All right. So, what year are you in and what were you studying when the pandemic was declared?
So, I defended my masters in July of 2022. So, I'm done now, but I was studying at the Ontario Veterinary College in the Population Medicine Department. So, I was studying epidemiology with the focus on calf health and nutrition, dairy calf health and nutrition.
So, what does defending your masters entail, especially during like the pandemic?
I think I was lucky in the sense that I defended my master's closer to when we figured out how to manage ourselves during the COVID pandemic. So, I had a lot of friends who defended before me, and it was very strictly online. You sit in front of your computer. You have the teams meeting you defend, and you end it. By the time I had gotten to my defence, we were a little bit more comfortable in the buildings. I was able to defend without a mask on, which was great. I had the option to defend in teams or in person, and I chose to defend in person. Just because I felt like it would be a bit more of an exciting ending than just kind of closing my laptop and finishing my degree. So that's why I decided to do that. But the nice thing about it is we became so much more familiar with hybrid models and different ways that you can kind of be a part of something from a virtual setting. I was able to have a hybrid defense, so I defended in person with my committee, so 3 different examiners were there, and I had a couple of people come in person. But most of my family is from Newfoundland, so they all zoomed in and watched it live. Which was really nice because they definitely wouldn’t have been able to do that if I defended it pre-Covid.
So, were you, like, working on your masters during the bulk of the pandemic?
Yes, so I accepted my master’s offer in March of 2020. I had been speaking to a couple of different profs and we had verbally said that we wanted to do something. But we didn't really sit down and solidify that I would be their student and that they would take me on. I was in a fourth-year course with the Dean of the OAC (Ontario Agricultural College), so we got a little bit of extra information before most students did over e-mail. So, we kind of knew that something was coming, and I ended up sending my advisor an e-mail saying, “I have a feeling the school is going to close. Can we please meet this morning?” So that was March 13th, which is the day of the school closed.
So, I solidified my masters the day that the pandemic started at the University of Guelph. And I’m using air quotes because obviously that's not when it started, but for us like that was the big the big start date. So, I started my masters in September of 2020 and that was when we were still pretty much in the thick of it. We were mostly in lockdown. Obviously, the pandemic caused a lot of issues, and it was really difficult, but I have been able to see the silver linings in it. Like I said, I'm from Newfoundland so I was able to use the fact that we couldn't go to school to work from home. So, I went home from October of 2020 till March of 2021, which was like amazing because I've haven't been home for that long since the summer after my first year in undergrad. So that was really good. I did all of my courses in my first two semesters. And then I came back and by the time I wanted to collect my data, which was the summer of 2021, everything was a little bit looser, and we were able to go on farm. We had to wear masks but other than that for me, I was really lucky, and it didn't actually really affect the timeline of my particular research. But a lot of people in my department had to push their data collection back, which I think could have been really difficult.
So, were you also living like at home for this research?
