Life as a PhD student during a pandemic: reflections and advice

As PhD students in Global Health Sciences at UCSF, our primary focus is research. Many of us had research experience prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and had spent much of our time working at different sites across the globe. When the pandemic hit, we were grounded for the foreseeable future, and limited by disease precautions in our ability to reach study participants. We questioned how, if at all, we could continue our research.

Thankfully, my research team and our partners in Uganda were able to shift to conducting surveys on the phone and using innovative methods to complete milestones for our project. My main research project focuses on TB prevention among people living with HIV in Uganda. A series of seemingly intractable problems have arisen over the past year and a half of the pandemic, but I have been inspired by the ability of my team and colleagues to get the job done. My advice to those who are considering pursing a PhD in this field in the coming years is be prepared to adapt and take opportunities as they arise.

As a PhD student, I have had the opportunity to work on two research rotations in addition to my work in Uganda. Some of the most interesting and challenging work I have been able to do during my time as a PhD student has been in these two research rotations. First, I worked on a COVID-19 modelling project with Dr. Ali Mirzazadeh. I had no previous mathematical modeling experience but was thrilled to be part of new and innovative research on COVID-19 trends in the Bay Area. I’m glad I took a chance on a project that was outside my comfort zone to be on the cutting edge of research, while learning new methods.

During my second research rotation, I was able to work on a COVID-19 survey project with Drs. Lucía Abascal and Margaret Handley. Our research has involved interviewing people who are reached through the contact tracing program in San Francisco to identify which factors prevent people from being able to quarantine or isolate and get the COVID-19 vaccine and which factors are key in enabling them to do so. When this opportunity became available to me, I almost said no because of other commitments, but am so thankful I made the time. While analyzing our data and observing preliminary results, we were able to meet with key stakeholders in the health system in San Francisco to discuss strategies for addressing the pandemic. It has been incredibly rewarding to work with the team on this timely project. One piece of advice: if you are offered an opportunity you feel interested in, just go for it.

Some of the best advice I’ve received in the past year and a half is to “unmute as much as possible.” For most of us, online learning was a new skill. To stay engaged during the online courses we took during the pandemic, I tried to unmute and speak up as much as possible. It’s so tempting to read that email or get distracted during class, but really tuning into the class is essential to get the most out of the learning experience.

I also said ‘yes’ to as many presentations, talks, or other opportunities as I was offered during the past two years (including this blog post!). Even though presenting and writing blog posts are not things I feel particularly comfortable with, it’s good to just go for it – it gets easier every time you try something new. Especially during these unique times when I can’t work with my peers and professors in person, finding other ways to engage with the UCSF and IGHS community is imperative to get the most out of the experience of being a student.