Co-op During the Pandemic: Navigating Science and Uncertainty

Co-op During the Pandemic: Navigating Science and Uncertainty

By: Thuy Tran
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This time two weeks ago, upon the instructions from my supervisor, I was getting ready to work from home. My Co-op employer, TRIUMF, was making efforts to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus and its resultant disease, COVID-19. In the process of gathering my belongings, I left some of my essential stationery behind as I was feeling hopeful that the situation would get better soon, maybe in a week or two, and I would be able to come back to the office in no time at all. Little did I know, that was my last normal workday as a Communications Assistant at TRIUMF.

To give you a little bit background on my Co-op employer, TRIUMF is Canada’s particle accelerator centre. A little side note for you superhero enthusiasts out there like me: if you have watched the TV series The Flash on CW, you’ll know that Barry Allen got his super speed from a particle accelerator explosion. From that point, you can imagine how excited I was when I got hired to work at an actual particle accelerator centre! And it was not because I thought I would get superpowers from working here (as much as we want that to happen, science just does not work like that!), but because of the many opportunities to explore the ground-breaking scientific wonders.

Now, you must think being a co-op student here means I have a background in science or physics. Well, even though I do have a little bit of interest in STEM, I am just your average Communication student, meaning, aside from the basic concepts, science confuses me and math is basically my kryptonite.

So, how exactly did I make contributions to Canada’s particle accelerator centre with little to no advanced knowledge of science? As Communications Assistant, I helped increase effective internal and external communications by interacting with a broad cross-section of over 500 employees in the TRIUMF community. Also, I got to practice various communications vehicles including the TRIUMF website, social media platforms, in-person interactions, special events and emails. Furthermore, I played a key role in curating, planning, and publishing social media content.

For example, I led the #CoopCovers social media series by scheduling and conducting interviews and photoshoots. My team also gave me the honour to help lead the International Women’s Day 2020 project #IWD2020 where I interviewed some of the TRIUMF community members on their female STEM role models. Working at TRIUMF was an opportunity for me to practice writing aimed at staff as well as photography, which was hands-down one of my most favourite parts.

In addition, I had the pleasure to assist with some of the public and outreach programming. Leading public and private tours of the facility not only improved my presentation skills, but it also helped expand my knowledge and interest in particle and nuclear physics. It was always a surprise to the guests when they knew that the girl showing them the state-of-the-art experiments in TRIUMF is a Communication student. After putting a lot of time and effort into understanding the projects and machines in the lab, I found that science can be super fascinating and riveting when you pour your heart into studying it. I must confess, a small part of me wants to venture out and pursue physics as a minor now.

Being one of the only two Co-op students who worked in the main office building while the rest performed diverse experiments or operated machines behind the fence, I did feel out of place at times. However, I was lucky to be a part of a supportive and positive team. It is never easy starting something new (like trying to learn the technical details of a cyclotron) and it is always difficult navigating uncertainty, but my team made me feel so comfortable.

As my supervisor and the rest of the team also don’t come from a science background, they recognized my struggle in grasping the science, and gave me support in understanding how the programs and research at TRIUMF advance medical and science technology. I also spent time researching anything that I did not comprehend. The other Co-op students were a great resource. They knew about STEM more than I ever did, and since they were also students, their language was straightforward and easy to understand.

Unfortunately, due to the complications of the COVID-19 situation, cancellations and closures piled up. Just two and a half months into the co-op term, TRIUMF closed to the public, and then gradually to all but essential personnel. Life as I knew it had come to a halt. Like the other Co-op students, I was given the opportunity to end my work term early to help decrease the density of onsite population. The disappointment of not being able to finish the projects I anticipated is there, but I am now working from home supporting side projects and making contributions any way I can.

Amid the global pandemic, many concerns arise, for my friends and family, friends’ families, colleagues and their families, and myself. We are spread out across the globe, some still trying to make it home. Some are considered essential and fighting their way through this pandemic every day in hospitals, labs and offices.

If you’re like me, you’re probably tired of being a part of a major historical event. You might also be disappointed and grieving for events and projects cancelled because of the pandemic. It’s okay to realize intellectually that social distancing is more important right now, and still be sad about missing things. Despite external stress and pressures to maintain a normal routine, I’m treating myself gently and encouraging my friends and colleagues who can afford to, to do so. Work will always be there.

I have to admit, it’s been hard for me to see this sudden and abrupt end to my work term. So, for now, I support my TRIUMF Comms team, read, cook, chat, check in with my family who lives halfway across the world and vent with my friends. And of course, I have lots of time to start binge-watching The Flash again. Who’s with me?!

Beyond the Article

  • Connect with Thuy via LinkedIn or Instagram

  • Find out more about Ethan's story on his Co-op experience during an ongoing pandemic

  • Read Juliette's story where she highlights working for a non-profit organization as it responds in the face of a pandemic
Posted on April 30, 2020