Generation Pandemic – The Network behind the Podcast

In the final episode of the Generation Pandemic podcast, host Catherine McDonald talks to the two principal investigators behind the Interdisciplinary Child Well-Being Network. Dr Kat Chzhen is the Network’s Irish principal investigator and is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Scoiology at Trinity College Dublin. Dr Julia Mikolai focuses on the UK and is a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews.  They discuss the point at which they realised the Network needed to exist and what their plans are moving forward. They also look at where they think we are in terms of recovery from the pandemic and what gaps in the evidence need to be addressed. 


Catherine McDonald  0:09 

Hello and welcome to Generation Pandemic, a podcast from the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children in the UK and Ireland. I’m Catherine McDonald, and today I’m in conversation with the two Principal Investigators behind the network. Dr. Kat Chzhen is the Irish Principal Investigator and is an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at Trinity College, Dublin. Dr. Julia Mikolai, is the network’s Principal Investigator for the UK, and is a senior research fellow at the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St. Andrews. So hello Cat. Hello, Julia.

Kat Chzhen  0:48 


Julia Mikolai  0:49 

Hi Catherine.

Catherine McDonald  0:50 

So congratulations on the completion of your network’s first podcast series.

Kat Chzhen  0:55 

Thank you so much, Catherine, it’s been an amazing experience, a lot of it, you know, thanks to you, and Research Podcasts. But of course, all the contributors, I personally am so impressed with how many people were eager to take part and how many episodes had you know more than even the few contributors, but three or four. And it was also great to have contributors who are not academics or practitioners. But you know, say mothers with children such as Laura and others, and I am extremely thankful to them. So for me, that’s been the highlights the diversity of contributors, and just how smoothly it all went. And then how exciting the episodes are to listen to.

Catherine McDonald  1:36 

And Julia, what have you thought as the episodes have been published?

Julia Mikolai  1:39 

Yeah, I have completely agree with Kat, I think we have heard some really heart wrenching stories from parents and teachers. And that has really allowed us to get a better grasp of people’s lived experiences of the pandemic, not only what we know, from research and our colleagues and amazing contributors, but also perhaps those voices that we hear a little bit less often as researchers who might work with a secondary data. So I hope that everybody really enjoyed the series, or enjoyed it as much as we did.

Catherine McDonald  2:09 

Yes, you make a really good point there, Julia. These are stories that actually as a society as a whole we possibly don’t hear enough of, and they’re really important stories to be told, aren’t they?

Julia Mikolai  2:20 

Oh, absolutely. And I think that perhaps especially certain groups of society don’t hear many of these stories. So I got the impression during the pandemic, that many people weren’t actually aware of the scope of socioeconomic inequalities that we have here in the UK, and also in other countries. And obviously, the pandemic has kind of reaped these up. And there has been a lot more talk, at least that was my impression among the general public as well about these inequalities.

Kat Chzhen  2:48 

But there could be so much more of that, sorry to interject. And partly, it’s because the pandemic, at least in the beginning, had this feature where everybody stayed at home and focused on their own family. It’s almost like everybody lived in a castle with a moat. And it was so difficult to interact with others. And so of course, living in those bubbles, those who are better off, probably had very little idea about how difficult it was for those who are less well off, especially when even those who are you know, socially economically better off those who have more money and those who kept their jobs and just worked from home. They also had immense struggles working from home, especially if they have children. So everybody was just so caught up in their own problems and the unexpected nature of the challenges the pandemic brought about that I think a lot of us just didn’t think enough about the struggles of those who really, really had it very tough. And that is why I’m so happy with this podcast, because finally we did hear different voices. And we need to do more of that so that everybody really understands that there are significant social inequalities. And they may even be getting worse because of the pandemic and now also the cost of living crisis and all of the other challenges, including climate change and the war, of course.

Catherine McDonald  4:14 

Absolutely. So before we move on to talk more about your network, I’d like to ask you both about your individual areas of research and what you focus on. So Julia, can I start with you?