So, I'll give you a little bit of a timeline. I worked for a dairy cattle genetics company in the summer after 4th year. That would have been the summer of 2020. So, I was actually going on a farm and breeding cows. Obviously COVID practices were in play, but we still needed to go on farms. So, I wasn't locked down in my house because it was a necessity, kind of like a frontline worker for dairy cattle, if you will. So, I lived in Woodstock then, in Oxford County, and I stayed in Oxford County. The rent was really cheap, and I really liked my house, and it was a nice setup. I didn't have to be on campus, so I stayed there until October. Then I kind of realized that I could go home if I wanted to. And you know what? Two months or a two-week quarantine isn't really a big deal if you're going to stay home for five months. So, I went home. The Newfoundland time difference is an hour and a half, so I kind of had to work with that a little bit. A 12:00 PM lab meeting would be at 1:30 my time. That kind of stuff, but other than that, it was really nice. Aside from trying to manage my time with family because I just wanted to, you know, go over to my grandparents' house all the time and we all live on the same Rd. So, it's really easy to just kind of walk back and forth. So, time management was a little bit more difficult there, but it was a really nice treat to be able to go home. Then in March my boyfriend came out and then we finally decided it's like time for me to go back to real life. So, then we went back to Ontario, and we stayed in Woodstock until May. Which is, I'm sure you're aware, that's kind of like the typical time that most landlords will start renting houses out. It's like a May-to-May lease. So, we stayed in Woodstock until May and then we came back to Guelph. Then I started my research trial, which was at Mapleview Agri, which is a veal farm about an hour north of Guelph, in Mapleton. I started that in June and finished in July. I'm trying to think back to the timeline, but I think that's when the guidelines were loosening up before Omicron. So, in August it was almost back to normal in the sense that there weren't as many masks, and I was just kind of going through my data. I didn't have to be on a really strict timeline when I was actually going out to the calves to collect my data at specific times of date. So August was, you know, pretty chill. Then the final two semesters I was working in a lab. I did have to wear a mask, but other than that I wasn't affected by COVID. And then, my defense in July. I think we were allowed to unmask as of July 9th, or something like that. And I defended it on July 12th, so it was super close. And it was nice to not wear a mask just because you're already kind of stressed. You know sometimes having a mask on your face is just a little bit overwhelming, so I felt like that was a really big treat to be on campus and not wearing a mask. But yeah, so that's kind of how the timeline is, and how COVID and my degree lined up together.
Wow, just a lot there. So how was working, what were the working conditions like on the farm?
For the data collection I don't want to lump everybody together. I don't know how familiar you are with agriculture, but producers are in a very secluded environment. They're not really going out and seeing other people and doing everything. So, a lot of them are pretty comfortable to stay unmasked and just kind of work as they usually do on farm. We wore masks because we are part of the university, but their workers did not. In the barn it's usually, especially because this one is set up for research, it's very well ventilated. There's a really good air system, the quality of the air is really good. So, I personally didn't feel threatened by people not wearing masks around me, and also at this point everybody was fully vaccinated. So that means a lot more. They're a lot safer. Other than that, data collection went totally as normal. A day in the life of Havelah during data collection would be a 4:00 AM wake up. We drive to the farm, get there at 5, which was feeding time. And then we would help feed the animals. We would help score them, so we'd look to make sure that they're all healthy. And you know, if they had bright eyes, they were all standing, breathing properly and forgive me for my words because it is kind of gross, but my trial was focused on diarrhea so we would have people score them to make sure that they had solid feces. That happened twice a day, so went home and then we came back for 3:00 o'clock. So, we went back forth and then I passed out at 8 PM to do it all over again. So, this is like seven days a week for three weeks and then I got one week off and then another three-week stint. So, like I said, COVID didn't affect that at all aside from the masking policy. I had one summer student with me, so we would work together, but we were basically together all the time, even outside of going to the barn because our schedules were just so weird that all of our friends were either, you know, doing something or working when we were off or whatever. So, we ended up just spending those six weeks together, all the time. So that was kind of nice because I wasn't seeing other people or doing other things. I was in a very strict bubble, so that was good. And my boyfriend, who I lived with, was doing his masters in Ottawa at that point, so I was like fully alone. Just in my bubble with my summer student and the farm just kind of doing my thing. Which I enjoyed because I really like going on farm and that was kind of enough social interaction for me. I would probably classify myself as more introverted than extroverted, but I can imagine that other people who are more extroverted would have really struggled with that. Because not only are you secluded because of COVID and there are still some restrictions, but you're also working in a very intensive system where you don't really have a flexible schedule. So, like I said, for me, I was OK with it, but by the end of it, it was tiring. I think it probably would have been easier if I maybe had had a couple of breaks or was able to go away for a weekend or see some of my other friends you know. I'm sure in hindsight, it was probably better than it was during that period.
So, going back to when you were like living at home in Newfoundland, other than the work and meetings you had, did you pick up any other new hobbies or interesting things to do during that time?
