COVID Constrained: Part III
The third of a three-part series on graduate fieldwork happening during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daniel Yim may be in the limbo of lockdown, but he’s a fighter, and a believer in happy endings. Neither the pandemic, nor the mud of the salt marsh, nor his beached canoe have been able to bring him down, but it hasn’t been without a struggle an without loss.
Daniel’s research focuses on the invasive ribbed mussel that inhabits salt marshes around San Francisco Bay and its currently unknown impacts on the local invertebrate community. This requires regular visits to mudflats and marshes to gather specimens and data and conduct on-site experiments.
About three-quarters of the way through his master’s program, Daniel had meticulously planned his summer fieldwork in order to complete his research and graduate on time. However, in March 2020, his progress came to an abrupt halt when San Francisco State University (SFSU) canceled all in-person activities, including fieldwork and access to the lab. A few months later near the end of July, SFSU gave graduate students limited access to facilities and permission to conduct fieldwork, so Daniel was able to resume his work, but with severe alterations and restrictions.
These restrictions meant that even the simplest tasks took more time, and consequently more effort. For example, planning logistics such as getting clearance to access study sites took days, rather than hours. Daniel’s fieldwork in the muddy channels of salt marshes was always challenging to say the least, but now, with restrictions such as maintaining 6 feet of distance from others, his field partner, while present, was prohibited from getting close enough to help him.
Picture yourself on a pleasant pre-COVID day, in a canoe with your colleague: You engage in friendly banter as you paddle down a shallow creek and share in the duties of hauling equipment and maneuvering the canoe down narrow channels. While you launch your equipment into the water and collect samples, your colleague stabilizes the canoe and records your observations. When you’re done, the two of you paddle easily back to the dock.
Now picture Daniel in July of 2020: On a sunny, muggy day he loads his equipment in a two-person canoe, paddles down the creek to an open channel, parks the canoe, works for a couple of hours in full sun, and loads everything back into the canoe. At this point, both Daniel and the canoe are slippery with marsh mud. He starts to make his way to the dock, heading into the wind and fighting against the current and tide. In order not to get blown off course and pushed back up the channel or pulled toward the open water, he has to run his canoe into the bank multiple times, stopping to rest for a few minutes to regain strength. He finally reaches the dock where his field partner has also been working solo, restricted from assisting Daniel due to social distancing protocols. Daniel then processes his samples on-site rather than at the lab, due to a delay in approvals for lab access. What would have been an enjoyable half-day trip previous to COVID has now become a frustrating and physically demanding day. But it’s not finished yet. Daniel then brings a full array of samples, supplies, and a microscope back to his tiny studio apartment so he can continue his analyses.
Other repercussions of this limbo are less visible than the physical challenges but not less serious: graduation delayed one or two semesters and loss of funding result in the financial limbo of needing to find a job with an incomplete degree in a job market that has dried up.
Struggles aside, one saving grace for Daniel is having supportive colleagues: an advisor who understands the personal and academic difficulties brought on by the pandemic and has allowed Daniel the space to manage it safely both in the field and in the lab; and lab technicians who continue to provide their expertise, assistance, and encouragement. Another saving grace is being able to connect with friends and family, albeit remotely. And another is his coping mechanism of reading. A writer himself, it’s not surprising he would find relief in reading, but he’s quick to specify only stories of overcoming obstacles and struggles, with happy endings!
So while all still may be in limbo, all is not quite lost, not while we can still look toward a happy ending, for Daniel, and all of us.