Pandemic pressures and young autism researchers

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ASPartOfMe
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09 Jun 2021, 8:09 am

Pandemic pressures may drive young scientists away from autism research

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When universities across the United States shut down in March 2020, Alycia Halladay, chief science officer of the Autism Science Foundation (ASF), started to check in with the researchers her organization funds — primarily postdoctoral fellows and new professors, as well as some undergraduate and graduate students.

Getting in touch with grantees gave Halladay an opportunity to reassure them that their funding would be extended. But she also got a glimpse into the challenges many early-career researchers were encountering.

Their experiences were far from uniform, she recalls. “Some [researchers] were saying, ‘Well, things are shut down, but I can still have access to my database from home, so I can do some work.’” Others told her a different story, saying things like: “Literally, I can’t enroll one more subject. So I’m at a halt.”

She noticed that those having an especially tough time tended to be early-career women. Like women in many other workplaces, they were struggling to balance the demands of child-rearing with their professional obligations. “Of course, I was experiencing this too,” Halladay says. “We’re completely overwhelmed.”

The more Halladay heard, the more concerned she became. So the ASF convened a committee to design and distribute a survey, the results of which were published this past March in Autism Research.

The 150 responses they received don’t reflect the full diversity of early-career autism researchers. Only 20 respondents were men; only one was Black; and none were autistic, although Halladay says the team did try to include autistic researchers in their sample.

Nevertheless, those responses send up a warning signal for the field. Early-career autism scientists have had trouble moving their research forward this past year for all the obvious reasons — lockdowns have often stalled data collection, for instance. But the pandemic has also placed many extra demands on their time: a need to adapt to remote teaching, added childcare duties at home, and mental health burdens that disproportionately affect neurodiverse researchers.

The upshot is a cohort of postdocs and young faculty feeling burnt out and unsure of their future in autism research.

For Vanegas and others who work with study participants in person, lockdowns made it impossible to obtain fresh data. More than 80 percent of the survey respondents said that the pandemic had interfered with their data collection. “We can’t go out to people’s homes, we can’t bring people into the clinic as easily,” says Clare Harrop, assistant professor of allied health sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who worked on the ASF survey.

Jessie Greenlee, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who typically works with families in their homes, says she mastered new statistical software during this period and got to know her data intimately. But uncertainties about when she can collect new data have made it difficult to do a crucial part of an early-career researcher’s job: grant writing.

Not only did mouse research become impossible, but bringing a new person into the lab over video conference also proved difficult. “It’s hard to get to know a person that you’ve met only a handful of times in person, and then guide them through a new series of tasks or goals, without physically seeing them,” she says.

For researchers who did have to stop and start their animal work, Halladay says, “it’s going to take years to rebuild and to get that momentum going to where it was.”

About 40 percent of the early-career researchers who responded to the ASF survey said that this remote teaching burden made it more difficult to push research forward during the pandemic.

Providing support for advisees has also become more difficult, Vanegas says. She has found it challenging to steer lab members who want to pursue careers in science, and to teach them how to do science when so much less science is happening. “

Remote work scenarios have also kept early-career scientists from making important connections outside of their labs. “More senior researchers have those networks built already and can rely a little bit more on those,” Greenlee says. “You ask senior scientists, ‘How do you build a research collaboration?’ And most of the time they say it happens naturally. Well, there’s nothing natural about Zoom.”

Almost half of the ASF survey respondents cited another yet support need that has sapped their productivity during the pandemic: childcare. Halladay and her colleagues couldn’t compare these responses by gender because too few men responded. Even before the pandemic, though, childcare issues had a substantially worse impact on women’s careers than they did on men, research shows.

According to a survey of scientists from various fields and career stages, women with childcare responsibilities — and especially those who have young children, as many early-career researchers do — have experienced the most severe declines in work hours due to COVID-19.

In another survey of early-career researchers, some respondents said they experienced increased productivity after the start of the pandemic, says Trish Jackman, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom, who worked on the survey. But these people universally did not have childcare responsibilities, she says.

That productivity boost for some — perhaps thanks to less time spent on tasks such as commuting — may only compound the stress for parents, Jackman says. “Because they see their colleagues doing more work, that almost creates that sense of, ‘I’m not doing enough; I need to do more,’” she says. “But then, equally, they’re in a situation where they can’t do more, because there aren’t enough hours — they have to get to teaching; they have childcare responsibilities.”

One ASF survey respondent wrote that because of her childcare responsibilities, she was contending with “zero breaks and major burnout for a fraction of the productivity of my childfree colleagues.”

For many, the pandemic has brought with it a huge amount of anxiety. Vanegas says that worrying about loved ones with COVID-19 comorbidities has been particularly taxing. And early-career researchers also have to contend with a unique worry: a brutal job market characterized by short-term postings, near-constant moves and uncertain future prospects.

A third of the ASF survey respondents said that because of the pandemic, they had shifted the focus of their work within autism research. Another third said they had moved outside of autism research — either to another subfield or out of academia entirely.

Autism research already loses a number of promising researchers at the transition from postdoctoral fellow to faculty, Harrop says. She worries that COVID-19 will exacerbate the situation — and that its impacts will be felt unequally.

“I’m really glad to be having a conversation about things like ableism and academia and autism research,” Botha says. “It might be in the context of COVID. But I think it’s a conversation that should exist long after the disruption from COVID settles down.”


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“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman


BeaArthur
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09 Jun 2021, 8:26 am

I read most of that, but was not convinced that autism researchers have it any worse than researchers in other areas. The author did try to address this, but it wasn't convincing. And without that distinction, this article didn't seem very newsworthy.


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ASPartOfMe
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09 Jun 2021, 8:36 am

BeaArthur wrote:
I read most of that, but was not convinced that autism researchers have it any worse than researchers in other areas. The author did try to address this, but it wasn't convincing. And without that distinction, this article didn't seem very newsworthy.

Women in general have it worse, that is why it is called the “she-cession”. I agree there that these lockdown caused problems are not unique to autism research. that is why I put in the News and Current Events section not the autism sections. Since the source is Spectrum they are going to focus on these effects in the Autism world. These are ongoing issues affecting society in a significant way thus a “Current Event”.


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Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman