Everyday is a School Day: A Take on Sabbaticals During a Pandemic

By Danielle Reed, PhD, Monell Associate Director

At Monell, faculty sabbaticals are on my personal wish list, but they have never been part of our institutional culture. In academia, sabbaticals are a time for senior faculty to take a break from teaching, visit scientists in other laboratories for 6 to 12 months, and learn new methods or more about other disciplines, to revitalize their own research in their own laboratory when they return. At Monell, instead, we can take ‘mini sabbaticals, 3 to 6 weeks long: because we don’t have teaching responsibilities, long sabbaticals have never seemed essential. Several years ago, I enjoyed a six-week mini-sabbatical at a laboratory well known for its expertise in twin research, and what I learned there helped me develop my own twin-based research program.

Danielle Reed, PhD, Monell Associate Director

Danielle Reed, PhD, Monell Associate Director

But this past year, with all the changes revolving around COVID-19, in a strange way has served as a sabbatical for me. For the past year, I have learned many new ways of doing science, mostly by joining the leadership team of the Global Consortium of Chemosensory Research (GCCR). This group came together in March 2020, as reports about smell loss with COVID-19 first surfaced. The experience of watching a new organization form and launch crowd-sourced data collection taught me many lessons. Unlike crowd-sourced research, most research arises when a single scientist or a small group of scientists – say, a lab – have a hypothesis they wish to test, often in a specific group of people, such as twins, or people with diabetes. In contrast, crowd-sourced research (as done through the GCCR) involves hundreds of scientists from around the world, collaborating, contributing ideas and hypotheses that take shape over several weeks. Then, also unlike traditional research, which tests a defined population, we collected data from a global ‘crowd’, testing our ideas with a computer-based online survey that was translated into over 30 languages — a crowd of global researchers evaluating a global crowd of participants!

During my “sabbatical” year with the GCCR, I learned how to work smoothly with researchers with different backgrounds, priorities, and points of view. I grew more skilled in diplomacy as I interacted with the members of the GCCR — our group became famous for the phrase, “happy to learn about other points of view.” I also learned the value of open science — like ‘crowd-sourced,’ the term ‘open science’ has a specific meaning for researchers. It involves specifying in detail what our hypothesis was and what we thought the results of our study would be before we even began the study — something called ‘pre-registration’. Although it’s true that researchers usually have their hypotheses and a general idea of expected outcomes ahead of time, the pre-registration process is more specific: it taught me to consider all aspects of the study and to make more precise predictions. As you might imagine, these predictions are often shattered when the data are analyzed, but it is helpful to look back to see what we thought was going to happen beforehand and compare it to what the results actually show. This level of detailed precision was a step forward for me as a scientist — although I had dabbled in open science before, I am now a convert to the practice of pre-registration!

For me, the best part of this COVID-19 sabbatical year was being able to “meet” new scientists so easily — working with so many new people was fun! It also helped me to see the hidden talents of the people I have worked with every day, long before COVID-19. During the pandemic many people at my institution have volunteered their time and talents, pitching in to help in many different ways. I learned that labeling people with a job title had blinded me to the richness of their talents and the depth of our “global” community.

COVID-19 has been devastating, and it is hard for me to understand fully all we have lost, because of the enormity of the worldwide experience. But for me, it was also an intense year of learning, connection, and personal and scientific growth. I am not grateful for COVID-19, but I am grateful for this sabbatical experience and my expanded sense of “community”.

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