2021: TIR’s year in review

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A look back at our 6th record-breaking year, and a big thanks to all of you out there.

2021 has been a year that went both interminably slowly and disappeared in the blink of an eye. The overarching theme was the still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but while in 2020 the pandemic was the story, in 2021 it became the backdrop. There have been no postings to the blog’s coronavirus category since March. In that last entry though I was arguing that the pandemic has shown us how many of the tropes of academic life – especially its chronic uncertainty – are unhealthy (Long journey into light).

Like many of you, I’ve spent the year trying – with varying degrees of success – to keep my professional life going and stop my personal life fragmenting. I have two young boys at home and a spouse with her own career in biotech. We have no family in the immediate vicinity (2 hours’ drive is closest), and trying to keep a happy, loving, and supportive home environment going has been our overriding priority this year. The younger son (2.5) doesn’t really understand what’s happening and we’re trying to keep it that way; the older one (6.5) washes his hands with a heart-wrenching and obsessive thoroughness that would put a trauma surgeon to shame. He’s already inured to wearing a mask and being subjected to twice-weekly tests.

I work as a junior group leader at the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology at the University of Würzburg. Like most (all?) academics, we’ve been on a very steep learning curve since the start of the pandemic. Thanks to 2020, there’s now at least an entire academic year available in an online-accessible format, but this year meant the introduction of hybrid courses in an attempt to ensure students get some of the practical training of which the German system is rightly proud. We’re now beginning to see the first of the “pandemic cohort” come into the labs, and it’s clear that they’re going to need a lot of help. Regaining confidence, acquiring skills that should be second nature by now, and minimising the damage – both didactic and social/emotional – caused by two years of online learning are going to be a major challenge for the next 2-3 years at least. The pandemic has been a stark illustration that online learning is a hell of a lot better than nothing, but a lot worse than the full in-person experience. Expect more posts to come on this topic in 2022.

In the wider world, most of the highlights of an almost unremittingly gloomy time have come from the world of sport, and this also proved fertile ground for the blog. The England football team’s run to the 2021 European Championships final could be read as an example of the need to invest in youth (Academies and academia), and how we must use past trauma to enact positive change (No more years of hurt). Formula 1 showed us once again that in motor racing, just as in science, talent is more widely distributed than opportunity (The best drivers, the fastest cars). Stateside, Emma Raducanu’s captivating run to the US Open title showed why excellence alone isn’t the whole story (The importance of narrative). On a more sombre note, the death of Prince Philip prompted a reflection that when scientists take taxpayers’ money there is an obligation to pay it back in some way (A life of service). 

Against all this, research has continued to go on, albeit at a slower rate thanks to the depredations of the pandemic on time and attention. I’ve continued to blog about life at the bench, mentoring, and the world of science in more general terms – how leadership is a burden but shouldn’t be a secret (Don’t be falling down), how attitudes to published scientific work resemble the operation of libel laws, how recruitment should be about screening for potential instead of finished products (Potential difference), and how important it is to ask tough questions of one’s peers (Live and let die). There’s also been ruminations on how we should aspire to be elite, but provide equality of opportunity (Excluding elites), the need for grassroots activism on progressive issues in science (From the grassroots up), and whether we should be referring to ”quality” rather than “top” work in our assessments of science (Top, quality)

For me, the year is ending with an existential crisis as my group has run out of funding and will cease to be independent in 2022. The overwhelming likelihood is that the group will fold – or at the very least, cease to be active in meaningful research terms – at some point in the next 1-3 years. I’ve no regrets about the way I’ve done things. I was trained at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (Cambridge, UK) to maintain a connection to the bench, and I’ve taken pride in directly supervising every single bachelor, master and rotation student that has come through the group (Mentoring the next generation). It’s been a joy to realise the ambition of having my own group, but not having even a single PhD student for these last 7 years has – with hindsight – been a professional death warrant (Research, and Development). 

The failure to secure continued funding from the DFG has however forced me to confront a very different and less supportive view of my activities (A case of the Dorian Grays), and showed me how much my own priorities have changed since parenthood and why I’m not willing to uproot my kids for the sake of another roll of the career dice (No more Brand-ing).

The blog, now reaching the end of the 6th year, has continued to go from strength to strength. There have now been over 125,000 page views and over 80,000 visitors since its inception, numbers I genuinely didn’t dare to dream of when I first started it. This year alone there have been at least 2,000 page views and over 1,500 visitors every single month. As always, a big thanks to everyone – especially all of you out there on #ScienceTwitter – for liking and sharing the content. Selfishly, I far prefer to spend my time writing posts than promoting them, so I’m very very grateful for everything you readers do to make TIR more visible online and help grow its readership. Once again, a big thanks to you all.

Thanks too go to Aparna Baxi and especially Mark Palfreyman for contributing original artwork to accompany some of the postings over the course of the year. It’s always great to be able to be able to showcase the work of scientist-artists, and if there are any of you out there who would like to contribute image(s) for a posting I’d be thrilled to hear from you.

2022 seems set to be a year of changes. It’s once again been wonderful and amazing and humbling to see that the thoughts I have about this incredible world of science that we occupy are of interest to so many of you out there, and I will continue to document things in both detached and personal terms. 

You keep reading, I’ll keep reflecting.

Brooke Morriswood, December 2021.

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