Julia Mikolai  4:26 

Yeah. So my research has always been centred around socio economic inequalities in demography behaviour. So just to give you some examples, during my doctoral research, I have focused on inequalities in the link between romantic relationships and childbearing across Europe, and this also included the UK. So for example, trying to understand who are the people who do not marry but still have children, and do they marry later after having children or not? And then as a postdoctoral researcher, I have analysed the residential and housing consequences of separation and divorce, obviously there are also huge inequalities in this. And currently I work on a project that explores the inter linkages between employment, housing and family trajectories of immigrants and their descendants across several European countries. So these projects are all focused on the experiences of adults. But not long before establishing the network. My research interests have shifted to also include the consequences of demographic change and inequalities for the lives of children.

Catherine McDonald  5:26 

Wow, that sounds so wide ranging, and Kat, what about you?

Kat Chzhen  5:30 

So like Julia, I have been working on socio economic inequalities for a long time. But I have focused on children in particular, probably for a bit longer. Because until I came to Trinity College, Dublin, about three years ago, I spent more than six years at UNICEF. So it’s the United Nations Children’s Fund, but I was at the Research Centre in Florence in Italy. And I was working specifically on projects having to deal with either child poverty or child wellbeing quite often in a cross country comparative perspective. So for example, it can be really useful to show that among otherwise quite similar countries, such as you know, those in the European Union, you can have very different gaps, say, by family income, in, for example, children’s education, or you can have very different rates of child poverty. And that shows that these things are not inevitable – child poverty is certainly not inevitable. You know, social gaps in children’s education or life satisfaction are not inevitable, but they’re policy amenable because if Norway can have low rates of child poverty than Ireland could too. All the takes is to you know, refocus various policies to some extent. So that was that kind of work very cross country comparative. And now that I’m an assistant professor in sociology, I try to look more at what drives socio economic gaps and children’s outcomes. Why do they come about? What kind of theories are there that help us explain it? And how can we derive specific propositions from those theories and test them with quite high quality data, including data from birth cohort studies. So these are some of the latest things I’ve been doing working with data from Growing Up In Ireland, for example, a really fascinating birth cohort study that allows us to look at some fundamental questions around why do we have such unfair inequalities in children’s outcomes as children grow older?

Catherine McDonald  7:47 

So you’re both the Principal Investigators behind the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network, and the Network was established in order to study the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on children in the UK and Ireland. Can you tell us about the point at which you realise this network needed to exist?

Julia Mikolai  8:05 

Yeah, so I usually do regular searches to see what kind of funding opportunities are out there and if any of them might align with my current or future plans. And during one of my regular searches, I discovered that there was a funding opportunity to establish a collaborative network between UK and Ireland based researchers. And given that my interest really was shifting to studying the lives of children, instead of only focusing on adults, I began to search for potential collaborators to work on this topic, but I didn’t really know anybody in Ireland. So I just started to look for potential individuals on the internet. And I found out that Kat was based in Ireland. And actually, we have met once before in person at a high level expert meeting in Brussels that focused on lone parents. So then it was quite easy to strike up an email conversation, you know, just referring to our earlier meeting. And this was at the point when the pandemic only just began, I think, we were still working from the office. And we basically had no idea of what was to come. And initially, the network was going to focus on child’s wellbeing more broadly, which really ties in very well with Kat’s research, expertise and interests. But then as we chatted about the network, or the potential topics to address in this network, we realise that the pandemic will probably have a huge impact on the lives of children. And so eventually, then we decided to focus the network around the impact of the pandemic on children’s lives.

Catherine McDonald  9:28 

And Kat. Do you have anything to add to that?

Kat Chzhen  9:30 

Well, only that it was really exciting to get an email from Julia in spring 2020. And here we are now, you know, two years later with the project done and dusted. And we have such exciting outputs as this podcast, but also a policy brief, a journal article, a workshop recorded on YouTube and things like that. So very exciting.

Catherine McDonald  9:55 

And how did you go about setting it up?

Kat Chzhen  9:57 

Well, thank you for this question. I think one can start setting up a network without funding necessarily, although it’s great to have funding in order to be able to pay for travel and catering and bring people together. So because Julia and I were applying for a networking grant, two research councils, one in Ireland, one in the UK, we had to show that we already have a workable idea in mind. So we started emailing people who we thought would be good to include in our network before we applied for funding. So we contacted people who we either already knew, we’re working on something related to the impacts of the COVID crisis on families and children. Because at that point in sort of mid-2020, they had already been a few research projects funded by other funders. And so that information was publicly available. And we emailed the Principal Investigators on those projects. Every single person we got in touch with agreed to take part at that point, we were saying, we’re applying for funding, but we would like you to be a part of our core group, the central part of the network, so that we already have you on board once we get the the funding if we get it. And we were, of course, very fearful that if we don’t get the funding, then what do we do? Do we still go ahead with doing some activities, you know, without any funding? Or do we write to everyone to say, well, we didn’t get the funding, it’s great to know that you’re out there, let’s see, to maybe meet up at some conference a few years down the line. But what we had in mind is not going ahead. So luckily, we were not in that situation, we got the funding. And we could immediately start setting up events and introductions on various mailing lists to keep people in touch and to grow the network. So we asked everyone who was part of our core group, who do you think would be great to invite and everybody gave us suggestions. So then immediately went from maybe 10 people to more than 20.

Julia Mikolai  12:09 

Just to add a little bit to this, I just wanted to highlight that one of the key points for us was to make sure that the network is interdisciplinary. So we had academics from a range of disciplines, including sociology, social policy, psychology, and demography. And we tried to, as Kat mentioned, contact individuals who either worked on the impacts of COVID already or who were more generally interested in child outcomes in these disciplines. And the other important point to mention is that this network doesn’t only consist of academics and researchers, but also of non-academics. So we were also very keen to invite representatives of charities and third sector organisations who focus on child wellbeing or inequalities in the lives of children.

Catherine McDonald  12:57 

And where is the network at right now? So what are its next steps?

Julia Mikolai  13:01 

So basically, I think we have established a really great network of academic and non-academic researchers and representatives of third sector organisations, all of who focus on child wellbeing, and many of whom have investigated indeed, the impact of the COVID crisis on the lives of children. And the funding period for this project has now ended. And we have managed to achieve all of the outcomes that we have hoped to achieve with the conclusion of this podcast series actually. That is definitely the end of us delivering all of the outcomes of the project. In terms of the future, we’ll continue to maintain the network, including our website and our social media presence. And we really hope to be able to collaborate with each other and other network members in the future, through applying for additional funding opportunities that might come up. And basically, as the network is set up, I think we are ready to address any current and future challenges together.

Catherine McDonald  14:00 

Absolutely. I guess, you know, once those connections are made, they’re not going to go away are they? Kat would you have anything to add?

Kat Chzhen  14:06 

It is really exciting to have a group of people who we have interacted with, you know, in some way, even if we never managed to bring them together in one location to have a workshop. But we had an online workshop, we collaborated on a policy brief, and then also in this podcast series, it was really nice to see people from both Ireland and the UK who are part of the network coming together in particular episodes on discussing things from the point of view of the policies and the overall situation in the two respective countries. So even though we didn’t meet face to face, some of the network participants actually met during the recording of these podcasts with you, Catherine. So to me that’s really encouraging because we still managed to bring people together in some form.

Catherine McDonald  14:58 

And aside from the sort of specific outputs, as you say, like the podcast series and the online conference that you had, what else do you feel the network has achieved? Kat, I’ll come back to you on that.

Kat Chzhen  15:10 

Well, I think through all these different outfits, the network has publicised the work of its members. And it allowed people to see who is working on what who has got, what kind of research findings. And hopefully going forward, both network members and others will be getting in touch with people, potential collaborators on  research projects, and not only and as Julia said, we also have practitioners and non-academic participants in the network. So all of these people can now network with each other, literally and collaborate on projects. And even if they don’t do anything together in any foreseeable future, they’re still aware of each other’s work and the work of their respective organisations. And for me, that is one of the most important outcomes or even impacts of our project.

