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A humbling experience

Allie Lee reports on adjusting to life away from the clinic as she attempts to juggle academic work with parenting

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Allie Lee

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2020


Allie Lee, MD

Last week was tough. Another journal turned down my manuscript. One that I spent months on perfecting, revision after revision. One that I had hopes for after a long hiatus. I am a cornea surgeon-turned-junior academic. The start of my new career coincided with the peak of COVID-19 pandemic, when clinics were closed, surgeries cancelled, labs shut and fieldwork suspended.
It was the first time, for me as a clinician, to establish an alternative workplace at home. I found there are different levels to working from home. Sir Isaac Newton set a historically high bar. Quarantined when the plague swept Europe, he managed to produce landmark papers preceding modern calculus and theories of optics, and, on the grounds of his family estate, saw the apple tree that changed the world. Then there are mere mortals who cash in on the newfound latitude, saving a good deal of time from mundane commute, meaningless meetings and sometimes awkward watercooler chit-chats. Then there are parents. And there are parents who have young children around all the time.

My husband and I are such an example. We have two children aged 11 months and 4 years. Closure of school and daycare meant that the delicate boundary between work, school and family life was undone overnight. Every day we woke up to make sure our boys were fed and intact, and to keep them out of mischief in the house. Young children are naturally inquisitive and curious, especially about tasks on your computer and things you say no to. They also crave parental company and always come up with random requests to be close to you. Their wishful little eyes see through your enduring guilt as a working parent, making it almost impossible to decline. Late night and before daybreak, in reality, are the only time for a protected home office, when my tiny new coworkers are asleep.

Since the pandemic put a stop to all schools in Hong Kong in January, I was granted a train of slashes – clinician/ junior academic/ crisis manager/ sanitation monitor/ homeschool teacher/ entertainment curator/ lunch caterer/ curriculum coordinator. My desktop was covered in yellow sticky notes of reminders and task lists. My mind was constantly consumed with plans and schedules to make sure everyone in the house was well taken care of. Busywork is not only draining, but also intrinsically incompatible with academic research, in which headspace and quietness are pivotal. Too much multitasking reduces one’s ability to focus. Too little time is left for thinking and writing scientific papers.

Traditionally, women have been the one to take on more household labour and child-rearing duties. They were disproportionately affected by the sharp increase in responsibilities mirroring the curve of coronavirus. Recent studies have shown evidence that, across disciplines, since the lockdowns began, female researchers were falling behind their male counterparts, posting fewer preprints and starting fewer new projects. The real effect will surface in the next few years as it takes time for peer review and for new projects to complete. On the other hand, this crisis might rise as an opportunity for those with fewer family duties to thrive. While extension of contracts and funding may mitigate the disparity due to COVID-19, a more accommodating and family-friendly culture in the academic community will truly make a difference in the long run.

In academia, a researcher’s number of key authorships in high-impact scientific journals and the ability to secure major funding for research work are the most important metrics for performance and determinants for career advancement. In plain English, papers and grants are the key. This system works in such a way that researchers with a longer track record are in a stronger position to win competitive grants, which in turn support more research output. This cycle propagates. For early-career academics, a period of loss in productivity means a loss in the opportunity to build the credentials they need to move up the academic ladder. Success at publication and funding is unpredictable and rejection is common. They may or may not be able to make up for the loss against the ticking tenure clock.

Early life in academia is a humbling experience. It is part rewarding and part challenging, especially in this extraordinary time of a century. Holding a baby in one hand and having a preschooler on the other while re-submitting a paper is distracting to say the least, but at the same time, surprisingly comforting and encouraging. We know that we are very lucky to have the job and the health we have now. The daily challenges we face are very real and can be overwhelming at times. Yet, like everything in life, this too shall pass.

Just keep going. Keep writing. Keep submitting.

Dr Allie Lee is Clinical Assistant Professor in Department of Ophthalmology, LKS Faculty of Medicine, in the University of Hong Kong