Adapting During COVID-19: Graduate Students' Work Continues at Home

April 09, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused all of us to make adjustments in our daily lives. To remain connected during this time of social distancing, we’re sharing interviews from members of the Texas Biomedical Engineering community. Two of our graduate students, Kaitlyn Johnson and Nate Richbourg, opened up about how they’re adapting and what is helping them.

Kaitlyn Johnson1000

Kaitlyn Johnson is graduating with her Ph.D. in May 2020. 

What have you noticed in the past few weeks?

With everything else going on in the world, it's hard to feel like the small things that you are working on matter. I have found it hard to peel away from reading articles and updates about the pandemic to focus on work. I think it has been particularly hard because as biomedical engineers, we chose this field in order to help medical professionals improve the lives of patients. Sitting idly on our computers while this unfolds is particularly unsettling. I wish there were more ways I could help through the work I am currently doing or the skillset I have.

What adjustments have you had to make?

Luckily, I have worked from home a lot during my PhD because my work is computational, so this wasn't a huge adjustment. I make sure to enforce a schedule that I do my absolute best to stick to. I get up at the same time every day, work for 3-4 hours, exercise midday for a chance to get outside and resume working for another 4 hours afterward. Since I decided to go home to be with my family in New Jersey when this was just starting, my family has dinner together every night and that has been nice to look forward to. I’m trying to enforce a distinction between my weekends and weekdays, so on the weekends I have something to “look forward to” like Zoom video chats with friends from college or watching a movie with my family.

What’s helping you stay positive?

Reminding myself that we are all in this together, that everyone is struggling in different ways right now and that whatever my unique way of struggling is (i.e. worrying about all the things I, unfortunately, can't control), is okay. I am trying to have grace with myself and if I have a less than productive day or end up having to spend time that would normally be in my working hours helping my family clean and grocery shop, it's okay. Another thing I think about is the benefit of a pause in our busy lives. This time of pause might actually allow people to reevaluate what matters to them. I am hopeful that this time might force me to slow down and think hard about what I want my contributions in this field to be and adjust accordingly.

What new things are you doing?

To be honest, this area is lacking. I have heard tons of people talking about the new recipes they've tried, all the at home-workouts they're doing, how they're picking up drawing or needlework, etc... and I've done none of these things. I at first felt guilty about this, but I am trying to accept that it's okay to just do the bare necessities at this time, get the work done that I need to do, help my family with chores, reach out to family and friends, get in some daily movement, and not put too much pressure on myself to hone a new skill or hobby right now.

What impact has this had on your work?

It’s made for a lot more Zoom calls, which I have found are much harder to stay focused and engaged in than in-person one-on-one meetings. I could normally go from meeting to meeting and not feel easily distracted, but now when I see multiple Zoom calls on my calendar I know I am going to have to put in extra effort to stay focused during that time and not be working on side problems or reading news articles in the background. It has also been harder to maintain boundaries between work and leisure time, as my laptop is always within reach.



Nate Richbourg, a second-year graduate student, helped start a Slack group for graduate students. Initially, he wanted a communication platform that would unite different cohorts, but it came to fruition at the perfect time to help students socialize during quarantine. 

What have you noticed in the past few weeks?

Work life and home life have really started to bleed together. That has its advantages and disadvantages. If I really need to think about how to explain a concept in my work, I can lie down on the couch and brainstorm for a bit. On the other hand, it’s way too easy to take a nap or get distracted by video games at home.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I still want to work every day. If anything, this situation has reminded me that I’m in graduate school because I’m passionate about research, and not even a global pandemic can stop that.

What’s helping you stay positive?

Making time to work out really makes a difference for me day-to-day. I can’t go outside and climb, so I’ve made a daily habit to run or exercise in the living room with a Youtube video to guide me. The endorphins and sense of routine are worth the soreness.

What new things are you doing?

I never thought I would be playing board games online. That’s what video games are for, but somehow it feels a little closer to play a board game online than a video game. I have also never gone driving just to get outside before, but I did that last week.

What impact has this had on your work?

This all came at a surprisingly good time for me. I need to heavily edit and submit two manuscripts, and after that I have a few projects that can be done remotely. Very little has changed in my research and my dynamic with my professor, but it is fun seeing Dr. Peppas figure out how to use Zoom.


Read more about how other members of the BME community are coping with COVID-19 and related research activities happening in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.