In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, Jeffrey “Jeff” Henderson opened up about what he and his colleagues are worrying about—and some tips to getting through this unprecedented period. Jeff is a PhD candidate in Physical/Analytical Chemistry under the supervision of Professors Jamie Noël and David Shoesmith at the University of Western Ontario (Western), Canada. His research focuses on the role of alloying elements on the corrosion behavior of Ni-based alloys. Jeff, who works from home with his pet rabbit for company, is very active with the ECS University of Western Ontario Student Chapter.

The big unknown

“What’s coming, that’s the big unknown. Everyone keeps asking, ’When are things going to go back to normal?’ But I think the question is, what’s normal going to look like after this?

Students’ concerns are dictated by how far along they are. A lot of students feel pressured. ‘I have to be in the lab. I have to start collecting data so that I can start analyzing data so that I can write my yearly report so that I can continue (to receive funding)!’

For me, the biggest thing up in the air is jobs. Exiting grad school with the hope of finding work is my big unknown. I poke around on the ECS job board. At the end of the day, we all need an income!”

Timelines change

“When all this is done, I’m sure we’ll see a change in education. I had a scholarship last spring so I didn’t work as a Teaching Assistant (TA). But I watched professors quickly adjust to digital teaching to ensure that students didn’t lose a semester of time and money. It’s amazing what people can do when the clock starts ticking!

My professional timeline has been pushed back. I’m still working on my goals to tie up experiments, polish manuscripts, and hopefully publish them, but corresponding with coauthors digitally is not as easy as it would be to hash it out on a whiteboard. Otherwise, my major professional objective is to graduate, which I hope doesn’t shift much.”

Coping with communication limitations

“Our research group is pretty tight-knit. Many of us get in touch every few days. We might have a phone call with two or three of us to see how everyone’s doing. Our regular Monday meetings reporting on research now take place on Zoom. We present new data if we have it, or what we’ve been reading or working on. The group members joke around and chat. We also have biweekly meetings with our supervisors just to touch base and talk about whatever’s on our mind or ask any research questions. Our supervisors are going above and beyond in that respect. The weekly ECS Digital Library alerts are helpful, too. While it’s not a back-and-forth conversation, it is an update on what’s going on out there.

In the past, most of my discussions were person-to-person. Certain aspects of the research are tough to go over through digital communication.  For example, a student working ‘in’ my department last summer was tasked with writing up his fourth-year research project, which I supervised. I worked with him, polishing that up as a manuscript. However, it was hard to coach someone from a couple hundred kilometers away!”

Hanging in there

“Being locked up in your house can have an effect on you. Every day becomes a bit the same. I’ve been working less productively on a day-to-day basis, so I find myself working more on the weekend. In my spare time, I’ve returned to hobbies that I let slip during ‘normal’ times. I picked up my guitar again to keep busy.

We’ve heard it a million times. This is unprecedented. But, these are the cards we’ve been dealt—so we just need to adapt and make things work. It will get better!”