Well, I have a horse and she had been in Newfoundland. I came to Guelph in 2016, so I bought her in 2012. When I came to Guelph, she stayed there all through school and I brought her to Ontario, in September of 2021, when I came back from Newfoundland. When I went home it was the first-time in five years that I was actually able to, like, go to the barn and hang out with my horse and get her back in shape. There were people riding her but it's not the same and it's kind of like a dog. Like, you're just really attached to it, and you want to be able to spend as much time as possible. And it's also quite expensive so like you want to get your money worth. I spent a lot of time at the barn. I'm also from a farm, so most of my free time was either at the barn or working on my own farm at home. But I did get a puppy, I was one of the pandemic puppy owners. I know that you need to be really careful about getting a dog because they are a lot of time, but it was the perfect situation for me. I was still in school, but I was living at home rent free. I didn't have to pay for groceries, and I had an entire family to support me when I got this puppy, so it was like literally perfect. The stars just aligned, and it just worked out. My parents have the same kind of dog, so I got a cousin of that dog, and they were best friends, and all of my time was spent either with the puppy or at the barn really. I didn't pick up new hobby, but I got a new best friend so that's a pretty good trade off.
Did you do anything, like extracurriculars or anything like on campus when you are finally back?
Yeah, this is a good question. don't know if I would have thought about it until now. I'm a singer, which is very complicated when you're in a pandemic related to a respiratory disease, because when you're singing, you're projecting a lot more out. I've been in a choir since I was five, and when I came to Guelph, the Guelph Chamber Singers or the University of Guelph Chamber Choir is pretty well regarded, and I was able to join that which is awesome. So, I started that in my first year and I did take a couple of years off in undergrad. I did a semester abroad and it just didn't line up, but I came back and then COVID hit. It was really complicated because no one's ever dealt with this before, and obviously we're in lockdown. But the conductors still wanted everybody to be singing, so they opted for a zoom choir, which was like really not my thing because you'd be sitting just like this at your desk with everybody on zoom, and you'd be reading your music and you'd be singing to yourself. And I was living in a student house at this point, so I well, I don't really want to sing in my room where all of my roommates were going to hear me. So, I stopped singing and I really missed it. I don't think I realized how much I missed it until I finished my data collection, and I had a bit more downtime. So, I joined the choir again. This fall, I joined 2 choirs because I guess I needed my fix. It's been amazing, but I've really noticed that my abilities as a singer have really deteriorated. It's like a muscle, so you need to exercise it and work it. Aside from singing in my car on my way to the field, I really didn't sing that much. I've really struggled with that this year just trying to get back to where I was because it's frustrating. It's like any kind of sport or any activity, as you know what your peak performance was and now that I'm down here it's really annoying. So even though the pandemic isn't affecting us every day anymore, there are still residual effects in my life which is super frustrating. But other than that, I think that's probably the biggest thing I was involved in on campus. The other thing I did was that I was the Population Medicine student executive. So, I was the merchandise director, but that was pretty simple because we all had our teams meetings. That was kind of the norm at that point, the only complicated thing is, that usually a merchandise director, like a clothing director, would do all the clothing orders. Then you'd be there to hand them out and collect the money and blah blah blah. So, we kind of had to get a bit creative there because everybody was either home or we were in lockdown. And I was home actually so I couldn’t do it on campus. So, I had to get a bit creative and just do a little bit of extra outsourcing to figure out the best way we could continue with this tradition of having a clothing order every year. Also not seeing anybody about this is complicated. But we ended up realizing that the bookstore at the university will do clothing orders and like all of their merch that they would print for you is the same stuff they have in store. So, it's really easy to do try-ons. Which obviously we couldn’t do the first year, but we did the second year. Anybody who wasn't on campus, they would just ship it for a flat rate of $5. So, it was super convenient and before this we had always been using outside printers from the Kitchener/Waterloo area, so we'd have to drive there and pick everything up, which isn't the end of the world. But the bookstore ended up being cheaper, and it was super convenient. So that's another one of those things where, you had to put in a bit more work in at the beginning, because otherwise it would have been fully set up for you like they had all the designs, they knew your name, blah blah blah. But once we figured out that the bookstore actually did this and we got through the beginning of the setup, it was so much easier. You just kind of text the contacts, say OK, we're going to do a clothing order and they're like, OK, well, these are what you did last year, how many did you want? So, once we got through, you know the short-term pain there is definitely a long-term gain and I do know that the person who took over my role is still using that source, so that's kind of nice to know.
