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Undusting microscopes and warming up fingers to pipette after a month

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic a lot of ECRs have been through a lot of ups and downs juggling between rearranging bench-based experiments and structuring a work-from-home routine. Many were brave enough to share their personal battles though social media platforms and this helped me realise that I am not struggling alone. The last few weeks have been challenging since I was not mentally or physically prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic; how could I anyway, how could any of us? I have gone from being stressed and worried for my family back home, to extremely happy after receiving news that my research paper has been accepted for publication. There were days I felt down after reading the news and days I was impressed with how much I managed to do in a single day. 

When countries around the world started opening up, so did our research centres. After working from home for almost two months, PhD students, including myself, are now asked to return to their lab and resume their research activities and experiments. Listening to my supervisor sharing the news that our research centre will soon be open again was music to my ears. I have been anxious about my PhD progress considering that the lockdown has already delayed my thesis submission. 

Making peace with the new pace of experiments

Going back will however not be simultaneous for everyone and we will not be able to conduct all the experiments we used to in the same time or manner. This thought was very frustrating to me, but I realised that the priority should be to follow the rules and maintain all the measures to slow down the spread of the virus and avoid any relapse. I managed to adjust to the new hybrid working conditions after reflecting on what is important for me and realising that I cannot be upset with issues outside my control. Both students and supervisors will have to adapt to the current reality and understand that right now it is not the time to be extremely productive and set unreasonable expectations and timelines. Moreover, universities should take this opportunity to reconsider the guidelines for thesis submissions and be more flexible about how students could meet the requirements to complete their degrees.

Keeping in mind the number of students and research professionals doing bench-based experiments in my centre, it is an extremely optimistic scenario that I might be able to be at my lab between 10-20 hours per week. Although the hours spend at the lab will increase with time assuming there are no relapses or cases in my research centre. This means that what normally could be done in a week, now it will be expanded to two or more. This deduction of the hours spent at the lab, increased the duration of my planned experiments to three months and will further delay my thesis submission. Making peace with the new pace of my lab-based experiments was key to further structure my routine and daily tasks. Even though I cannot increase the time spend at my research centre, I am planning to conduct my experiments 100% prepared and focused to avoid mistakes while trying to troubleshoot beforehand when possible. 

Prioritizing experiments

I discussed with my supervisor what experiments I have to do and together we carefully thought of their sequence and prioritize them to accommodate not only my needs but the needs of my colleagues and fellow PhD students. The good part is that once my experiments are done, most of the analysis and writing can be completed from home and I am already familiar setting up a productive routine in the comfort of my apartment! However, this process was not easy when I first started working from home, but then I realized that everyone is processing the current situation differently and adapting with our own speed, so I tried to avoid direct comparisons with others. What helped me a lot to get more ideas about working from home, was to share my personal experience and exchange information with my friends who are in a similar situation.

Maintaining the work-from-home routine

Working from home has its perks and I have got used to the new routine. I realised that after arranging an appropriate routine I was really productive working from home. I was able to wake up a few minutes later if I needed that extra time and I was exercising almost daily since I was feeling that I did not really need a gym to be physically active. I embraced all the flexibility the new reality brought, and I am not sure if I am ready to give it all up. Although I welcomed the news of going back to the lab, even for limited number of hours, I plan to maintain the work-from-home schedule since no one knows for how long we will be in this hybrid situation or if there will not be any relapses when it comes to the number of cases in our region. Thankfully, this time the adjustment will be more gradual leaving me space to modify my work schedule in a less stressful manner.

Embracing everything I am feeling and celebrating every single win without carrying how big or small it is helped me to build a positive attitude that I maintain now that I will be returning to the lab even though the plan is not exactly what I had in mind. I am confident about the timeline I have scheduled, and I will try my best to see it through. 

No one can tell how long this pandemic will last and what the future will bring. As PhD students we develop resilience and we are well equipped with high levels of adaptability. We are used to face challenges and failure daily since adding knowledge to a field is not an easy task. We will come out of this victorious with new skills developed and ready for the next chapter in our lives. 

 Featured image is under Pixabay License and free to use.

About the Author
  • Melina Papalampropoulou-Tsiridou 0000-0001-7390-1860

    Melina, originally from Greece, started her research career obtaining a BSc degree in Biology from the University of Patras. She, then continued her research in U.K. where she attended the University of Edinburgh and awarded with an MSc by Research in Integrative Neuroscience. Fascinated by neuroscience, she decided to cross the ocean and continue her studies at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada.  She joined in January 2016 the laboratory of Prof. Yves De Koninck, affiliated with CERVO Brain Research Centre and Université Laval, pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience. Melina is currently a PhD/MBA candidate at Université Laval.

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