Article by Natalie Simonian
Graphic design by Colleen Paris
In March 2020, the COVID-19 Pandemic hit its first peak in Toronto. As the government coped with the economic and social ramifications of a global pandemic, new regulations were set in place day by day. For the University of Toronto IMS graduate students, this meant that lab work was halted and students began to convert to working from home. This came with its own subset of challenges and required immense adaptation on the part of students in graduate school. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a host of trials and tribulations to society as a whole and uniquely on graduate students, who for months could not enter their labs to conduct research. However, it is always important to gain perspective on any issue, and a global pandemic is no different. The media has portrayed the coronavirus as a looming dark figure that has brought nothing but harm to society, however, here I will highlight some pandemic positives as experienced by IMS graduate students.
I will begin with myself, a clinical researcher. With the restrictions on physically entering labs beginning in March 2020, I began to work from home. My days were spent on zoom calls and involved long hours of staring at a computer screen. However, as I live an hour away from campus, working from home meant that I had effectively two extra hours of my day. I began to write more short stories and poetry, a hobby that I’ve cultivated since before university. The months at home allowed me to develop a sense of direction with my poetry, draft up a manuscript, and submit this manuscript to a publishing house in Toronto. All of these efforts over the past couple of months culminated in me becoming a published author this fall and being featured in a poetry paperback book titled “You’ve Gone Incognito” that is on sale right now on TheSoapBoxPress website.
Similarly, in the same vein of cultivating hobbies, Rachel, a clinical research graduate student, expressed to me that with all her free time during the pandemic lockdown she got involved in a new hobby: growing and taking care of houseplants. She describes this hobby as therapeutic, giving her the chance to slow down and appreciate each plant and how much they grew in her care. Rachel has expressed that while devoting time to this new hobby, she has virtually met a lot of like-minded people.
A former IMS student gave me her two “silver linings from the pandemic.” Her wedding was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this news was upsetting, the IMS alumna and her husband decided to jump-start their lives together and move in together. The first silver lining came here: she expressed that when moving in with her fiancé, she felt independent and the experience was freeing. The second silver lining was finally taking a pause and prioritizing her mental and physical health. As many of us have probably felt as graduate and post-graduate students, life at times can feel very fast-paced, and we may forget to pause and focus on things beyond academic life. This IMS alumna exemplified the use of the lockdown to cultivate a better work-life balance as well as plan her personal life’s next steps.
The third student I spoke with, Nairy, is a commuter like myself. She lives off-campus and found it difficult to attend events, both academic and social, since they required commuting downtown. Due to the pandemic lockdown, events and clubs have become virtual. Consequently, Nairy was able to attend more events and socialize. This pandemic enriched her graduate experience by allowing her to connect with people who she probably never would have met!
The last IMS student I spoke with, Muzaffar, mentioned to me that the best thing the pandemic gave him was time. The time to create a consistent workout plan, the time to see family and friends, and the time for self-reflection. He mentioned that when the lockdown started, he struggled initially to figure out a balance between relaxing and working at home. He created a schedule and began feeling productive in more than one aspect of his life. He took the time to reflect on the activities he was doing outside of school and work and asked himself one important question which I believe we should all ask ourselves during this time of self-reflection: “Are the things that I spend my time doing meaningful to me, do I actually want to be doing these things?”. He has reorganized some of his commitments and has begun to feel more relaxed, and he now spends his non-research related time seeing family and friends, exercising, and acting as a TA and mentor to incoming students.
While the pandemic lockdown has given many IMS students more free time, I must pause to acknowledge the many IMS students who have children or elders needing care living with them. Along with heath care workers, these students are the real heroes for being able to juggle research demands as well as taking care of family members during these isolating times.
When speaking with other IMS students a common shared realization emerged: the pandemic lockdown gave students the space to acknowledge and appreciate what they have in their lives and what they are thankful for. Whether it was achieving a dream, finding a new passion, advancing personal life goals, increasing social involvement, spending quality time with family members, or delving into active introspection, the pandemic “pause” gave IMS graduate students the space to figure out what is meaningful to them, what they want to prioritize in their lives and act on it.