Catherine McDonald  16:05 

I can well imagine. And Julia, is there a particular bit of impact that you’re most proud of? Or would you say the same as Kat?

Julia Mikolai  16:12 

Yeah, I think I would have said something similar, perhaps also highlighting that we might often undervalue these types of connections. So when Kat and myself met a few years back, I don’t think we thought much of that connection. But when an opportunity arises in the future, you know, my, I immediately thought of contacting her. So often, we might make these connections and not know what kind of potential there might be in these connections. And I’m really proud that this networking didn’t only take place between academics, I think academics, we are all kind of trained to network and perhaps recognise more how important it is for us to know about each other and each other’s work. But I think there is really this bridge that is not so easy to cross between academic and non-academic research. And I think we really managed to create these linkages between academics and non-academics, and actually, through this podcast series also managed to bring the results of our research and the research of the network to the general public, which, again, is something that we often try to do, but might not always manage to do so well. So I think, yeah, for me, I think I’m actually most proud of this podcast series, which, ironically enough, was really made possible by the pandemic itself, because due to the travel restrictions, we really were unable to carry out most of our initial plans, which have related to in person meetings and in person networking. So we really had to think of a more creative and unusual way to conclude the project. And this was the situation that really motivated us to set up the podcast series to step out of our comfort zone, has really provided this opportunity to bring the results of our research to the general public.

Catherine McDonald  17:52 

Yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? How sometimes our hand can be forced by unexpected situations that make us then have to find new ways of doing, you know, the things we need to do. So I guess the next obvious question is to say to both of you, and I’ll start with you, Kat, what would you say to researchers who are listening to this right now? And who would like to set up a network? And who would like to do what you and Julia have done? What would you say to them? What would your advice be?

Kat Chzhen  18:18 

Well go ahead and start a network because it is reasonably easy to do to just start setting it up all you need is to email someone. And I can’t imagine anyone going back to say, oh, no, I don’t want to be part of any network. I don’t want to have anything to do with anyone. Everybody always says yes, at least in my experience, and some people might kind of drop out later or become somewhat less engaged later. But the initial reaction is usually to say yes, and tell me more about your idea. And then it’s great to just maybe set up a Twitter account dedicated to the network, just so that you have everything in one place. And to have a website is really great. And honestly, huge thanks to the University of St. Andrews, because it’s really, really nice that they are pretty much you know, hosting the network’s website for us. Start doing things on social media, set up a website, if you can, it’s not always incredibly straightforward, but it can be done. And then start communicating with people and checking where you could actually meet face to face perhaps at other workshops, conferences, and so on and so forth. Now, of course, if you want to have an interdisciplinary network, that means that its members are not necessarily going to be going to the same conferences. So they’re not going to be seeing each other once a year, once every two years, kind of these similar events within discipline. So to have an interdisciplinary network, you actually do need to try to find ways to bring people together and that may require funding.

Catherine McDonald  19:59 

And Julia would you have anything to add to that?

Julia Mikolai  20:01 

Yeah, firstly, just to emphasise again, that if you want to set up a network, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who would be a good fit. Because really, based on our own experience, people are generally very enthusiastic and super happy to be recognised for the work they do, and are keen to network and further enhance the impact of their own research. And secondly, what I found very useful is to have a lovely colleague that you team up with, and we have, I think, really shared all of the work equally, and managed to, you know, bounce ideas off of each other, and tap into both of our networks, which were actually quite different. So I think that also really helped us to create this interdisciplinary network.

