Balancing parental care and tenure-track life at the time of COVID-19

What are we, immigrant scientists to do with deteriorating parents? Leave them at nursing homes or with home health aides in faraway lands without immediate family nearby? Bring them over? Move back home? When the pandemic hit, I saw a new way out.

When the pandemic hit, I had just returned home to Manhattan from Istanbul, Turkey, with my elderly mom in tow. Her early chronic illness had progressed slowly and then so suddenly that the easiest solution was to bring her along until I figured out what to do. However, she had no healthcare in the USA, and was not eligible for my family healthcare plan at work, as apparently parents are not family when it comes to health insurance. What are we, immigrant scientists to do with deteriorating parents? Leave them at nursing homes or with home health aides in faraway lands without immediate family nearby? Bring them over? Move back home? As an Assistant Professor, I was way better positioned than trainees and yet, still completely unequipped to handle her care. While I was researching my options, the world changed overnight and I saw a new way out: the day my workplace, the Mount Sinai Health System (MSHS) admitted NYC’s first COVID-19 patient, I made my lab go fully virtual, and started attending to her care myself. 

We stayed home. This was the easiest solution, and I was privileged and fortunate to be able to do so. We could not go out on those early days anyways; we did not have masks. MSHS was at the epicenter of the epicenter of New York City’s COVID-19 crisis, and soon enough only essential healthcare workers and researchers working on the virus were allowed in. Given the dire need at the hospital, I had not brought any masks home from work. Collaborators from China mailed some to my office, which I rerouted to a virology lab where trainees were working hands-on with the virus. Without masks, we could not go outside, as my apartment was on the 29th floor of a Manhattan high-rise. I shopped for groceries online; when they arrived, my doormen left the food boxes outside my door, rang the bell and ran back to the elevator. Sometimes, in those early days, the boxes did not arrive. Luckily, a cousin was in papaya business, and had a co-worker bring us papayas. So, we stayed home and ate a lot of papayas, until the co-worker fell ill with COVID-19 himself.

A cousin was in papaya business - so in those early days, we stayed home and ate many papayas.

Having a daily structure was tremendously valuable. Mornings were for exercise and breakfast. Then, I would either work or attend never-ending zoom meetings while mom wore headphones and watched the news. Horrors at nursing homes were a frequent theme, for which I would take breaks to listen, while hugging my mom. I usually stopped work at around 6PM for our music hour. We would play oldies from the 50s to the 70s and dance. We did a lot of twists and shouts. We especially enjoyed dancing and laughing to we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive. Having lost my dad a few years back to a mystery lung infection in 36 hours, it became our motto. At 7PM sharp, we were screaming our hearts out the windows for Healthcare workers. Occasionally, I would stay up late to give live interviews to morning news programs in Turkey. Dressing up for the occasion was a ceremony we enjoyed. As the pandemic lingered on, I bought a piano and we started taking turns playing it. This time I spent with my mom was precious, and being with her full-time enabled me to really understand her healthcare needs. 

Reporting live midnight from NYC to morning news programs in Turkey

At work, I was emboldened with COVID-19 proposals, reviews and papers. Collaborations and consortiums were quickly being formed. As a member of the Precision Immunology Institute, and the Human Immune Project Consortium (HIPC), I would obsessively follow intense discussions at zoom calls and Slack channels. We were constantly brainstorming. Studies were being conducted and published (or scooped) in a matter of days. With similar record speed, as part of the Sinai Immunology Review Project, we published our reviews of some of those early studies. New avenues of research were opening up, and suddenly being a scientist was cool. At nights, I would read popular science books on previous pandemics. I did not notice how time passed. I felt no desire or reason to leave home. Then I received in the mail a handful of masks from a friend who received them from UN contacts. Around the 90th day of our lockdown, the sun was shining irresistibly, and we stepped outside. Yet, it was not the Manhattan I loved and remembered, but an eerie, quiet and sad place.

Mom outside for the first time in 90 days, by the East River on Upper East Side (we were careful)

There were things beyond my control. When the protests and then looting started in NYC, they were especially intense at my relatively quiet Yorkville neighborhood at the Upper East Side, as the NYC Mayor lived only a block away. My building hired private security guards. Neighboring buildings boarded up. Suddenly, in my city where I could freely go anywhere at any time by myself, it was dangerous to go out as soon as the sun went down. At nights, there were non-stop protest fireworks; cars traversing the neighborhood with protest honks. We supported the protests, but mom also needed her sleep. With the protestors came the sounds of helicopters: both for security and news. I would experience strange first world problems: with an apartment high in the sky, I could not hear my own voice during zoom calls from the sound of helicopters. 

Mom supported daytime Black Lives Matter protests, but she needed her sleep at nights.

As a mentor, the biggest challenge I experienced during the pandemic was in trying to help trainees who were stuck in their tiny NYC apartments like me, but with little children. Other pandemic-driven issues also cropped up: depression, marital discord, sick family members, and ever more complex immigration problems. All I could do was to give people time and support. Some braved going to the office so as to get work done away from their families. Some decided to move back to their home countries and work from home. Some moved outside the city to greener pastures. Whatever worked for them to get their work done efficiently was fine by me. Some also developed COVID-19. With trainees and colleagues alike, we could be continents and time-zones away, but we were a community that helped each other. It was perhaps not water-cooler banter or work lunch, but we bonded all the same over seeing each other’s homes, and meeting family members and pets.

A group shot with some of my wonderful collaborators from the Human Immune Project Consortium (HIPC) virtual meeting, 2021.

Overall, my primary take-home from the pandemic year is that –other than the critical importance of science- computational scientists who have the passion for science and the appropriate setup at home can work from anywhere on earth. National borders are arbitrary and we need to figure out how to manage our scientific labs free of them. We do not need physical presence for quality research, meetings, seminars or conferences. The future should be hybrid, giving people the option to choose what is best for them. This will also be good for the planet by helping decrease our collective carbon footprint. Plus, it will help PI burn-out: I personally don’t know how I can get back to the old routine of commuting to the office everyday; traveling on the Amtrak down to the NIH while sleep-deprived and hungry; or flying to far-off places with the constant jet-lag. Of course, I miss the sight-seeing, hugging, laughing, delicious meals and in-person bonding, and most importantly the random encounters with colleagues that turn into deep scientific banter. However, at this point in my life, in a society that completely leaves behind the parents of hard-working immigrants, working from home allows me to balance my work with what really matters: taking care of my family.

mom & I in my NYC apartment.