Women in STEM: Dr Alokananda Rudra

By Dr Alokananda Rudra, Daphne Jackson Trust Fellow 2019, Durham University.

Winning the opportunity to apply for the prestigious and competitive Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship with the support of Durham University after a career break was surreal. The yearlong application process for the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship began in July 2019 and involved a series of rigorous interviews and reviews. In May 2020 I finally received the award letter.

On one hand, there were well wishes applauding me on my winning the fellowship during a pandemic and then on the other hand I was informed I would have to postpone my joining date. How difficult is it to restart a career in academia in the midst of a pandemic?

My post-doctoral research aims to understand the mechanisms of atypical processing with physiological insights into the sensory world of children with autism and ADHD.  I was looking forward to jumping right into my experiments but COVID put a complete halt to this. Face to face testing was impossible during the pandemic and that meant I would have to postpone my experiments.

My post-doctoral research work began virtually with meetings and discussions.  I met my office colleagues virtually for lunches once every week. Some days I even went to my office just to get the feeling that I had actually started a job. Not more than 3 people are allowed to book our office space so I have barely met all my 12 colleagues.

I knew I had to be positive and utilise the COVID imposed time out from my experiments fruitfully. I drew up a draft for a systematic review and signed up for a number of free online courses offered by Durham University and workshops by Daphne Jackson Trust. I successfully completed courses on programming, academic writing and systematic reviews to name a few. I also did a teachers training course to teach at the university. Brushing up on literature review and all the theoretical aspects of my study is my main focus now.

COVID has had a huge impact in the field of research in Psychology. Our research studies involve work with humans and mainly a vulnerable population. Nearly 5 months have gone by and I am yet to design my experimental set up in the lab or start recruiting participants for my study. My experiments involve an elaborate lab setting. Once I am allowed to re-enter a lab, I will have already spent 8 months of the time of my two year fellowship. I realise my study maybe delayed and it does make me very nervous as I work part time and I am not sure about an extension in future.

On a positive note, my advisors have been very helpful with regular meetings and guiding me at every step.  I have managed to retrain in research skills through courses thanks to my university and the Daphne Jackson Trust. While networking face to face with others have been problematic, I have been able to attend many public webinars, conferences and talks which were held online and were completely free.

Meeting fellow Daphne Jackson Trust Fellows virtually and sharing each other’s experiences during this pandemic has really helped me to tide over this difficult time. Social media platforms like twitter has helped me to connect with fellow researchers with similar interests.

Personally, restarting a career in the midst of a pandemic has challenged my strength to multi task considerably. With the ever changing rules of lockdown and day care openings, my husband (also a post-doc) and I have had to re-evaluate our working patterns and personal life. Time management at work, prioritising mental well-being and developing new hobbies are my priorities.

The pandemic has taught me to navigate through my weaknesses and celebrate my strengths. I am learning to be positive from my three year old (who hasn’t been to play with her friends in a playground in months). I had a sense of urgency to re-start my research career running, but the pandemic has compelled me to slow down. While I am keeping myself busy with ‘theoretical’ research work I know I will be hit with an avalanche of workload once I can really begin my experiments. I feel as if am still waiting for my career-break to truly end.