• Daniel Yim

COVID Constrained: Part I

Updated: May 12

The first of a three-part series on graduate fieldwork happening during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Catie regards herself as one of the lucky ones. And she’s saying that after losing out on about four months of data.

Catie studies the productivity of wetland ecosystems in San Francisco Bay. Utilizing phytoplankton productivity data from locations in Suisun Marsh, she seeks to establish baseline measurements that would inform us on whether large-scale wetland restorations are supporting the biodiversity and benefits they hope to add to the Bay Area. However, time is a key to this research question. It is impossible to establish a baseline from a single measurement, like learning the shape of the shore from a single grain of sand. Thus, Catie takes monthly treks or boat rides out to her field sites donned in rubber boots and wielding her YSI water quality sonde to grab a bottle of water.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, an institution-wide freeze on all non-essential fieldwork was enacted by San Francisco State University, which meant her monthly excursions were no longer possible. It left her in a limbo waiting for fieldwork approval while taking classes and confronting all the hardships of the year. Gradually, as safety guidelines were established and non-essential fieldwork became a possibility, Catie’s access to her field sites were renewed. She could collect measurements from sites that she could access by foot with her field volunteer, her significant other. However, SFSU’s guidelines followed social distancing requirements and so anyone that the scientist had not sheltered in place with, must remain six feet apart or further. This is where fortune favors Catie.

For many graduate students, they require field assistance from folks with specialized training, certification, or expertise. The new COVID safety guidelines had narrowed the criteria even further and while it is possible to do some fieldwork socially distanced, not all work can be done in this way. For example, if the fieldwork had to be conducted on a boat where people are unable to stand further than six feet apart. However, Catie’s roommate happens to be a research technician of the Estuary and Ocean Science Center making her one of the few people that fits the narrow criteria.

Now, Catie’s fieldwork is back in full swing, and data collection, despite disruption, is back on schedule. But what does this disruption mean for her thesis and her career? It will extend her fieldwork plans leaving her with just a year’s worth of data. She’ll have to process samples through next summer. That’s just the concrete details. There’s much more Catie has to grapple with. With more than a year and half of data at every site, she was confident that her study would have a compelling story, but now, she has doubts. When asked about the prospect of publishing her work in a scientific journal, Catie said, “That’s every graduate student’s goal, but I honestly don’t know if…[the data] is powerful enough to get published.”

She shares her doubts with her cohort and her colleagues, some of which have been heavily impacted by the pandemic. There is a network of support fostered by the RIPTIDES graduate program and the Estuary and Ocean Science Center. “Everybody’s been very supportive...we tried to help each other through it.” Catie said, “everybody’s story is very different and still evolving.”

For her, not knowing is the worst part. But Catie is aware, she is one of the lucky ones.