Kat Chzhen  20:44 

I feel so embarrassed that it didn’t mention how amazing it has been to work with Julia, because indeed, we wouldn’t have done it just did on our own. But also, we have had incredible co-investigators, Susan Harkness, and Jennifer Symonds, who are senior colleagues to us and have supported us along the way with the incredible ideas and suggestions. So it has, in fact, been a team of four people working quite closely together. But I think Julia has been just an incredible collaborator. And it’s been really an amazing two years from when we started writing the grant proposal to now. So thank you so much, Julia, but also Jennifer Symonds and Susan Harkness.

Catherine McDonald  21:33 

And so if there’s a researcher listening to this now, and their work aligns with the work of the network, can they get in touch with you?

Kat Chzhen  21:40 

Oh, yes, so both our email addresses are on the ICWBN website. But also, if you know one of our names, so you can just Google that out, and everything else will just come up immediately. So just drop us a line, our emails are very easy to find. And also, you know, we’re on Twitter.

Julia Mikolai  22:00 

And just to highlight, again, that we also work on non-academic members. So if you’re a researcher at another relevant research organisation, or a third sector organisation, or even better, if you’re a policymaker, Please also feel free to reach out and check out our website.

Catherine McDonald  22:16 

I’m sure you’ll get emails. It’s sort of moving away from the mechanics of the network, if you like and on to the content of you know, the work that the network has produced and the issues we’ve discussed in this series. In terms of the pandemic recovery, where do you both think we’re at right now, Julia, can I start with you?

Julia Mikolai  22:36  

Yeah, I think this is actually quite a difficult question. So we know some things we know, for example, that children who were left behind regarding their schooling haven’t exactly managed to catch up. And it is unclear whether or how, or when they will catch up. But we know much less regarding other child outcomes. And in fact, it is still unclear whether the pandemic will have long term consequences for children’s lives and outcomes in the first place. And then on top of this, the current energy and cost of living crisis related to Brexit, and the war in Ukraine will probably make it harder for some children to catch up, as many families will probably continue to struggle and may fare even worse than they did during the pandemic. So my feeling is that these are not exactly the right circumstances for recovery. And I think that social science researchers will be busy for many, many years to come really to establish the real impact of the pandemic and the scope of the recovery, if any.

Catherine McDonald  23:33 

And Kat would you agree?

Kat Chzhen  23:34 

Yes I would agree. And I also very much hope that the pandemic is over. Because we never really know, that’s what we’ve learned over the past two years, just as you think it’s all over. Turns out, it’s not. But if the COVID crisis that we have lived through, is pretty much over, then indeed, we need to start looking at its medium term and longer term consequences. And because of all the other crises that are going on right now, it’s easy, unfortunately, to lose sight of all the issues that haven’t been resolved post-COVID. So for example, children who started school in the 2019-2020 academic year, and then lost easily one semester of their education, and then went to school the following year, and again, last months, either because in countries schools were actually closed for several months during 2020-2021, including in Ireland. In other countries, there were fewer school closures, but a lot of children had to stay at home because they either caught COVID or were close contacts. So there was schooling disruption for two years in a row. And for some children, that will be their first two years of compulsory schooling and we still don’t know necessarily how well they’re catching up with all of the other crises, including, you know, the energy crisis and the war and everything else that has been happening. So if anything, I would just like the consequences of the COVID crisis to remain on the agenda, both the policy agenda and the research agenda so that we continue figuring out what actually happened, and how to make things better for those who have been affected?

Catherine McDonald  25:24 

And how do we keep it on the agenda, because we’ve talked a lot in this series about how, you know, there needs to be a political will, and a sort of a societal will. And that with other crisis emerging that we might go off the boil, as it were, in terms of thinking about COVID and the effects it’s had, what would you say to that Kat?

