How to [barely] get started and keep up with a project during a pandemic

Morning view of a little hotel we stayed near Boquete, Panamá

by Deise Goncalves, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Michigan, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin Fall 2019 and moved to Ann Arbor in January 2020 to work as a postdoctoral researcher under the supervision of Stephen Smith and Chris Dick. The move was a major change for me, but I set out for Michigan and for three days I drove my old Honda from Austin to Ann Arbor in the company of my old, tiny and shivering Chihuahua named Daphnia (yes! She is as cute as a Daphnia).

My supervisors and lab mates graciously received me in Ann Arbor, and we celebrated having lunch at Hop Cat. Our work brought us to New York and St. Louis alongside our collaborators from the University of Florida to collect samples in the herbaria of the New York Botanical Garden and Missouri Botanical Garden. From there, we worked diligently to get a collection permit for field work in Panama, and one week after the permit was approved, the University announced a lockdown. Week after week we were isolated in our homes with no end in sight.

During my first few weeks in Ann Arbor I was still productive, I was able to plant seeds we received from multiple seed banks around the globe. But then desperation set in as Matthaei Botanical Garden closed until further notice — I feared my plants would be left there to die. Gladly it didn’t happen and the directors worked to keep the plants alive to save many rare specimens that are part of Matthaei’s conservatorium collection. Eventually, I was also allowed to go to the garden which helped preserve my research and with the respite from the monotony of my new post Covid existence, preserved my sanity. The only person I saw or talked to for many months was Mike Palmer, who I would see sometimes at the garden.

A few months after the lockdown began, a few researchers were allowed in the Biodiversity lab space. I was lucky enough to be among them, and started RNA isolations of the plants I was growing at Matthaei.

The isolation of research inside the deserted Biological Sciences Building (BSB) and Matthaei felt surreal and profound. One of the things I cherish most about academia is collaboration — considering our challenges over a coffee in brain storm sessions. As months passed by and the situation worsened in Brazil, I felt pulled home, and after my mother fell ill I had no option but to return. 

I had incredible support from Stephen, Chris, HR at UofM and the International Office at UT Austin (the sponsors of my visa). I stayed in Brazil for a few months to tend to my family and cure my homesickness. There I struggled with feeling like I failed myself and my supervisors but I came back in a much better place emotionally.

It turns out that while I was in Brazil I learned that the US consulates in the country were cancelling interviews and at that point I was risking losing my job at UofM. A group of Brazilian students who were desperate to come back to their studies figured that we could renew our visas in other countries. I was surprised to learn that Panama was one of the countries that renewed visas for Brazilians. I reached out to our collaborators in Panama and traveled in the beginning of January.

There, the whole country was still in lockdown. After running out of essentials, I spent two days brushing my teeth with soap. We were only allowed to leave the house for an hour on a day that was determined the bizarre factors of the last digits of my passport and my gender. Weekends were under full lockdown from Friday 9 pm to Monday 5 am.

After a week, the country partially lifted the lockdown. That was my chance to do field work that had been planned for almost a year! I called my supervisors, arranged with our collaborators from the University of Panama, rented a car, and headed to the Northeast of the country with an undergraduate student with an extraordinary knowledge of the local flora. We spent about two weeks sampling species of Ericales across Panama and each sunrise and sunset would bring a breeze of better times ahead.

I forgot to mention that the visa renewal went well! If you haven’t been in Panama, just put it on your list. The country has beautiful landscapes, wonderful biodiversity, and the people? Ah, they are so friendly and welcoming. I heard the beaches are also beautiful, but they were closed while I was there.

I came back to the US and a little more than one year after the first two weeks of lockdown, I got the first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and slowly things got better again. I still get emotional when I see friends meeting and hugging on the streets of Ann Arbor. I cannot wait to see the BSB populated again, to meet everyone and to experience the department as a whole. Let’s look forward to days when we can again hug our friends. And let us say thanks to the scientists that developed the vaccines.