FROM THE FELLOWS
Recently, a colleague from another lab sent a heartfelt goodbye to our all-institute intramural email list. He had just finished his postbaccalaureate fellowship at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). These postbac fellowships teach future scientific professionals about the benefits and challenges of biomedical research. They are temporary by design. When they end, we must move on.
I thought about his email for a couple of days, although I barely knew him. I liked the way he talked about the community here, how beautiful it is to work with people driven both by cause and by camaraderie. I also appreciated his vulnerability in such a public forum. But I was most moved by what his message represents.
His leaving is a public symbol of the many quiet leavings during the pandemic. Quiet leavings abound—the departure of our scientific director (Andrew Griffith) and members of his lab; the anticlimactic dissolution of the class of 2020; many friends’ transitions to graduate school. Your own life likely contains many more examples. Before the COVID-19 pandemic we were vaguely aware of impending sendoffs within our small institute, if only because they also came with free food. Now, alone in our homes, the leavings have become nearly silent.
Previously, leavings were a happy marker of the passage of time. Transitions in academia co-occur with many of the NIDCD’s most beloved traditions—the retreat, the picnic, the arrival of summer interns, and the reliably abysmal performance of team SWAT in the all-NIH softball league. Most of those things (save the NIDCD retreat, which valiantly transitioned online) have been long forgotten in the slog through our stricken spring. My colleague wrote to express gratitude, but his words conveyed an unspoken sadness: “You will return [to campus], but it will not be the same.”
Transition, new opportunities, growth—these are beautiful things. Yet it is also a tragedy that the “we” who left campus at the start of the pandemic will not be the same “we” who return when it ends. Quiet leavings, no matter how small, are losses—loss of what was, and loss of certainty in what, and who, will be. The symbolic leaving of this distant colleague exposed my sheltered expectations of future normalcy to the reality of our collective, overwhelming, pandemic-induced grief.
I have been lucky to preserve my employment, health, and sanity during the pandemic. Many are not so lucky and have been suffering and grieving for a long time. Others, such as essential workers, have been laboring days and nights with barely a moment to eat, let alone grieve. Still others are no longer with us, having succumbed to the virus or become collateral damage in a health-care system spread paper-thin. Their loved ones grieve alone. Immersed in all this pain, it is easy to dismiss our fear, our sadness, and our anger, especially when we are privileged in the pandemic’s relative scheme of suffering. But without grief, we cannot move forward.
There will be many more quiet leavings in the next few months. Those who remain expect to return to an eerily empty campus. Colleagues we do see will be visibly separate, hidden behind masks and at least six feet away. Many of us will virtually send off close friends during this time, but we may not notice departures outside our immediate circles until we return to campus. And no matter when we return, it will not be the same. We have many big changes to mourn, but we must also grieve the little losses to accept our new world.
Amid our grief, there will be opportunities to step back and marvel at what a terrible, but also extraordinary, time we have survived. Perhaps, this gentle appreciation will bring inspiration for new projects. Perhaps, it will bring nothing but a moment of relative calm. This is still a gift.
My colleague has moved out west to be a horse wrangler. He intends to apply to graduate programs in ecology or wildlife biology. To him, to my dearest friends, and to all the others who must quietly go, I wish the very best.
Alia Pederson, who is from Austin, Texas, has been a postbaccalaureate Undergraduate Scholarship Program Fellow since August 2019. She works in the Section on Neuronal Circuitry in the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders and studies the electrical properties of sensory cells in the mammalian auditory system.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, March 23, 2022