Research in Lockdown: Labs Closed

It’s been just shy of two months (I think) since I cleared my desk and left Cambridge as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This blog is a bit of a summary of my life in lockdown, my thoughts about my PhD progress, and my aims for the future.

I started my PhD in September 2019, and my research is all about rivers—what influences river chemistry and the consequences of chemistry changes for global climate. It’s predominantly a lab- and field-based project, so the closure of labs and international borders was a bit of a bummer. Pre-COVID, I spent most of my time in the lab, really enjoying the peaceful hours in there. It wasn’t until lockdown chained me behind a desk that I realised I was actually pretty awful at computer-based research!

The Huveaune river in France—one of my field localities.

Whilst the department was open, I’d been reading papers semi-regularly, but I hadn’t really been interrogating the authors’ conclusions by manipulating their data myself. It took a few weeks of lockdown for me to gain the confidence to explore different tangents in the literature and form my own views on other people’s research. Now I’ve learnt to get on with the computer-based stuff, which is at least one good thing to come out of quarantine. I think that the trick to surviving research in lockdown is to convince yourself that whatever you’re doing is never a waste of time, as long as you find it interesting then it’s worth it.

Although I can’t do anything that directly contributes to my thesis at the moment, I can still learn things and have a crack at some of the modelling that I was saving for the latter part of the project—when most of my data would have been collected—which breaks up all the reading quite nicely. I’d say that a realistic day probably includes 4–5 hours of work, which usually occurs in the morning. I struggle to work effectively in the afternoons, which is when I’d normally go to the lab, so instead I fill my time with my daily exercise allowance.

There are some alpacas down the road that are pretty good friends with our dogs, so I go and see them, or I head out for a run. I’m pretty lucky to be isolating where I am, as there’s a fair bit of farm life and open places to explore. If I feel like I’ve not achieved a lot in the day, then I might do a bit more work in the evening, but I try to not let my productivity get me down. It’s a tough time for everyone, so I think that we can all afford to be kinder to ourselves. Some days I manage to accomplish what seems like nothing, but it is what it is.

Pip and Flo making friends!

As there isn’t really an end-date to the lockdown—and I can’t stand all the speculation—it’s hard to set ‘lockdown aims’, which would require a tangible timeline to work toward. I’ve always been quite good at plodding along with stuff and appreciating that it will take as long as it takes, so I’m hesitant to put any end-dates on my projects. ­However, one notable lockdown achievement has been submitting an abstract to the *virtual* Goldschmidt 2020 conference and having it accepted. I’ve never been to a conference before, and I don’t have a clue what I’m going to talk about, but playing with ideas for my presentation has been keeping me busy.

Further to Goldschmidt, writing my first-year report has also been a big-time sink. I’ve found it quite rewarding to reflect on the progress that I made to my PhD research prior to lockdown, and to consider the aims that I’d like to achieve when the department reopens.

Lockdown desk—where the magic happens!

I’m pretty excited to get back into the lab at some point in the near future. I got some exciting results from the Neptune (mass spec.) just before the department closed, so I have some interesting analysis to go back to—though I left those samples baking in the sun in the clean labs, so a shout out to parafilm© if it stopped them from evaporating entirely! The social side of department is something that I miss too. Chance encounters in the corridors and the free-flowing conversation of a group meeting just can’t quite be replicated on zoom, though it does do a pretty good job. I’m fortunate to be part of a fairly large research group, which meets twice a week and uses instant messaging, so regular help is never that far away. I also manage to have a zoom chat with my PhD cohort once every few weeks. It’s nice being part of an inter-disciplinary DTP as it is cool to hear about the wide variety of research that everyone is doing.

Overall, the lockdown experience is a pretty weird one. On the one hand, I feel disappointed and anxious that my project has been put on hold just as it was getting started. But on the other, I’m enjoying the opportunity to remotely improve my skills as a researcher. It’s probably best not to dwell on the bad stuff and take each day as it comes.

I hope that everyone reading this blog post is doing alright, and I can highly recommend taking the time to write a blog post and/or doing some personal reflection on the current situation—I certainly found it useful.

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