Oceanographic research is heavily dependent on fieldwork and, to a large extent, on laboratory and on-board work. In March, with the prospect of a lockdown looming on the horizon, activities at USP [University of São Paulo] were suspended, as well as our field trips. This was the main impact of the pandemic on my work and on that of the master’s and PhD students under my orientation at the Oceanographic Institute [IO]. Most of their research involved collecting biological and sediment samples to analyze, for example, the impacts of human life in coastal regions of northern São Paulo.
The situation is even more delicate for colleagues of mine who do continuous monitoring work at sea, for which they must spend several days at a time on a boat. Our studies depend on going to the coast, which became quite difficult from late March until early May, especially since the residents of São Sebastião closed all access roads to the town, to prevent those who have a beach home there from self-isolating in the region.
The IO has two bases: one in Cananeia and one in Ubatuba. Both employ locals, so suspending our research there was also important to avoid contaminating them and spreading the virus to their family members, neighbors, and community—which would indeed be tragic, since neither Cananeia nor Ubatuba have the infrastructure to deal with a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases.
We then began working remotely, basically processing samples and writing scientific articles. Some of my students have not stepped foot in the IO for more than six months. I loaned some of them lab equipment and computers, so that they could advance their research. They are using some of the infrastructure from the institute in their homes. Others are focused on reading and writing scientific reports and articles. Over time, we have begun to discuss how some of them can get back out in the field. The theses and dissertations of many of them depend on this, and deadlines are tight. We are moving very carefully and responsibly, following all protocols established by USP. One of my students recently traveled to the north coast beaches to observe birds; another visited the coast to do experiments to assess the effects of climate change on coastal biodiversity.
Many believe that the risk of contamination on the beaches is low, but to get there, you must spend hours in a car, often with other people. We usually spend a week to 10 days in the field—even longer when an experiment must be readied on site. During that time, we have contact with the employees of our bases, with locals, fishermen, and others. All of this increases the risk of contamination, which is why we decided to avoid it. Only now are we resuming these activities, little by little; we are procuring independent accommodation, and spending less time in the field.
These changes have significantly impacted our schedule for this year. We have not begun research focused on the ongoing situation, as this also depends on the observation, collection, and analysis of samples obtained in the field. One of my PhD students considered redirecting part of her research to analyze the impacts of the pandemic on the water quality of a river in Ubatuba, but it did not work out. It is difficult to study the signs of environmental change when you cannot go into the field.
In my case, in addition to coordinating assignments and advising students, I am attending international meetings online. This year, I was supposed to attend the United Nations Conference on the Ocean, in Lisbon, Portugal, but it was postponed until next year. However, all the preparatory work for this event is taking place through online meetings, much like the preparatory activities for the United Nations Environmental Assembly, which I will also attend in March 2021.
I have adapted well to this meeting format. It allows us to save time and resources. I used to attend several meetings a year, each in a different country. I traveled a lot, which was very taxing and kept me away from my family. Being able to work from home is a good thing. We will certainly embrace these tools more often after things go back to normal, as they even help lower our carbon footprint. It does get tricky when there are diplomatic clashes over international agreements, which require complex conversations and decisions. In such cases, it would be better to resolve them in person.
Still, one of the things I came to appreciate most during the pandemic is human contact and my relationships with other people. I have been working from home since March 16. We are a family of three: my wife, my 15-year-old daughter, and myself. We get along very well; we managed to organize chores without much bickering. At first, you get excited about not wasting time in traffic and airports, so you fill up your agenda with meetings, classes, and advisory sessions, every single day. After a while, you realize you have buried yourself in work, subtly draining your energy—not to mention all the domestic chores. That was when I began realizing that I missed people; I missed meeting them in the halls of the university, making small talk, telling jokes, having a coffee or a drink after work. This helps take the pressure off deadlines; it serves as a distraction, fulfilling our need for socialization and empathy, which is essential even in science. All of this is good for the mind.
I am exhausted and indebted to many people, but I understand that we all have physical and mental limitations. It is increasingly difficult to have a couple of hours alone to immerse myself in intellectual work without interruption. Aside from the constant tiredness, there is also physical pain, that slowly eats away at you without you realizing it. I have been exercising at USP at night, when there are not as many people around, but it is not enough. The pandemic is helping me develop a more humane view of academic activities, which will certainly impact my career as a researcher, professor, and advisor—as well as my personal life, as a human being.
Alexander Turra is a biologist and professor at the Oceanographic Institute at the University of São Paulo.
Some caught the virus, while others worried about the safety and mental health of their students. These experiences reveal much about the life of scientists and their commitment to the advancement of knowledge. Since late March, Pesquisa FAPESP has been collecting testimonials that tell these diverse stories. More than 50 of them have already been posted on our website; 26 of those were included in the magazine in abridged form, while seven gave rise to interviews on our podcast Pesquisa Brasil. There is more to come. This issue features two reports: one from a marine biologist kept away from the coast and one from a surgeon who contracted COVID-19 but later returned to the OR as soon as she was discharged from the ICU.