April 16, 2020

working from home

In 2013, during a visit to Maryland area, I became envious with those friends who can "working remotely". My friends enrolled in graduate programs mostly in doctoral try out their thought, a concept, a model, an experiment empirically, or through building models. Trying a "proof of concept" or a "thought experiment" and repeating a proposal until either you are absolutely sure that you can no longer patient enough to try one more time that experiment or you got a good set of data, good enough for publication is one way to called "research". This is my narrative, of course. More often, it is not or but and. A candidate has to try in some way, novel or not, to put a conclusion on a topic that proposed to the funding agent by his or her PI (Principal Investigator). During my first two years in graduate school, familiarizing with research concepts, passing core classes, knowing people, understanding who to contact for what issues, what would be the set of instrument you should know to operate was my research.

Working in the lab or with equipment and having water presented in experiments is often called "wet lab", a category to associated those working with chemicals and observations. Wet lab is associated with lot of experiments in-situ (in-place) that being faraway or at-home felt utopia. My research is definitely empirical work in wet lab, and working remotely is not an option.

In March 2015, I was in an annual conference in D.C., I had a phone call. Another side is my lab mate, LS, who I asked to monitor a protype of an automatic biomass controlling system for microalgae, and called me if something abnormal happened. Around 3pm, when most of my friends climbed up the Lincoln's Memorial, LS called me and let me know the media (a water solution with nutrients) ran out, and a minor spill caused by my protype. Hopefully, that gives you a context of working in a wet lab. You are to be there to do your work. The mitigation is have someone in the lab monitor it for you, and somehow you have a semi-automatic system on the run. And you can go buy a cup of coffee and grinding your time with the thought that it is unfair someone could work remotely.

Fast-forward to 2020, a pandemic caused by a strain of corona virus put the many countries in lock down, Hanoi-Vietnam where I live now, is one of those places. Working from home suddenly become a relevant concept. This time, I have been working with much less water for the last four years. I played with electronics and data, and have someone else to do experiments. This is is not a vindication of working with less water is a trend, but to be able switching between in-office working or managing work from home give me the freedom, one type of reward that I never refuse.

My residents is not 4-hour away by airplane link in 2013, but merely over 4.6 miles away from the office, about 1 mile more between my resident and my lab when I was in the U.S. Having a lock-down order is an official reason that I have worked from home, but this time, I am ready for it. In fact, I have more toys to play when I am at home than in the office.

Convenience aside, working at home brings a strange feeling. If staying at home alone like myself, the plus is long hours to dive into my project uninterrupted. I do not have put on headphones because some irrelevant conversation, and of course, I like to have natural light, open window, quite surrounding and powerful computer at my desk.

Working at home could be a trap. The routine is critical. You have to manage yourself at a great extent than in the office when you rhythm is dictated by meetings, interaction with co-workers, Q&A and such. At home, you have to have your project on-going. YouTube, movies, bed, sleeping are always available for your indulgence . Until you realize that you have been watching relevant stuffs a little too much, you are about of control with working from home. Discipline, clear agenda, self-management, a strong-drive to get something done. If not, you are about be relaxed, lazied and caught-up in unimportant tasks.

Winter 2020 will be never like winter of 2019. COVID-19 or SARS-nCOV2 will be around, and raging back to the Northern hemisphere. Brazil is in hot water passing 1M cases. Who knows what is going to happen to other populated countries when the winters come. Working from home in 2020 is not an occasion, but an option, a alternative to reduce congregation, to keep distance from being infected by others or infect others. It is a time to be adaptive and keep yourself well and alive.

“The only constant in life is change”-Heraclitus.

* * *