Good evening, world. First of all, this is not exactly a review of the year 2020, but rather a review of a specific period roughly starting around mid-March 2020 and lasting till today, mid-March 2021. The “lasting till” part is not particularly meaningful, since as of today the future is not much more certain than it was a year ago, but it rather demarcates an amount of time I am willing to write about and feel the need to write about. As per usual I will try to break this down into sections for easier navigation, although this time the sections are likely to be chronologically rather than thematically ordered.
Around beginning of March I was self-isolating in my apartment, so by the time WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and Rice University has suspended the classes (to be followed immediately by the Spring break) I was already settling into the realities of the work from home routine. I already have been working on SARS-CoV-2 sequence analyses for about 2.5 months by then, and was steadily getting deeper into the genome and variant analyses and related topics. By mid-April we have been working in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College on the study of intrahost genomic variation in SARS-CoV-2.
Outside of the immediate research work this period was also full of the challenges of the schoolwork adjustment to the virtual environment. On my end most of these transformations were not particularly impactful, since in the spirit of good old college days I simply stopped attending most of the lectures opting for a 2x rewinds of recordings at convenient times. However, for the seminar-style classes the impact was noticeable. Giving a presentation into the void of a Zoom call felt eerie and rather disappointing, a feeling that hasn’t really left me ever since, but gained a new set of characteristics as the Zoom fatigue became more of a well-known phenomenon.
By early to mid-May classes were mostly wrapped up, and to the credit of my instructors for this semester, I did feel that I managed to learn something new and exciting, even if a good chunk of the process had to be scrambled and re-built in less than two weeks. On the flip side, the Zoom call festival was just picking up. This time period was likely the busiest so far for me with respect to the number of Zoom calls I have been present on. In retrospect I can’t help but feel that in some way the work from home routine and initial panic about “social distancing” (which in fact really is more of a physical distancing) made a lot of people crave the meetings a bit more than they should. Nevertheless, a lot of the meetings I had attended in this period were instrumental for my work, and helped greatly in shaping the initial draft of the paper that we ended up submitting towards the end of June.
This two month stretch was also the most work intense part of the whole year and arguably that was in big part made possible by the work from home imperative. Without spending time on grocery shopping (we were rather panicked at that time and relied on Amazon Fresh…), bar hopping, museums, or pretty much any activities outside the apartment (except periodically joining for walking the dog), I could funnel all of my waking time into research, interspersing it with cooking and home-brewing to main an ounce of sanity. Needless to say, that was also only possible since the exhaustion from the said routine haven’t kicked me hard yet, and I could indeed focus for a solid 8 to 8 on a typical day. Well, you probably know what’s coming next.
July-August 2020: The swamp
First, I hate Houston summers! Second, I hate Chicago summers. Third, I am sure that I just genuinely do not enjoy summers, in all ways shapes and forms, since graduating high school. “The swamp” comes, of course, from the great humid and hot weathers of the bayou that I am living upon nowadays, but also from the general feeling I had throughout that period of time. The April-June push took it’s toll on me, and I was not in the best working mood for the rest of the summer. I mostly concerned myself with another collaboration, this time looking into the Influenza A virus. However, my overall progress was slow, and on certain weeks I could barely squeeze out 8-12 hours of solid work for the entire week.
Additionally, dropping out from a work only mindset made me observe the realities of the world a bit more clearly and with COVID-19 cases spiking in Texas and globally, racial injustices being brought up front and forward in the USA, and the relatively shaky situation with the visa policies those realities were not pretty. For people who might have had more energy at that point in time it might have been a time of action and/or reflection, for me it was mostly a time of sadness, discomfort and a general overwhelming feeling of “the swamp”.
With summer being over the air in Houston became more breathable, but my exhaustion was still going strong. Beginning of classes helped alleviate that to some extent, and at some point almost re-energized me to the April levels of productivity. That period was relatively short. The month of September went by relatively uneventful for me, although I had to take care of a few things in the preparation for October.
October was hectic. My parents were visiting me from Moldova (a trip they booked way before the pandemic, and re-scheduling which would be an even bigger mess), so I had to figure out safe housing options and some form of an itinerary for their visit. On top of that, I was going to give a talk at a Ken Kennedy Institute Data Science conference mid-October, and that required some polishing and prepping. At the end of the day, both went smoothly, my parents were lucky to visit roughly in between two major COVID-19 waves in Texas, they took proper precautions, and most of their visit consisted of a road trip and hiking in the Grand Canyon/Sedona area (which I could not join, due to the aforementioned talk). The talk went by fine, as by that time I got accustomed to the practice of speaking into the Zoom void.
