Opinion: The Isolated Scientist
Opinion: The Isolated Scientist

Opinion: The Isolated Scientist

Among the disruptions and pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are dealing with a sudden halt in in-person interactions.

Steven Wiley
May 19, 2020

ABOVE: © ISTOCK.COM, ELENABS

This situation seems familiar, but somehow different. As scientists, we are used to adversity. Stay in the field long enough and you are sure to experience funding shortfalls, rejected papers and grants, and a nagging uncertainty about whether you are working on the best problem or taking the right approach. Success requires perseverance, and we have all had ample opportunities to practice patience and perseverance in our careers. Yet this situation is different.

In the past, the solution to my difficulties lay within myself. If I lacked an idea, I could look through the literature for inspiration. If I wrote a poorly received paper, it was up to me to figure out the disconnect between me and the reviewers. I had the power to change me and that provided confidence in finding a solution. Perhaps it was difficult, but the possibility that I could find a solution brought a degree of comfort.

Today, the problem is not a disconnect within me. It is a disconnect from other people. The coronavirus has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and sickened millions as of this writing. At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where I work, only about 10 percent of the staff are allowed on campus, mostly to keep the facilities operating, but some to perform critical experiments. The rest of us are working remotely, holding virtual meetings and being productive, but I am separated from my scientific colleagues, and I am surprised at how much I miss them.

Science is typically perceived to be a solitary activity. We’re likely all familiar with the stereotype of the distracted, poorly groomed, and socially awkward scientist obsessing over a problem that consumes their attention. Reading papers, listening to seminars, designing experiments, sifting through reams of data to find the nugget of knowledge that has eluded others. Other people are distractions. They are competitors for funding, space, and priorities. Students and postdocs are responsibilities, taking up valuable time and resources. They are not supposed to be so important.

We are a community that needs to be connected to each other to best learn, understand, and advance knowledge.

Despite the common perception that science is a product of an individual’s vision, knowledge, and perseverance, it is also a deeply social activity. Individual researchers can generate knowledge, but that knowledge requires input from colleagues to be useful and deemed important. We cannot do science in isolation any more than an artist can be satisfied by creating works that no one will see. We basic scientists do science for other scientists, and the greatest joy we experience is to have others acknowledge our work and to build on it. Conversely, we are inspired by others and use their work as a foundation for our own. We are all connected to other scientists, and those connections sustain us.

That is why I find the current situation so unsettling. I have lost part of what sustained me as a scientist. The Zoom meetings are life support, bread to someone who is used to dining at great restaurants. It will keep us alive, but it will not let us thrive.

I miss my colleagues. Getting together in conference rooms and brainstorming ideas or going over the weekly experimental results. Seeing seminars in person, where my attention is drawn by the speaker and their interaction with the frequently skeptical, but sometimes impressed audience. Listening to Zoom seminars while culling my email folder just doesn’t cut it. I also miss scientific meetings, visiting scientists, and most of all, the spontaneous interactions with my fellow researchers where we enthusiastically shared the latest discovery, insight, or inspiration. It was the food that nourished my scientific soul.

Like all adversity, the current situation will someday end. They say that you learn more from adversity than success, and I have found that mostly to be true. So I am optimistic that our current social isolation will have a silver lining. If it does, it will likely be our shared appreciation for how much we need each other. What makes science so satisfying and worth all of the sacrifices is other scientists. We are a community that needs to be connected to each other to best learn, understand, and advance knowledge. If we all come out of this with a better appreciation of the need for collaborations, open science, and real honesty and integrity, then it will be easier for me to be patient for this to end.

I can hardly wait!

Steven Wiley is Laboratory Fellow and Senior Scientist in Systems Biology at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is slowly reopening its campus with new social distancing and health safeguards in place. He also serves on The Scientist’s editorial advisory board.