Kat Chzhen  25:45 

Well, it can be quite straightforward to keep the consequences of the pandemic on the agenda, because it’s so closely related to all of the other crisis that are happening, particularly the cost of living or the energy prices, because there is an economic component to the COVID situation, the fact that a lot of people lost their jobs, or had to reduce their working hours or had to go on state benefits, that would be less generous than what they were on before. Or perhaps were already on state benefits before the pandemic. And then other people would get more generous benefits, because presumably, they lost their jobs through no fault of their own due to the pandemic. And so there was actually inequality in state benefits in several countries. And so because the COVID crisis has such a strong economic component, or at least in my view, it is still related to everything else that is going on, particularly the cost of living. So as long as we just keep this, it doesn’t have to be the pandemic constantly on the agenda, but simply the socio economic inequalities that we have in our societies that have been highlighted by the pandemic. That’s what we have to keep on the agenda. Well, I suppose anything related to the so called learning loss and how to help children catch up, education wise, that is perhaps somewhat more related to school closures and therefore the pandemic, but it is also related to the economic consequences of the pandemic itself. So because everything is related, we don’t have to just keep on going on about COVID itself. We just have to talk about the situation of families and children and young people who have been adversely affected over the past two years and counting.

Catherine McDonald  27:35 

Julia, would you agree with that?

Julia Mikolai  27:37 

Yeah, I completely agree with that. And also, I wanted to highlight that, I think it’s also really important that we learn the lessons from this pandemic, to make sure that we know what was best for children and their families, should there be another pandemic, which I know nobody wants to hear that. But it seems to me that, in fact, many researchers, including governments, were also aware that such a pandemic was not a matter of if it will happen, but when it will happen. And then we increasingly hear about the possibility of, you know, such or similar pandemics also happening in the future because of the globalised world and because of how we treat animals. So should something similar happen again, we should really know immediately, what it is that we should and shouldn’t do, to be able to, you know, protect everyone’s health, but also protect the lives of children to the extent that that is possible. So I think it’s really important that we keep researching this and that we learn the lessons from this pandemic.

Catherine McDonald  28:40 

And Julia, staying with that point, do you think there are now certain gaps in our evidence that have been highlighted because of the pandemic, and the gaps that we need to fill in order to move forward properly?

Julia Mikolai  28:51 

I guess one of the big gaps was that we very clearly weren’t prepared for a pandemic of this kind in many ways. So we really had no idea what to do in terms of you know, socio economic policies, school closures, all the decisions have been made, either in a panic or in a delayed manner. And as I said, if we learn these lessons, hopefully, should something similar happen again, we would be fairly confident on the decisions that we need to make in order to have more optimal outcomes, both in terms of health outcomes for the population, but also for the outcomes of children. And then the other one is that it is clear that there are huge socio economic inequalities among children and their families. And I think that this was clear to many of us who work on inequalities but the pandemic has clearly exaggerated, exposed and highlighted these differences. And it seems to me that awareness about socio economic inequalities has increased during the pandemic. And as I said before, I think much more research is needed to really understand the real and potential long term impact of the pandemic on children.

Catherine McDonald  30:02 

And Kat what would you say to that?

Kat Chzhen  30:03 

Well, I would also add that it will be good for all of us to have a clearer idea of what has happened to our societies since spring 2020, in the realms of education, and health and mental health, and income, and deprivation and things like that. And I’m specifically talking about the types of administrative data that the government’s already have collected on a regular basis. And maybe there was a gap in Spring/Summer 2020, when some of these things weren’t done. So for example, in Ireland standardised tests in primary schools were not done in Spring/Summer 2020, because of the pandemic, but then in the following years, those things were done again, and it will be good to see the trend, and to really have an idea of whether things got worse, potentially since before the pandemic, because there are all sorts of things that researchers are doing and collecting their own data. Some of it is small scale, and not necessarily nationally representative, or it is but again, it has some other limitations. While governments have all of these huge administrative databases that it would be nice to see some findings from those in anonymized and aggregated form so that all of us have a clear and transparent understanding of what has been happening to us and our societies since the start of the pandemic.

Catherine McDonald  31:26 

My thanks to doctors Kat Chzhen and Julia Mikolai. You can find out more about the work of the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network via their website and Twitter @ICWBN. The work of the network is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council and the Irish Research Council under the ESRC-IRC UK Ireland networking grants. This was a Research Podcasts production. Thank you for listening.


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