Lessons learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic and how it influenced my future plan as an Environmental Engineering graduate student

Written by Tae Hyun (Calvin) Chung, Ph.D. Student in Environmental Engineering, University of Alberta

December 2019 marked the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. What initially began as distant news quickly overturned all facets of society and shook modern civilization at its core. Lockdowns ensued immediately, and with it, all but the essential stores closed. Panic buying, supply shortages, and a medical system on the brink of collapse tested humanity to its absolute limit, and I was no exception. Every day was another day filled with asking anxious questions: how can I get food to eat tomorrow? Is it safe to go out for needs or work? What does the future hold for me? Amidst the flurry of panic and anxiety, however, there was a silver lining. The pandemic realized the possibility of a world that is less dependent on fossil fuel consumption, and with that realization came the idea that this was a field of research wherein I could contribute.

As massive advancements continued in remote technologies, communications, logistics, and medical work, I realized that while the pandemic inflicted a major problem upon the world, it was an opportunity to introduce paradigm-shifting strides to the field of environmental engineering as well. During COVID-19, the radical shift in the energy demand led to a reduction of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, promoting greater environmental benefits around the world. However, as COVID-19 restrictions unraveled, our world once again depends on fossil fuel-driven energy, reigniting global warming to critical levels. This motivated me to continue pursuing research, specifically in developing technology that would simultaneously produce green energy and combat global warming. Therefore, for my dissertation, I decided to dig into unique biotechnologies that rely on microorganisms and their metabolism to turn greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into renewable energy like biogas and useful chemicals, which could serve as a novel alternative to fossil fuel consumption. Therefore, the successful completion of my proposed research has great potential to minimize global fossil fuel expenditure.

Additionally, COVID-19 facilitated crucial active research engagements between environmental engineers and scientists around the world through remote communication systems. Throughout the adversities of COVID-19, I was able to cultivate my individual personage as the necessity of distancing myself from my supervisor and other colleagues encouraged me to be more independent and self-reliant. Telecommuting, virtual meetings, and online education, on the other hand, granted me access to the broader research communities and chances to develop interpersonal relations globally, without the barrier of distant physical travel.  Overall, the COVID-19 crisis enabled me to rise up to the challenge of being a researcher as it enlightened the importance of environmental research during critical times. I dynamically improved as a researcher in terms of knowledge gained and the interim skills necessary to individually persevere. Working in the industry was my initial plan, but COVID-19 made me realize how passionate I was about research and that I am indefinitely suited to remaining in academia. Ultimately, my goal has changed to becoming a faculty member at a university in the future.

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