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The Black Hole

On lockdown and no international travel – I’ve been grounded and learned some lessons

There is an opportunity to learn from dramatic changes in behaviour that have been imposed on us.


Editor’s note: We are delighted to have a guest post from professor Berthold Göttgens at the University of Cambridge who shares his thoughts on the dramatic change in international travel, felt by academics across the world.

I was looking at my calendar today and I was supposed to be in China. Next week, I was meant to be in Japan, then China again, then Paris, and then San Diego before coming home to the U.K. for Christmas. As we are all acutely aware though, this year has been very different, and the academic meeting circuit has effectively shut down. Since becoming a full professor in Cambridge in 2011, I have not ever had eight months without stepping on an airplane, and the experience has made me fundamentally change the way I work.

When I started my lab group, I rarely travelled – this was due to a combination of still doing lab experiments, having small children and the absence of regular invitations (and funding!) to travel frequently. As my group and reputation grew (I’m now in my 50s), I hardly had time to notice the dramatic change in travel, but my “grounding” during lockdown has made me realize a number of things I may not have noticed about how my research life had changed.

Travelling is a time block, not simply a meeting

One of the biggest differences I have noticed in my lockdown day to day is the absence of “blocks of time.” Things I used to get done on a train, in a hotel room or conference centre, or at 3-6 a.m. in a different time zone now have to be fit in somewhere else. During lockdown, however, I found my days were very quickly filled with a patchwork of Zoom meetings that resulted in virtually no multi-hour blocks to sit and think about my next grant or focus on a paper. This has forced me to take some more ownership over my schedule and dedicate weekly blocks of time to be meeting free for the tasks that require blocks of uninterrupted time.

The fringe benefits of no travel

Readers of The Black Hole might already have seen David’s article on the fringe benefits of no conference travel, and I would agree that my carbon footprint has been reduced substantially. I also suspect organizations will shift their future conference schedules to incorporate more virtual meetings. That said, there are other benefits that I’d not previously appreciated until everyone was grounded at the same time. Firstly, the fear of missing out is lessened since nobody else can go either. Secondly, there are no longer barriers for speakers/attendees such as obtaining visas, requiring mobility assistance, or leaving children in the care of other family members – all leading to an increased diversity in the audience that a conference can reach. Thirdly, it is much easier to schedule meetings with people in the absence of busy travel schedules. Each of these items offers us an opportunity to improve the way academics meet and share information when we return to some sense of normality.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of virtual conferences

In a similar vein, the virtual conference enterprise has taken major steps forward that have revolutionized the way we connect online. There have been good things like the increased access to information and a number of organizations have piloted really creative ways of engaging attendees and re-creating the social interaction that we crave as humans. That said, there are some really negative aspects to not meeting in person. The first of these is that you only see what you choose to see and cannot be surprised by a presentation or spontaneous social interaction. Next, while my network of colleagues is quite well-developed, there is a real disadvantage for those who do not yet have substantial networks – they cannot approach a speaker after their talk in the same way, they do not get the same sort of interactions across career stages that poster sessions and focused meetings can give, and they miss out on peer to peer learning that occurs at conferences. It, quite simply put, is not the same.

Concluding thoughts

Looking forward, I don’t think I’ll plan the kind of travel schedule I used to have ever again and I will be using the online tools at my disposal to better plan which essential interactions I need to have in person versus which ones are more of a “keeping up to date” information gathering exercise. As with any crisis, I think there is an opportunity to learn from dramatic changes in behaviour that are imposed on us, no matter how unpleasant they might feel. Scientific information can be communicated in a more inclusive manner, interactions can be a mix of online and in person and we should discourage the “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude that goes along with some fields where research group leaders are away from their lab more often than they are present.

Professor Berthold Göttgens is the deputy director of the Wellcome MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and a professor of molecular hematology at the University of Cambridge.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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