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COVID-19 Update from Early Career Chemists

What has surprised you most about the way the pandemic has changed your day-to-day life? How has it changed the way you perform your job?

Jana Olson

Jana Olson, Philip Morris International

Honestly, I’m more surprised about some things the pandemic has not changed. I still put off cleaning my house and taking out the garbage, I’m still playing all the videogames, my weekends are still too short, and there are still not enough hours in the day. Because I am a science writer, working from home is pretty easy and doesn’t much change my day to day role besides canceling all my travel for work. I do find myself making phone calls when I could have just sent an email, and I am very much an email person, normally. 

James Walker

James Walker, The Dow Chemical Company

The most surprising change is how much slower paced life has become, more time for reading a good book and finding projects to work on at home. As it pertains to my job, I have found that the time available to read more literature and ideation has become more prevalent for me, in place of setting up new experiments.

Jamie Schwarzbach

Jamie Schwarzbach, Natera

I've been lucky enough to find a career that allows me to work from home if needed. However, since shelter-in-place was implemented in San Francisco, it's been about one month since I've seen my coworkers. Although I expected to miss my coworkers, the most surprising thing for me has been how much I miss going into the office. My previous job was so close to my house I could walk to work, so it was difficult transitioning to commuting an hour each way. With the new commute, I created a nice routine of stopping for coffee, relaxing on the train, and checking my emails while preparing for the day. 

Traveling to work really helped me split up my work life and personal life. Now, I have to really force myself to set a routine, otherwise it's easy to continue working all day and forget about leaving time for yourself. I now set a time to do a workout and then eat dinner with my husband, with no distractions from my computer, phone, or TV. 

Bradley Wooler, ExxonMobil

Bradley Wooler, ExxonMobil

This pandemic has affected the type of work I am able to do. I have been working from home, which is unusual for me. I am used to working in the lab for the majority of the day, but at home I have been limited to only doing computer work. Although it gets tedious, I continually remind myself that I am blessed to still have a job during this difficult time. There are many others who aren’t as lucky.

Josh Kaitz, DuPont

Josh Kaitz, DuPont

The pace at which this pandemic has changed daily life and expectations around the duration of the physical distancing have been a big adjustment. I've been very impressed with the way my colleagues have come together to best manage the situation during this difficult time to keep everyone safe and deliver for our customers. Much of our R&D work is required to make materials and support manufacturing in essential industries, but the safety of our people is always our top priority.

People have adapted their work schedules so that we are working onsite at varying times to increase social distancing. We have also identified the most critical tasks versus those that can be delayed, and those that we can share with colleagues when they are working on-site, so that we are working most efficiently, minimizing potential contact, and keeping critical business going. And of course, meetings and various forms of communication have transitioned to virtual alternatives. It has been a challenge, but people have been stepping up in any way they can.

Tejas Shah, Corteva Agriscience

Tejas Shah, Corteva Agriscience

I’m pleasantly surprised how all of us are still finding ways to collaborate and connect with each other even though we are isolated. Progressing projects can be difficult when you’re not in the same room however using tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Mentimeter, etc., we continue to engage in brainstorming of SAR and retrosynthesis ideas. In addition, we’ve migrated our weekly seminars, lunch outings and happy hours to video chat to provide some positivity and continue to share ideas. 


Can you think of some ways in which this pandemic creates new opportunities for you or for your employer, either now, or when this passes?

Considering that a lot of my department’s work is on-computer and online, I could imagine a significant portion of our workforce moving to remote work most of the time. That could save the company money in building maintenance, energy costs, and day to day business travel. It could also improve the well-being of employees who chose to live and work somewhere that inspires them.

-- Jana Olson

I believe the pandemic is creating the opportunity to really focus on family, health and personal hobbies. On the career side of things, it allows you to really dive into the generation of new ideas that can be explored when this pandemic passes that could generate new value for our careers and employers.

-- James Walker

We've been trying to keep a positive attitude among our team. However, It's been discouraging when events that we've spent so much time and effort planning have been cancelled. Our team has since pivoted and we've been planning a lot of virtual events. There are a lot of great platforms that help enable engaging events with panel discussions, polls, and breakout rooms. I can see these types of events and technologies enduring after we all get back to our normal routines.

-- Jamie Schwarzbach

This has provided me and my work team with an opportunity to regroup and plan out our next experiments once we return to work. I am able to devote much more of my time to focused research now, which has helped me better understand both my work as well as related work that has been done in my field.

