Editor’s Note: Due to a scheduling snafu, an incomplete draft was accidentally published last week and then taken down from the site. Please enjoy the completed article and all the work and creativity that our contributors put into their pieces. – K.Chudeau
The reality of COVID 19 hit me on March 1st, the day I flew from my field site in Panama to my new home in Konstanz, Germany. In the months beforehand, I was collecting behavioral observations and thermal video of kinkajous foraging for nectar in a balsa tree, detailed in Field Notes: Research in the time of COVID-19.
During that time, I was keeping only half an eye on the developing coronavirus crisis. Safe on my little tropical island, it seemed a distant concern.
My concern became very real in the airport that first day of March.
The travelers disembarking the flight before mine wore masks and got their foreheads scanned by those weird futuristic thermometers I here-to-fore had no idea existed. Should I be worried about packing myself into this plane, I wondered? My transfer was in Madrid. Spain had just shown the first signs of outbreak. Already anxious about the trip because I was carrying my entire life with me through 14 hours of flights, a long layover, a train ride from Zurich across the German border, and finally a bus to an apartment I had never seen with new roommates I had never met, my nerves suddenly went into high alert.
I made it through the trip safely, but the chaos was only just beginning. This apartment was only available for a month, and just meant to serve as a landing pad while I looked for a more permanent solution in a difficult housing market.
As renters stopped showing apartments, my temporary pad became a major liability. Then things got a lot worse very fast.
Tuesday, March 11: A notice: “Work from home directives could come at any time. They could last months. Prepare your home office.”
Wednesday, March 12: A word from my advisor. “It is unclear whether you will be able to go back to Panama in June. You should prepare for the possibility of finishing your Ph.D. without collecting any more field data.”
Thursday, March 13: A formal message: “Work from home will begin Monday. No one will be allowed into the office without special permission from an emergency response crisis team. Let us know what you need to make the transition.”
I needed a lease, a new Ph.D. proposal, and a big hug.
The Max Planck Institute arranged for me to stay at a guest house about an hour from Konstanz with small but comfortable and furnished single rooms. The guest house is in the tiny little town of Möggingen, which perfectly illustrates the countryside idyll of suburbs in Southern Germany. The turn to spring has been breathtaking, full of birdsong and flowers; it is the perfect place to ride out an existential crisis in solitude.
As somebody that approaches most situations by charging in and flying by the seat of my pants, the forced pause and accompanying quiet helped me to look at my foiled plans and assess them objectively.
What was I doing well, and what was I doing poorly? With no choice but to let go of my dream project, what are the interesting, more practical options I had put aside in favor of my jungle-child ambitions? I discovered that not only did all those neglected side projects make for a dissertation that was both achievable and exciting, they would help me go into my next field season with a better plan (when it finally happens). I also realized that my neglect for these projects stemmed from several bad habits that inhibited my ability to focus on more than one thing at a time. So, I started trying to fix that.
I’m not saying the outlook has always been rosy. All this self-reflection came with a lot of lying on the floor producing dying-pterodactyl screams.
But last week I signed a lease on an apartment in a charming renovated farmhouse from the 1600’s. There is a fresh produce market next door and Lake Konstanz is just a five minute walk away. The landlord hopes I will take care of his cats while he is away (I most definitely will). I may not get to go to the field, but I am going to come out of this with a new home that I love, a better ability to organize the space around me, and a newfound appreciation for lists. It hasn’t been fun, but the coronavirus has made me a better scientist.
[Edited by: Maggie Creamer & Karli Chudeau]