So, what were the most challenging aspects for you, during the pandemic?
Whenever I'm looking at something in hindsight, I really don't see the bad anymore which is actually a really beneficial quality to have. I don't hold grudges and I guess I don't hold grudges against COVID. I think the most challenging thing for me is although I was home for five months. There's also a lot of times during the pandemic that I wasn't home, and I wasn't able to see my family. Everybody was together, and I wasn't there. Which obviously I'm not usually home, but pre-COVID I would go home about every two months and at this point there was a stint where I hadn't been home for a year and that was really, really hard. So, I think just being separated from my support system was really difficult, probably had been the most difficult. The other thing that was really frustrating pertains directly to my master’s. So, the way a master’s works is you have one advisor and there's a bunch of other students with the same advisor and that's your lab. It's kind of like a community. Everybody in my lab when I started had known each other pre-COVID. They went out for supper, they had in-person lab meetings, they had all these really fun events and then COVID. And everything got cancelled except for a teams lab meeting once a week. All of these people were friends, and I wasn't a part of it. They were welcoming, and it was fine. But like, you're not going to generate the same kind of relationships when you're talking like we are right now as opposed to like going out for supper and hanging out and just meeting people. I struggled with my master’s a little bit because I didn't really find it that rewarding because it was fully academic. Before I started my masters, I thought it would be like undergrad. Like you'd make a bunch of friends, you’d have the support system and community. Which you should but just because of the timing and because of COVID I didn't get that. I think related to school, that was the biggest thing that was really frustrating.
So how about the good things for you?
Well, I got a puppy. I went home for five months. I kind of reconnected with my horse, realized that I really wanted her up in Guelph and finally got her here, which is awesome. And then, related to the master’s, I was able to finish a lot faster than I think it would have because I didn't have anything to do other than it. I was very productive when I actually started writing my thesis which was awesome. My marks were really high because again, I had nothing to do but study. So, then I came out with like a 95 average, which is great. And other than that, I gained a lot of soft skills related to individual work. So, my time management really improved and being able to get things done. Not in a timely fashion, but before they're really required. The job, I have now it is with the government. It's a job as a specialist, and there's only a couple specialists for every agriculture industry. So, I'm not working with a big team, I'm really on my own and I have a bunch of tasks to do, but there's not really a timeline. It just needs to get done, and if I have more time, I can do more things. So that is the fact that doing my masters in COVID really helped me with this job. I actually don't know if I would have gotten this job if I wasn't able to use that point in my interview because I they said, you know, like “What did you do? What are the skills that you learned in your master's”. I said: “OK. Well, I had nobody looking over my shoulder. I wasn't on campus. I didn't have an office. I didn't have in-person meetings with my advisors. I literally just did it by myself. I had to know when things were due, and I had to know how early I needed to get them done.” I managed to get straight A's, so obviously, there's proof that I figured it out. That's like what I think was the big thing that they were like, OK, like you can handle this kind of job. So, for me, aside from my dog which is definitely the biggest positive, my time management skills were seriously improved. Which I think is going to be very beneficial for me throughout my entire career and life.
So how did the pandemic impact your friends and family?
