.

TMU was among the first universities to decide to stop on-site activities. Considering Iran was one of the first affected countries, universities had no time to get advice from other countries; therefore, it was a difficult decision. I appreciate the University’s fast reaction because normally this kind of decision needs several official processes and permissions and, if they had not taken quick action, for sure this would have strongly increased the number of cases. They created a COVID committee to decide about all activities in the University. They also defined a new set of rules and protocols for students, scientific members, head of departments, and deans. Therefore, at the end of February they first closed the University dormitories. Most of the students, especially in the big universities, live in the dormitories. If they had postponed this decision, all these students could have been infected and spread the illness to villages all over the country. They also asked staff to stay at home, and only a few came to university while most worked with the remote system. Since mid – May, staff were slowly able to start working in their offices considering special safety protocols. The other positive decision was made by the Ministry of Information and Ministry of Science. Considering several lectures were presented online, it was very costly for students. They made the online university education free, which was very helpful for students. 

How has COVID 19 affected research work in your department?

The first impact of COVID was teaching. Now all teaching is online and scientific members and student are using TMU electronic education system. In this system all of the lectures, videos and teaching materials are uploaded by teachers, and students can also participate uploading their work. It is also possible to control student’s activities in this system. In addition, Skype is also helpful for meetings. We still have shortcomings for practical, laboratory and field visit lectures, which are very important. TMU will decide about these lectures in near future, once University is back to onsite activities. We hope in late June these lab lectures could be presented. In general, until now, the teaching part has been well managed and now all teachers are used to electronic education.

On the other hand, the effect on research is considerable. COVID has especially affected departments that need to work in the laboratory and visit fields, or those research projects that focus on animals and bacteria. Lab work already stopped during the peak of COVID and several students had to stop their research for the last 2 month or couldn’t start their projects. This effect was especially striking in ecological studies. Most of our ecological sites are located in different parts of Iran and considering moving to other provinces was limited, there were no chance to visit the study sites. Apart from mobility limitations, many studies have been forced to be postponed. Studies monitoring plant phenological stages need to be repeated next year. For several studies it was necessary to collect plant or animal samples in early spring, which has led to missing material collections. Finally, work in the greenhouse was also forbidden and physiological measuring has not been possible.

One positive aspect of the move to remote work is the increased contribution of colleagues from different institutes in research evaluations. For instance, referees of PhD theses needed to be onsite to participate in the defense session. However, with the new modified rules participation using a webinar is officially accepted and they can also evaluate the thesis online. These new conditions will be very helpful in the future, as they will allow to include more experts in the official research evaluations.

How has COVID 19 specifically affected you and your research?

My research team has been also strongly affected. I had planned to collect a rare Crocus species, which only flowers a week per year and it has not been possible to collect it. I also missed field visits in some arid sites where most annuals occur in April. It also influenced vegetation sampling for some projects including Drought Net and Gypworld. Finally, I also changed my master students’ theses, which originally needed greenhouse and laboratory work. Considering the dormitory will be still closed the next month, there are still limitations for my students to visit the campus and labs.

Khadijah Bahalkeh
Khadijah Bahalkeh

In addition, I experienced another difficult situation. I participate in Gypworld, a project about Worldwide Gypsum habitats. My PhD student Khadijah Bahalkeh and I planned to visit Spain and meet my colleagues at URJC and CSIC-IPE for 1.5 months. We started our research visit in January and then we faced the situation of COVID. All the flights stopped and we couldn’t come back to Iran. Our Spanish colleagues had fully supported us in these conditions and we have stayed safe during this period. Without their help it would not have been not possible to manage this situation. In addition, the Institute was closed and we had to stop lab work, which totally affected the research plan because it is not possible for my PhD student to come back again to Spain during her PhD degree.

Finally, most of the meetings planned for spring have already been canceled or postponed. We had a national Rangeland conference for young researchers in Noor planned for May and also another meeting for the Gypworld project in Cyprus, which has been postponed. There was also an excursion to Iranian Gypsum habitats which is postponed until 2021. Lastly, PhD national exams are also postponed from February to July, and several interviews for grants have been postponed indefinitely.

How have you handled this unexpected situation?

The biggest difficulty I found has been the limitations for doing fieldwork and working in the lab and greenhouse, mainly during sampling period. On the other side, conducting statistical analyses was significantly advanced due to more time available.

For me, the key point of this situation is to realize about the truth behind the words of the Persian poet Saadi:

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!

The main message of this experience is that we need to support and take care of each other. Health and safety is not possible without taking care of others.

There are also some good things to learn. I found how much online communities have the potential to help science. Personal meetings and conferences under these conditions are limited, but we can have online meetings using different live channels, like Instagram. We can develop our communities worldwide without borders. This new foundation could lead to new scientific environment, which in addition is totally free and accessible.