Amidst the uncertainty and stressors of the dual scourges of Covid-19 and structural racism, a number of MIT professors are forging thoughtful ways to support students’ well-being and scholarly development. Several Committed to Caring honorees shared their approaches for being proactive and including their research groups in decision-making, including Associate Professor Gene-Wei Li, Professor Paola Cappellaro, Professor Cathy Drennan, Professor Colette Heald, Professor Warren Seering, Associate Professor Anna Mikusheva, and Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy.
Transparency and collaborative approaches — at every level — are deeply beneficial in empowering students and building resilience in the face of considerable challenges.
Providing a roadmap
Weeks before shutdown orders in Massachusetts, Professor Gene-Wei Li emailed his lab, outlining the likely course of the coming weeks, both in terms of infectious disease progression and public health efforts. On March 1, Li encouraged students to begin gathering the supplies they needed to work from home.
Attending to the financial precarity of some graduate students, Li offered to help students who could not afford to stockpile a month’s worth of groceries and household supplies. Vitally, Li notes, “acting early is important to ensure research continuity and reduce emotional impact when an avalanche of restrictions are implemented.”
Professor Paola Cappellaro reached out to students in her classes and laboratory to offer support and advice as local Covid-19 cases emerged in March. She helped students weigh their options and access financial support as they made hurried decisions about their living situations. Cappellaro’s laboratory had transitioned to Zoom group meetings prior to MIT’s ramping down of research, which enabled them to be intentional with their discussions of research continuity.
Participatory decision-making guided by principles
Collaborative decision-making is helping Li’s lab weather the crisis. The group was among the first laboratories to begin to return to campus in June. In talking with his advisees, Li provided two principles to guide their decision-making: “safety cannot be sacrificed,” and “your careers must advance.”
He then sought their input on what a research ramp-up should look like for their lab. Providing clear structures for student involvement in decision-making was very helpful in ameliorating the high level of uncertainty and lack of control the disruptions engendered.
Li also paid attention to the little things, inviting his students to help build a “system (and not Poisson statistics) to ensure that there [was] at most one person per room at any given time.” Based on these conversations, he installed convex mirrors in shared spaces so students would know if someone else was already in a room they were about to enter. Li also installed iPads: the first few students who returned to lab are now recording and streaming their experiments, providing a resource to students who are at an earlier point in their graduate careers.
Creating deliberate interactions
Unplanned meetings are lost with remote work. Li observes, “the very nature of scheduled meetings makes them more formalized and less personal.” He has sought to address this by offering regular open Zoom hours. Being responsive and adapting communication patterns to students’ needs has been very effective in building a cohesive remote lab group.
With the loss of spontaneity, Professor Cathy Drennan is finding that problems often escalate before students raise them with her. In the past, a simple hallway interaction or tagging along on a dog walk offered informal mechanisms for students to express challenges to her before they had worsened.
Drennan is reflecting on past instances where she was annoyed with herself for working on a time-sensitive project in her office, where she could be easily interrupted. Now, she realizes that the informal lab interactions were a critical piece of her role as a principal investigator, ensuring stability and well-being within the lab group. Presently, she works to build in more availability to lower the threshold for students to raise obstacles.
For many, advising has turned in a more personal direction. Professor Warren Seering writes that “our students are facing unusual difficulties … We need to be on call for our students, and conversations need to include wellness check-ins to give students the chance to ask for help or guidance.”
Professor Colette Heald has made more time available for meeting with students and has introduced Zoom tea and coffee breaks, for unstructured conversation. She is very intentional about fostering the human side of mentorship. Heald finds it effective to spend “much more time sharing stories about how we are all adapting to this new normal and discussing issues in the news.”
Concurring, Professor Anna Mikusheva empathizes with the challenges students face. She writes, “in isolation, it’s very hard to stay focused and to maintain a connection with your community, peers, and advisors.” Mikusheva urges advisors to be “proactive” in checking in on students and maintaining regular meetings.
Building connections within a research group can be pivotal in persevering amid the torrent of upsetting news. “I try to nudge people to reach out to each other even in lockdown,” Cappellaro notes, “and indeed there’s been new collaborations among the group sprouting from this situation.”
Li is catalyzing conversations in his laboratory to process the traumatic histories of structural racism and sexism in this country and renew efforts to combat them. The Li lab has introduced “critical, structured social engagement” as part of their regular interactions, focusing on topics such as “racial bias in science and higher education” and “deepened gender bias in the pandemic.”
As Li notes, such conversations have always been a part of their lab’s culture, though they have become “more structured in light of our increasingly unstructured society.” Providing a trusted and safe forum in which to discuss these topics can help students as individuals as well as help advance the reforms that are vitally needed in academia.
Modeling self care
Adaptations to advising have required concerted thinking regarding needs and limitations. Vitally, faculty members are facing unusual burdens from the public health crisis as well.
Like many faculty parents, professors Kerri Cahoy and Gene-Wei Li’s hours have stretched considerably with the need to care for their young kids as well as support their advisees. They try to make transparency and self-care a regular practice, demonstrating humility with advisees.
“I don’t try to hide that I’m a real person with conflicting priorities,” Cahoy says.
Li shared with his lab that he was feeling burnt out, and took a short break in April. Their openness normalizes struggles, which is conducive to students sharing their own difficulties, and enables conversations about accommodations.
Grappling with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the ongoing harms of structural racism is a considerable burden for many graduate students. Having the support of professors who are Committed to Caring provides students with the resources and tools to rise to the challenge.