A researcher in lockdown

[By: Chiara Capparini]

In this post, I would like to talk about my working-from-home experience so far and go through what a researcher can do without any access to testing facilities. Also, I wish to share some thoughts about remote research with you.

Recently, COVID-19 pandemic has forced the majority of people at home. Not surprisingly, as an early stage researcher I made no exception and more than two months ago my dining table turned out to be my new office. In addition to that, Universities are not among the first organisations to reopen. For this reason, a researcher has to deal with quite a long time away from the laboratories. At least in the UK, most University shut down around mid-March and face-to-face testing might not be doable for several months. So here we are, trying to navigate this experience without precedent.

Since home working started, I noticed that several friends and relatives asked me whether I had something to do, concerned that apart from seeing babies I had nothing else to spend my time with. For an entire year I have indeed been testing babies almost every day. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I had, and I still have, quite a lot to do from home. In more detail, in the past weeks I had the chance to focus more on data processing and analysis, writing up my studies, and planning future projects (with a good number of online meetings and seminars in between). Without this interruption from testing perhaps I would have focused on some of these tasks more heavily towards the end of my PhD. I took this time as an opportunity to wrap up what I achieved in the first half of my project and, in turn, to think where to go from here.

Of course, it has not been such a simple and easy shift. I admit I spent the first weeks quite disoriented, finding hard to stick to a schedule, getting distracted by the news from my home country, and getting back pain from working on my uncomfortable kitchen chair. I accepted to take time to adapt and to get used to this new normal and, to be honest, some days I still find it hard to concentrate and stick to my working routine.

The good news is that – in addition to dealing with the tasks above – there are testing options outside our lab to be explored as well. The scientific community reacted very quickly and researchers who have been testing remotely for quite a while shared their experiences and suggestions to run online studies. Even if I haven’t a direct experience of remote testing yet, I think it may worth to explore this option as a researcher, and there are some links with the aims of MOTION as well.

Generally speaking, remote research can be either moderated or unmoderated. The former relies on video conferencing between the experimenter and the participant, whereas the latter does not require direct interaction. Although not all the experiments we do in the labs are doable these ways (neuroimaging studies are an example), for sure there are some aspects of early development that can be explored remotely, and doing it online might have its own advantages. Among these, online research seems faster, more efficient, and less expensive. Also, researchers may be able to reach a wider sample of participants. For instance, cross-cultural studies may be easier to run than before. What I think it may be really a plus is the opportunity to investigate whether lab results can be generalised to more noisy and naturalistic environments, such as different home environments with their unique characteristics. So why not give it a try?

If you are a parent willing to be involved in remote studies with your child, perhaps it may be worth checking whether the University lab you used to visit in person has gone online. If not, be aware that there are platforms such as the Parent and Researcher Collaborative (https://childrenhelpingscience.com) where researchers from all over the world can post their studies for families to take part.