Life outside the lab: Science graduate student adjusts to life in isolation

Friday, April 24, 2020

student selfie in the labSarah Al-Ajeel is a master’s student in biology and is mid-way through her degree.

Accustomed to working in Waterloo’s Neufeld lab, Al-Ajeel, like many other science students, have pivoted their studies and research to adjust to this new work-from-home culture.

Normally, Al-Ajeel spends her time investigating bacteria called Nitrospira sp. (commonly known as comammox bacteria), which break down ammonia compounds that are harmful to aquatic life, and are used in wastewater treatment. Her research studies the role of commamox bacteria in Guelph’s wastewater treatment plant – work that involves growing bacteria in the lab, running tests on said bacteria and also doing onsite sampling – but that’s all come to a halt since COVID-19.

“I was actually supposed to go sampling at Guelph and get some more sewage water right before the campus-wide shut-down. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, I was unable to go,” Al-Ajeel says.

student sampling waste water at sewage treatment plant

Now at home, Al-Ajeel is pivoting her studies, prioritizing her thesis introduction, which consists of a literature review, summarizing previous research relevant to her project. She has also started working on an outline for the independent studies course she will be completing over the summer.

student working on laptop at home office

“I will say that many grad students who are doing similar work are also facing similar challenges,” Al-Ajeel says. “It does get tricky some days, but we’re all trying our best and rising to this new challenge.”

At first, Al-Ajeel admits the lack of routine made it difficult to feel motivated, but she’s continued to keep herself accountable. Getting up at a consistent time, keeping her workspace free from distractions, working in two-hour chunks and keeping a to-do list has helped to create a routine in her day.

“Things have been progressively getting better each day. It just takes time to adjust.”

Working from home has also led to some positive sources of stress relief. Al-Ajeel has been using this time to reconnect with old friends and spending some time crafting. Creating breaks between writing has done wonders for her stress and sanity during this stressful time, too – things that she wouldn’t normally be able to do during workdays.

 “This is definitely a very unique and stressful working situation, but at least we’re all experiencing this together,”Al-Ajeel says. “Everyone is just trying to cope with this situation as best as they can, but I do look forward to getting back to the lab when it’s safe again.”