By Janet Marroquin
When I began my doctorate studies part-time in August 2019 while working full-time, I thought long and hard about my commitment to growing the biodefense knowledge base. I understood the demands that the program would have on my time and mental fortitude, which were already stretched thin as a single parent of a middle schooler. Nonetheless, I felt confident in my time management skills and perseverance to overcome the cognitive barriers inherent to graduate school. The first semester was an abrupt reminder that things never go as planned. After struggling through all sixteen weeks of the fall semester, I was ready to implement my lessons learned to spring 2020 and start off with a clean slate. I had a set schedule that actually worked for my son and me, I was doing group exercise classes to squeeze in social interactions with fitness, and I liked my projects at work: I had it all figured out. A little more than a month later, I was back to square one of fall semester, a reminder that things do not always go as planned.
At my organization, I conduct analyses of various chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense capabilities so I have probably thought about the effects of contagious disease more than any other topic in the past two years that I have been there. That was what attracted me to my career and degree program: the opportunity to deeply explore the various effects of a biological threat. Now, it seems like there is no escaping the topic. The disease seems to have consumed our lives even when the virus has not touched our bodies. So, in response, I have created a few mitigation strategies to counter the effects of the quarantine in addition to those designed to counter the pandemic.
The most important has been to develop a balanced routine that includes a block dedicated to family time. Like most other thirteen-year-olds, spending time with his mother is not on the top of my son’s list of things he wants to do during quarantine (his top three choices are: video games, video games, and video games). Trying to figure out what those shared activities could be has been tricky. We have experimented with jigsaw puzzles, Legos, and paint-by-sticker books, but surprisingly the most consistent bonding has occurred over daily obligations like exercise and chores. We still have to drag our feet at times to get through them, but, through trial-and-error, we found ways to make these activities more palatable. For example, I have stopped suggesting that we do barre (an aerobic exercise based on ballet moves), and instead we do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with a music playlist that my son chooses. And because we both enjoy listening to music, albeit different types, we do Saturday morning cleaning silent disco-style.
I have learned that finding common ground in our struggles has been paramount to strengthening our relationship. While we are not always able to settle debates over which movie to watch or which carwash to go to (sadly these issues are not unique to the quarantine), we can both agree that cleaning the bathroom sucks and quite literally feel the same pain from our workouts. Beyond technical knowledge, my experience in the biodefense program alone has armed me with life lessons for navigating through the current pandemic pandemonium. Of these, the one piece of wisdom that I will continue to practice long after this pandemic is over is this: things never go according to plan so always have extra toilet paper!