Shifting Towards a New Normal
Hello again dear readers,
The warmer months are finally upon us, the CDC, as well as local and state officials, are reevaluating guidelines as more people are getting vaccinated, events and public places are opening up to larger groups, it seems like we’re fast approaching this place dubbed ‘the new normal. I was officially allowed back onto my campus as a researcher, and I know in the fall everyone that has been vaccinated will be returning to campus. Yet as I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of weeks, along with all the excitement and relief I feel, bubbles of fear and anxiety are coming along with it. And I can’t be the only one feeling this way, right?
Let’s backtrack a bit, I’d say to early summer of 2020. The haze of the initial quarantine is running off, some think with the summer we’ll be over COVID, of course, those are the same people who caused a massive second wave of the virus in July. I’m starting my research career completely remote. In some ways isolation made research difficult, slow communication with collaborators, no opportunities for non-work-related talk, just me and my notes. Yet in other ways it was incredibly freeing. Like many others on the spectrum, I tend to excel at written communication while spoken communication can be quite difficult, so using Slack to talk with my co-workers was never that bad. Unless I was on a Zoom call I never had to deal with eye contact, and all the other social cues I can never quite pick up on were all also easily avoided. I didn’t have to take public transit to get to and from campus, whose myriad of foul smells, loud noises, and uncomfortable social interaction always made it a hit or miss for me. But the nicest part of starting my research career in isolation was the freedom it granted me in optimizing my work environment.
The research that I did last summer was very pen and paper kind of theory. Many days were spent detangling ginormous derivatives to try and get them to a point where something meaningful could be said about them. It was at the beginning of the summer I decided to start working in my notebooks backwards, filling in individual pages left to right but filling in the notebook itself right to left. As a leftie, I always had trouble with smudged and blocked-off pages, and this was a surprisingly low-tech solution for that. I built up a lot of strategies like that to make my job work for me, differences and abilities and all. A large reason why I felt so comfortable making adjustments like this was that I knew no one else was going to be interacting with my work in person. I could always easily take pictures of my notebook entries and put them in the right order before sending them off to collaborators. And it’s been like this for well over half of my time in college, and for the entirety of my career as a researcher. Now that things are going back to normal, where does that leave me? It might sound silly, but I’m nervous going back and trying to re-learn how to fit into normal society.
All of this isn’t to say that fear is the only way I feel about going back. In fact, I’ve actually been back to campus three times now, leaving the safety of my basement hobbit hole home to face the big city. And yes while I was nervous about finally meeting a lot of my collaborators in person, I was also ecstatic. I mean, these are people who I’ve been working with for well over a year now and I’ve never actually met many of them. I had only ever had one meeting with my advisor before the pandemic, so getting to know him more in person has been really nice. Having a meeting where we can all just talk and go up to the whiteboard and riff out some ideas; solitary work is very important when it comes to physical theory, but collaboration is also a necessity. It’s scary going back, but it’s also exhilarating and opens a world of opportunities.
The exact details of my story may be unique, but I hope the message and themes ring true for my wider audience. It’s ok to feel nervous during this time, we’re entering some unfamiliar territory, which can be scary. But we’ve been able to handle life up to this point, so I think that in itself can act as a promising signal for the future. By keeping a better awareness of our range of emotions and the nuances we can feel as we as a society decide what this ‘new normal’ is going to look like, perhaps we can together make this post-pandemic world a better one than the pre-pandemic world we’ve left behind.
Stay safe, and till next time dear readers,