Towards the end of this period I felt more accustomed to the new life. Not the “dive into work” accustomed as in the beginning but rather routine accustomed. I had my balance of work and off-days, meetings I wanted or needed to attend and the ones that could be skipped, and some workable sense of interaction with the world through mostly digital means.
Most of the November was consumed with responding to reviewers’s feedback on the SARS-CoV-2 paper, tying loose ends on other projects, and getting into the groove of wrapping up schoolwork. Importantly, I also finally got back to reading (no, scientific papers don’t count, even if I do enjoy a solid 60-75% of them). I finished my way through the I want to be a mathematician: An automathography by Paul Halmos, which was a nice and witty book and to a degree helped me in the process of recovering some of the energy and excitement about work. I also finally completed the reading of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, which while not extremely underwhelming was somewhat of a medium tier prose in my opinion. Also inspired by my parents adventures in the parks of Arizona I started planning a short retreat of my own into the wilderness.
Classes were now officially done for the semester, revised manuscript has been submitted, and I was ready to take a week off. We have travelled West and South to a small town of Terlingua, TX, where we found a nice clean little motel. The two main attractions (both at about 20-40 minute drive from our base) were the Big Bend National and State parks. Both spots were amazing, with nice mountain hikes, desert views and scenic drives along Rio Grande it was a good way to let my eyes rest for a bit. The location was not busy with people making hiking in these places a much more insular and reflective experience (not to mention that it was also nice to travel without too much worry about COVID circumstances).
The rest of December went by fast and wasn’t particularly eventful.
At the start of the new year I was getting back into the groove of things trying to spend a bit more time walking outside in parks and along the bayou. Work got into a steady and solid flow and with a new semester picking up, I got a few more things to work on, which brought a bit of fresh air into the workflow. I also continued with reading more, just finishing Hilbert by Constance Reid and setting my eye on a few fiction books, since I have been missing out on reading fiction for a while. I also had a great opportunity to give a talk at UChicago Center for Translational Data Science discussing the SARS-CoV-2 work we did over the past year. In general, even though in the global sense life is still far from stable, I am feeling like I have managed to find some local stability, which makes me somewhat optimistic for the next few months to come.
Other notes and miscellanea from past year
I heavily ignored personal projects throughout this period. Well, at the very least the ones I’d typically write about here. I did spend a lot of time cooking, had a long foray into home brewing mead, and dabbled in some music for a bit at different points in time. The closest thing to come to the personal projects scale was getting comfortable with ggplot2 and RShiny, but at the current moment neither really got beyond the level of purely professional engagement. I think that a rather sizable increase in screen time drove me away form my standard set of personal projects, since I got reasonably tired of spending time in front of my laptop with the regular work and study activities.
Talks in the Zoom age: Speak into the void and let the void speak back
I don’t think that this note warrants its own post, so I will tuck it in at the end of this review for those interested in my opinion on the Zoom talks.
At the start I felt discouraged by the Zoom talks. First, they completely remove the energy feedback loop between presenter and the audience, hence the “speaking into the void” claims. Not to mention, that the same problem of speaking into a device, also makes it somewhat physically uncomfortable for the presenter, since you need to maintain relatively same posture, limit hand gesturing and stare into the tiny dot of a webcam for the “engaging with the audience” feeling (to be precise, the feeling is not for you, it’s for the people watching the talk). Second, Zoom fatigue is very real, and concentrating on a speaking screen can be hard for some people (including me). Hence, “the void” is really often empty, with just a few people tracking with the presentation for limited blocks of time. In the meantime I developed some techniques that help me stay more engaged, including chat discussions, sidebar banter with friends attending the same talk, and paper and pen note taking. All of these help to a degree, but nevertheless the problem of fatigue still stands. Third, just as with the regular talks, when “the void” speaks back the questions are often disconnected form the talk, and without the clear prospect of the “taking it offline” it feels that some interesting in-depth discussion never end up happening.
However, with time and practice comes some form of acceptance. I ended up finding the positives in Zoom talks as I attended and given more of them. First, it really helps with boosting my confidence. People not asking questions or being disengaged doesn’t burn the same way when their cameras are off as they fall asleep or switch to watching TikToks. Second, for lectures (on the receiving end) Zoom or YouTube is great. You can play the recording at the speed you want, rewind, and replay the fragments as you need. Interactiveness takes a hit, but as long as there is some venue for asking more questions it is really convenient. Third, Zoom really opens up the possibility of attending talks globally. I’ve been to Berkeley, Chicago and a couple other places to attend the talks without the cumbersome process of getting onto a plane.
At the end of the day, I hope that some changes that we see Zoom bring into the world of lectures and talks are here to stay, since not all change is bad. Of course, I also hope that at some point later in the year, I will be able to grab a beer after a talk to discuss the finer points with the presenter (not over Zoom).