Yeah, I mean like I said my family doesn't live here so that relationship, as my family and I are very, very, very close, so that was difficult. But being away anyway, though we've always talked on the phone every single day at least once. So, we can kind of continue to do that. My family on their own just kind of looking at them as a group got a lot closer. Like I said, my whole family lives on the same street, my family, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my other aunt and all of the cousins. So, during COVID, nobody was doing anything, and you got like a bubble of 10 or something in Newfoundland so, they were all just together all the time. I think they were able to find the silver lining as well because the fact is that they were able to spend so much time together and I think they really enjoyed that. Obviously not being home for that was kind of disappointing, especially because I was home for those five months, so I knew what was happening. I just wasn't there. We have a big group chat so like I saw the group chat going and that was that was disappointing. For friends I’m trying to look back and think about what we did. We didn't see each other obviously. I bubbled with my boyfriend's family, so that was who we spent time with. He has two sisters who were around the same age. So, we all just kind of hung out, which was good because I had a family. And actually, he's not my boyfriend, he's my fiancé, so obviously it was very nice. We spent most of our time with them. In agriculture, a lot of jobs, especially jobs coming out of an undergrad, require a lot of driving because they're sales jobs or research jobs, and you're driving to different spots. A lot of jobs in agriculture are frontline, like you need to be doing them. A lot of my friends, including me during that first summer had jobs like that so, whenever we were driving, we would just call each other. And so, we were able to stay connected that way. Actually, the summer of 2020 when I was working with the dairy genetics company, I was paired with somebody and the person I was paired with was one of my best friends from undergrad. That's why I kind of applied for the job at the beginning. We became super close because again, same as my summer student, we spent every single day together all the time. We also kind of had to be bubbled so that was great. I think I was pretty lucky in that sense, but it was definitely hard to see my family spending time together because I wasn't able to be with them. It wasn't as bad with friends because it wasn't like some friends were with each other and I just wasn't a part of that, we were all separated, and we all just found ways to connect. We did a couple of zoom meetings and or zoom hangouts and that kind of stuff, but it was mostly just chatting on the phone all the time, which was kind of nice. Actually, there were a couple of pandemic puppies in my friend group. So, when the guidelines loosened up a little bit, then we just went for walks with the puppies, which were great.
Did you publish any articles during the pandemic?
Every department is different, for my masters we had to have two chapters, which is like 2 experiments and then you write a literature review at the beginning and a conclusion at the end. So, there's four chapters all together. I was able to publish my lit review, which is not something that's super common. So, it was really exciting that I was able to do that and everybody who was kind of above me seemed really impressed that I was able to kind of compile that kind of information to publish as a review. So, I published my literature review as a review, so that wouldn't have been like an experiment, that would be compiling all of the other studies and information that's already out there and putting that into one paper. So, I published that in Animals Journal and then one of my two chapters was published. So, the first one we looked at natural ways to reduce diarrhea in calves, it was like eliminating the use of antimicrobials or, you know, reducing the use of antibiotics on farms. This study is the one where I collected the data on farm. We analyzed their weights, we looked at different blood serums. We looked at a specific antibody in the blood to see how immune they were to different diseases. And we looked at health scores. So, this was basically a study saying if you feed colostrum, which is the first milk, which is very concentrated in antibodies and nutrients. Humans have it too, like any kind of animal has, everyone calls it liquid gold, so it's like a really, really concentrated rich milk that a newborn mammal would get. So, we were thinking, OK, well, if we feed this really concentrated milk after these animals are newborns, will it still have really positive effects? And it did. So that was a good study, it was really successful. It was kind of novel because there wasn't anything else out there specifically, like we did. So that was pretty easily publishable, think we kind of all went into this project knowing that it would get published. The second chapter was a little bit more in depth. We collected fecal samples on top of fecal scoring, and then I went into the lab, and I analyzed the bacteria in the fecal sample or the microorganisms in the fecal sample. We wanted to know how this treatment, how feeding colostrum changes the microbiome or changes the bacteria/microorganisms within that sample. We didn't really see too many different effects and I think that's just because we didn't look at it a long enough time between the two. The sampling techniques that we used are very expensive and very lengthy and we were kind of running out of time. So, I had enough information to write a chapter, but I didn't have any results to really publish. We just did a subset of the calves because of me. I collected samples on four different time periods and after I defended it, my advisors went back and sampled and analyzed everything. So now they're writing a paper to publish; my name will be on it, but I won't be the first author because I didn't write it.
Was publishing like about like the same amount of like difficulty as like if it wasn't a pandemic or was it like a little bit harder or different to do so?
I don't really have a good answer for that one. It was pretty much the same because you write your paper then you submit it via their portal. And then they just get back to you. The only thing that I can say is maybe it was a little bit more difficult. It's possible that the length of time it took to edit these papers by the reviewers of the journal could have been longer because of a backup or you know the typical COVID delay.
For working with the cows and calves were there, like any special procedures to do like for COVID or was it just generally what you would usually do?
Well, everything has to be really sanitary regardless, and calves are really messy. Even pre-COVID you would always make sure that you're wearing a fresh set of coveralls. They're also babies, so they're very susceptible to disease. So fresh set of coveralls and make sure that your boots are always clean with the disinfectant before going into the barn. Always making sure you wash your hands so on. Everything has to be as clean as possible, regardless of if it's COVID or not. The one thing though that you'll probably be able to use is: We had to wear a mask in the barn. I've grown up in a barn. I'm probably less scared of germs than I should be, but I would have no problem putting a pen in my mouth after writing something in a barn. Which it is possible that there could be some contaminant that could make you sick on it. But I had a mask on so I couldn't do that, or I couldn't lick my finger to turn a page or whatever. I think that was probably really beneficial because there's a couple of diseases, especially in that barn that are zoonotic. Which means that both humans and calves can get it and calves can pass them to humans. So, like salmonella it is one of them if humans get salmonella, you get really, really, sick. I had to wear a mask and I think that's probably why I didn't get it, because I 100% would have put something in my mouth before. Not if I dropped it on the ground or something, but there's always a possibility in a barn that there's going to be a contaminant and I just grew up in that environment, especially with horses too. So, like I said, I'm not as scared as I should be. So that was incredibly beneficial. Other than that, I don't think there are many other things that I can think of. The only other thing would be there wasn't anybody on campus or in the lab really. So, if I needed extra help. I'd have to coordinate and make sure somebody was there. I couldn’t just kind of pop in. So, it was like again that works in with my time management and schedule and I had to know what I was doing and when I was doing it, which I think is actually beneficial in the long run, but very annoying at the time.
You said how the campus was empty, like how empty was it and how did it feel compared to when you were there for an undergrad?
It was super weird it was like a ghost town. There wasn't anybody anywhere. So yeah, I mean, like the UC was closed and everything like that. So, you weren't really going anywhere to sit down aside from your office anyway. But for me, I actually didn't have an office so there wasn't any need for me to be on campus unless I was working in the lab. At that point we were kind of back to normal, there were students on campus and that kind of stuff. But when I was doing my research and I had to go on campus to get my car every day, it was like, so empty. I also I wasn't on the main campus, I was at the OVC (Ontario Veterinary College) so it's already a little bit empty. There were some people around because there was a practicing vet clinic there. I kind of took advantage of it and took my dog on lots of walks on campus and stuff, which was pretty fun.
Anything else you'd just like to add to it?
I think my big take away from COVID in general, but also doing a master’s in it is there were definitely struggles, but it's beneficial to look at the positives because then you come out with a better outlook on it and on your master’s in general. So yes, it was difficult. Yes, I had less contact with family and friends, but I was able to go home. I was able to get a dog and I was able to really work efficiently and productively in my master’s. Which I think is really beneficial because I know some people who have been trying to get it finished and it takes a little bit longer because there's so many things going on. And I didn't have to deal with that. So, I finished my masters in a year and eight months, which is really exciting because usually it takes two years or a little bit more. So, I think that would probably be my key take away.
So, I think that should be good!
Well, if you have any other questions, feel free to give me a call or we can set up other teams meeting or whatever.
OK. Well, thank you for talking to me.
No problem. Good luck with your project.