-- Bradley Wooler

 I think the pandemic has highlighted the difference between critical tasks versus lower priority tasks that can be delayed and in some cases, even skipped entirely. Everything now has to run as efficiently as possible by necessity. The situation has also emphasized the importance of learning and using new technologies for communication, collaboration, and working remotely that we may have only slowly adopted otherwise. Likewise, it has given me a chance to spend time on trainings, readings, and acquiring new skills that are tough to focus on during our busiest times.

Finally, this has also been an opportunity to give back to the community by volunteering and making donations to help out in areas of most need. It has been nice to see the DuPont community come together and donate supplies for local healthcare workers. For a lot of younger chemists like myself, we want to work at companies that make a positive impact in the local and global community.

-- Josh Kaitz

This pandemic has allowed me to catch up on reading the literature and learning about new areas like DNA-Encoded Libraries (DELs). In addition, I’ve been able to start writing a few manuscripts that I’ve been putting off. Lastly, I’m a big proponent of combing your passions with your career. Since I’m a big tech geek, I’ve decided to pick up an online Python class which I believe will be very useful in the age of high-throughput experimentation (HTE) and automated synthesis. 

-- Tejas Shah


How are you dealing with the pervasive uncertainty that the pandemic has created?

There’s nothing I can change about how my country, my company, or even my neighbors respond to this pandemic. I can only change my own response. So I keep refocusing on the positives of my situation. I get to watch winter transform into spring and possibly into summer without losing daylight hours in the office. I am fortunate enough to be able to work 100% from home, to live with a loving spouse, and can afford to buy groceries just once every two weeks. I save roughly an hour of commute time every day, and I’m saving money on transportation costs. I’m also talking with my family more, and there is at least one cat on my lap at all times.

-- Jana Olson

To deal with the uncertainty, I have begun to explore my passion for art and connecting to friends and family.

-- James Walker

It's easy to get sucked in to the social media rabbit-hole of graphs, stats, memes, and commentary. I try to limit my time on social media and reading the news to twice a day, once when I wake up and once after work. Since there is a lot of conflicting information, I've been spending time learning more about the virus and focusing on information that experts are more confident about.

-- Jamie Schwarzbach

It’s certainly easier said than done, but as long as my loved ones are healthy and taken care of, I am able to look at this time as an opportunity rather than a hardship. This time at home gives me a chance to enjoy more free time with my wife, discover new hobbies, and check some nagging items off of my to-do list. 

-- Bradley Wooler

 As a scientist working on fast paced projects, I am familiar with uncertainty in my daily life, and similar skills can be used to cope with the current situation. Staying resilient when times are challenging, being flexible and prepared to adapt as needed, considering a range of potential options depending on how events unfold, and making timely decisions are things that we frequently need to do and that help in this current situation too. Of course, the number one priority is staying safe and maintaining safe habits to help slow and stop the spread of the virus.

-- Josh Kaitz

While the constant news cycle has been heartbreaking these days, I believe in trying to find the positives of the situation. Since working from home, many of us have had the opportunity to have a fantastic work-life balance. I think being able to have lunch with your family every day or going on walks is a great stress reliever. 

-- Tejas Shah


Is there a message you would like to pass along to your fellow chemists and chemical engineers navigating similar situations?

It took me a couple of weeks to adjust to the new normal and my home life isn’t very hectic. Don’t beat yourself up if you have zero motivation for a couple of weeks or if you don’t complete the home projects you’d planned, can’t get your kids to sit down for their studies, or if you’re still finding the right way to balance your work and home life. That’s everyone. Whether you do your job in the home or outside of it, you don’t have to be efficient or successful, and you don’t have to be perfect, you just need to be safe. 

-- Jana Olson

Yes, my message would be to utilize this time to reach out and speak to your friends, family, and colleagues. Continue to stay connected and find creative ways to grow and explore paper thought-experiments.

-- James Walker

Positivity is key. Keep in constant contact with your friends, family, and network, and lean on them now more than ever (especially if you need help completing research, graduating, jobs, etc). 

-- Jamie Schwarzbach

It’s easiest to deal with uncertainty by focusing on the things you can control. As long as you are taking all necessary precautions, fear and worry won’t accomplish anything. Just stay safe, stay educated, and be considerate of others. And stop hoarding stuff, nobody needs a three year supply of toilet paper

.-- Bradley Wooler

My message to fellow chemists and chemical engineers is to keep up the good work and stay safe! 

-- Josh Kaitz

Try doing all the things you were “too busy” to do in the past! Turn off the TV (after watching Tiger King, of course) and pick up an online course or book on a topic you are passionate or curious about. Whether it be learning to code for HTE or cook to impress your spouse, I believe this is a great time to learn a new skill and spend time with our loved ones. 

-- Tejas Shah


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2020 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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