COVID deaths, gravitational waves and pandemic PhD supervision – Nature.com

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  • 24 November 2021

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Senior citizen Elisabeth Steubesand, 105, receives an inoculation against COVID-19 at a vaccine center, Germany. Senior citizen Elisabeth Steubesand, 105, receives an inoculation against COVID-19 at a vaccine center, Germany.

Elisabeth Steubesand, 105, receives an inoculation against COVID-19 in Germany, which has a large population of people vulnerable to the disease because they are older and have neither caught the virus nor received a vaccineCredit: Andreas Rentz/Getty

Europe’s COVID deaths could rise sharply

The COVID-19 pandemic could cost an extra 300,000 lives in Europe, according to a study of the number of people who have not been infected or vaccinated.

The work also predicts that the pandemic could lead to roughly one million hospitalizations in Europe, some of which would contribute to the death toll. But the authors note that their estimates are maximums that assume, for example, that all anti-infection restrictions are lifted (L. A. C. Chapman et al. Preprint at medRxiv https://doi.org/g6rt; 2021). The study has not yet been peer reviewed.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine collected data on COVID-19 deaths in a range of age groups in 19 countries, and estimated the total number of people who had been infected in each country by early November 2021. This figure was used with data on vaccination rates to calculate the share of the population that had not acquired immunity to SARS-CoV-2 — and so was still at increased risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 if all restrictions were lifted. The analysis also accounted for people who could be at risk despite previous exposure or vaccination.

It found large variation: some 8 in 1,000 people in Romania could still be hospitalized, compared with fewer than one per 1,000 in England.

Illustration of two black holes orbiting each other. Eventually the black holes will merge. Illustration of two black holes orbiting each other. Eventually the black holes will merge.

As black holes merge (illustration), they produce gravitational waves that ripple across the Universe.Credit: Mark Garlick/SPL

Gravitational-wave detectors release latest data

Gravitational-wave observatories have released their latest catalogue of cosmic collisions, bringing their total number of detections to 90. The new crop of 35 events includes one featuring the lightest neutron star ever seen, as well as two clashes involving surprisingly large black holes with masses more than 60 times that of the Sun (R. Abbott et al. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2111.03606; 2021).

The detections come from the two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) sites, in Louisiana and Washington State, and their sister detector, Virgo, in Italy. They were recorded during 21 weeks of operations, beginning on 1 November 2019, that racked up an average detection rate of one event every 4.2 days.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time that are produced when large masses accelerate. Like the detections previously reported by LIGO–Virgo, the latest ones are all attributed to pairs of dense stellar remnants spiralling into each other and merging. The collaboration initially released data only on high-confidence detections, but the latest catalogue — as well as the previous one, released in October 2020 — includes any detections that have better-than-even chances of being genuine gravitational waves. The team estimates that around 10–15% of the latest candidates in the catalogue are false alarms, “caused by instrumental noise fluctuations”.

Sleeplessness and anxiety: PhD supervisors on toll of COVID pandemic

One-third of academics who supervise doctoral students say they have lost sleep during the pandemic because of their role, according to a poll of almost 3,500 supervisors in the United Kingdom. Two-thirds said that supervision responsibilities had increased, with many wanting more support to address the well-being and mental health of their PhD students.

Significant changes, affecting both supervisors and students, have been made to the PhD supervision process during the pandemic, says Ronny Gunnarsson, who researches medicine and public health at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “Many supervisors and PhD students have suffered emotionally from the lack of on-site meetings,” he says, a problem exacerbated by the loss of informal coffee-break-style chats that can often resolve difficulties.

There are currently about 22,000 PhD supervisors at UK universities, estimates the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), a charity based in Lichfield. To better understand the pressures and expectations supervisors face, both before and during the pandemic, the UKCGE launched a survey in May 2021 that was partially funded by the biomedical charity Wellcome and by the government agency UK Research and Innovation.

Around 15% of the country’s research supervisors responded, according to the resulting report (see go.nature.com/3ncnk9a). In general, they enjoyed and valued their role, with more than 80% saying it increased the quality of their research, and three-quarters saying they were satisfied with their effectiveness in the position.

But respondents also revealed the challenges they faced generally as supervisors, and more specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic (see ‘Stresses of supervision’).

STRESSES OF SUPERVISION. A survey of UK academics finds that the pressures of supervising PhD students have increased over time. STRESSES OF SUPERVISION. A survey of UK academics finds that the pressures of supervising PhD students have increased over time.

Source: UK Research Supervision Survey (UKGCE, 2021)

Half of the respondents said that the pandemic had made the job more challenging. More than one-third agreed with the statement “concerns over supervision have kept me awake at night over the last 12 months”, with a similar proportion agreeing that, over the same period, “supervising doctoral candidates makes me feel anxious”.

Nature 599, 537 (2021)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03494-3

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