This is part of a series of posts from ecologists across the globe on how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting them and their research. In this post, Lauren Hallett of the University of Oregon discusses how COVID-19 is affecting research and researchers in the US.

Lauren Hallett
Lauren Hallett

I am a plant community ecologist. My work focuses on understanding how temporal variability shapes the diversity and function of ecosystems and identifying strategies to manage ecosystems experiencing directional change. Currently I am an assistant professor at the University of Oregon. I have long standing research projects in California, where I did my PhD, and am also exploring local study systems, particularly in eastern Oregon.

I live in the US, and as a country our Covid19 response has been fractured. I am fortunate to live on the west coast. Although some of the earliest cases were north and south of Oregon (in Washington and California), the west coast governors responded quickly and are now collaborating to address the pandemic, and Oregon has not been hit hard by the virus. We have been staying home except for essential services since mid-March. The last day of in-person classes was March 13, and the University of Oregon is planning to be all online until the fall.   

Spring is typically a very busy time for the lab. We had a carefully orchestrated schedule for mid-March through May: grant proposal deadlines and a conference scheduled for the end of March, the full month of April in California conducting field work at three different sites, and the month of May surveying sites across the Great Basin. The uncertainty in March made it hard to proceed – we cycled through several contingency plans before deciding that we needed to cancel nearly all of our field travel. The decision was easier in the end because I didn’t have a choice. For example, I maintain a long-term record of serpentine grassland dynamics – this would have been year 38 – but the site, Jasper Ridge, is in the Bay Area of California and had to completely close.

The brightest side of losing a field season is how wonderfully my colleagues have stepped up to help. The staff and associates at Jasper Ridge carefully photo-documented all of the plots, and we should be able to extract dominant species dynamics for this year. The staff at my primary experimental research station, the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, volunteered to collect the data from our experiments – including finding and harvesting 1500 phytometers from a large competition experiment. This last was a particular relief for me as a supervisor – the project is led by my postdoc Ashley Shaw and losing several papers worth of data would have been a real blow for her, especially as we work to give her the best shot at an academic career during a difficult time. Cookies were definitely sent to the crew!

As a new PI I am still getting used to being responsible to a larger group. Professionally, working to be sure that everyone is safe, and funded, and has something fulfilling to do, has been one of the more stressful aspects of the pandemic. I gave people space to adjust for the first few weeks, and then created a structure of one-on-one meetings early in the week, a lab meeting midweek, and a short “highs and lows” recap meeting at the end of the week. It’s helpful and I think the structure will carry over into the fall. Personally, the start of the pandemic coincided with finding out that I was pregnant. Compared to my colleagues with small children, I am incredibly glad mine is still in utero. However, compounding general pandemic anxiety with anxiety about having a child or miscarriage during a pandemic, and not feeling well, has made it difficult to focus. The most useful thing I’ve found is to (try to) let go of my guilt around missed deadlines and let myself get excited about the science. Revisiting why I find my science interesting seems to be the best jump-start for catching up and moving forward.

Also of interest: