Previously in this series, we have asked scientists from different backgrounds, disciplines and career stages to reflect upon their life in lockdown and how it has influenced how they approach doing science. In this article, Karla P. Mercado-Shekhar, Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar writes about the process of adjusting to the new normal, and some positive changes in the way we communicate and collaborate that may have resulted from this experience.
The pandemic has made me realize my privilege in having stable employment, safe on-campus housing, and supportive colleagues during a challenging time. When the pandemic began, my husband and I had recently transitioned to Indian academia and were trying to find our footing. Like everyone else, our work was forced to a standstill, which caused a lot of anxiety. Upgradation of lab space and procurement of new equipment came to a sudden halt. Further, we were forced to adapt to the situation with a young child at home in the absence of childcare facilities. Once the initial shock waned off, we managed to spend those initial months becoming more organized, preparing our lab website, building a knowledge repository, and performing literature review to germinate new ideas. We found new collaborations along the way.
A positive outcome from the deadly pandemic was that barriers for international and long-distance collaboration were broken. Conferences and workshops became more accessible, which has saved time and money. The transition to virtual platforms led to the proliferation and enrichment of online content, which students can use to learn about specialized research topics that were not accessible previously. While online talks and conferences are not a complete substitute for in-person interactions, they are certainly useful when resources and opportunities are limited.
Soon after the national lockdown, my research group started online meetings. Working from home in remote places across the country was challenging for some of my team members. However, our online meetings provided a good platform for knowledge retention and organization. For example, we recorded our meetings and journal clubs, which could serve as resource material for future discussions and for training new students. We were getting buried in a barrage of emails, so we started using Slack, an online content management and communication platform, for our group, which has enabled seamless communication.
Many of my colleagues wrote review articles during this period to keep their labs productive. Students in my research group were new and were not fully trained in their research areas. Therefore, drafting review articles was challenging. Nonetheless, we initiated a couple of review articles, which served as a training opportunity for our students. Once work became feasible, our lab space was upgraded, and procurement began again, albeit slowly. I finally wrote a review article with one of my students and a few collaborators and was also able to submit a few grant proposals.
The pandemic forced all teaching to be ported to the online mode. IIT Gandhinagar declared a summer vacation in April, which allowed us time to pilot our teaching approaches and infrastructure. This experience was a great advantage, and it helped me become aware of the best practices for teaching online. Online teaching is challenging due to the lack of face-to-face interaction and the challenges associated with assessment. However, I found some advantages inherent to the online mode. First, the recorded lectures can be viewed by students later while preparing for exams. I could also review my recorded lectures and note down potential improvements in my teaching performance for future classes. Flipped classroom approaches were discussed in academic circles for long, but the lack of motivation to record lectures was a hindrance for adopting such practices. With online teaching, many faculty members at IIT Gandhinagar are now experimenting with innovative teaching methods.
Many institutions, including IIT Gandhinagar, have now allowed students to obtain credits for elective courses through approved massive open online courses (MOOCs). Given the growing richness of the content provided on online platforms in diverse areas, this development was inevitable. However, it was greatly accelerated by the pandemic, which has improved students’ awareness about MOOC platforms, including edX, Coursera, and NPTEL, and enhanced access to specialized knowledge. However, several students face challenges with poor or limited internet access and suboptimal work environments. I hope that over the next few years, online connectivity and IT infrastructure across India will be overhauled, which will enable students to access such resources with ease.
When the academic semester resumed, I taught a course titled “Introduction to Biomedical Engineering” and was surprised to see a huge interest and participation from many disciplines. The pandemic has certainly convinced stakeholders at different levels of the importance of biomedical research, spanning from the development of vaccines to healthcare technologies and devices. With the advent of vaccines, I hope that the pandemic will come under control and everything will get back to normal this year. Further, I hope that the positive changes that have happened in the Indian and global research ecosystem will be sustained.