Graduate researcher life in lockdown(s)

Words and images: Véronique Paris and Christin Manthey

Illustraions: Marianne Coquilleau

Doing a PhD in science is a challenge in itself. Developing and managing your own project, learning to be a “real” research scientist rather than a student, working on experiments, collecting data, applying for funding … that’s all part of the deal. However, 2020 added another flavour into the mix – COVID-19.

Most of us had to suddenly transition to working from home and despite the challenges, surely everyone has some fun home office stories to tell. From participating in important meetings and conferences in pyjama pants, to interruptions from pets and kids – the list is long and still growing. Véronique and Christin, currently doing their PhDs in Melbourne and Berlin, respectively, would love to add some insights about what working from home can look like for biologists.

But first things first, who are they? Véronique started her PhD with PEARG in June 2019, after finishing her Masters degree at the Freie Universität in Berlin where she worked on metamorphosis in insects – which is now a part of Christin’s PhD research. Véronique is now researching disease transmitting mosquitos in Australia, with a focus on Buruli ulcer. Her research consists of a mixture of fieldwork, experimental work in the lab, molecular lab-work as well as explorations on her computer. You can read about some her project here; Sampling by the sea – Collecting mosquitoes in the Mornington Peninsula.

Christin also gained her Master’s degree at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where the two met and became good friends working together in Jens Rolffs’ lab. Christin is now doing her PhD in Jens’ lab studying an array of insect species to research the evolution of metamorphosis. Her research focus is mainly on insects gut microbiome and insect growth. Christin studies insects in the field and the lab throughout their development, conducts molecular and experimental lab work, reviews literature for comparative studies, and analyses everything computer-based. Have a read about Véronique’s part of this project here: Investigating metamorphosis to understand why Christine is so passionate about this interesting field of evolution.

Véronique (middle), Christine (right) and lab mate Maria (left) became good friends while doing their degree in the Rolfe lab at Freie Universität, Berlin.

Both of us were in the middle of ramping up our research projects when COVID-19 invaded our lives. In the early stages we were hearing a lot of different news about how much this situation would affect us. Different institutes started to take different precautions and planning for the looming possibilities of various forms and scales of lockdowns in the upcoming months. Messages and emails between us turned largely into a live news feed about the local pandemic updates and different stages of lockdowns in our respective cities as time moved on.

Luckily, Véronique’s lab and the Bio21 Institute where the lab is based, took a preemptive approach – preparing for worst-case scenarios in February. Thus prompted, Véronique dropped everything and rushed into the field to finish her mosquito collections while it was still a viable option. Any significant delay at that time would have meant the mozzie season would end during a lockdown. Leaving her with insufficient samples to study, and, having long-reaching impacts on the trajectory of her research. Though finishing the field work in time was a huge relief, it also meant that thousands of mozzie eggs needed to be hatched and larvae counted and frozen for later analyses. No big deal under normal laboratory conditions. However, immediately after her field work was completed Melbourne went into full lockdown. After a quick negotiation with her partner (thankfully a scientist himself) about turning half of their small apartment into a mosquito breeding station. Bookshelves became mozzie hatcheries, and cats became lab safety inspectors.

Véronique, her mozzies and cat Kimchi at the home lab. Illustrated by Marianne Coquilleau

This is where messages between the two turned into a hilarious exchange of photos to document creative approaches to keeping our projects going.

Véronique and her mozzie tower (top – you see ~half of the total number of containers here); Cat Nym makes sure the work is done right – she regularly reported back to Veronique’s supervisors via Zoom calls (bottom)

When restrictions came into place for Berlin, Christin found herself stuck in her apartment with her one-year old child working from home. Not exactly what she needed right in the middle of the experimental phase of her work. So, Christin took her child and partner (also a PhD candidate), bought a mobile internet router and moved to the countryside, living in a caravan in the middle of a field. With lucky timing, she moved her family just before a travel ban would have prevented them from leaving Berlin.

The lockdown home, office and field laboratory

By moving out of the city Christin saw her chance to conduct her long-planned field experiment. And with her field site being the same field she was living in there was some efficiencies gained too. She sampled hundreds of bush crickets and meadow grasshoppers and started her experiment. So far so good, but she also needed access to a lab to process her samples… but where to find one in the middle of nowhere? Well, with some creativity and luck, she was able to build her own makeshift lab in a nearby shed.

Christin in-between her daily life as a mum and on the hunt for grasshoppers. Illustration by Marianne Coquilleau

The lab-shed that saved the project

The two kept each other updated and shared pictures and stories about the unusual home office arrangements, always up for a laugh about the next creative idea to keep their scientific journey going. An upside of lab meetings and seminars moved online, they were able to join in from the ‘mozzie breeding’, or ‘shed-lab’ home offices to support each other presenting their progress online – something that wouldn’t have been possible in “the before times”. With restrictions slowly easing and life adapting to a new COVID normal, both of them are now able to slowly move back into the real labs and restrict their home office to “normal” office work. At the time of writing Berlin is facing a second wave and a tightening of restrictions just as Melbourne tentatively eases as case numbers plummet.

All in all, despite the challenges, the uncertainty, the lack of in-person contact, and having no idea when they are able see each other again, they feel empowered by the creative solutions found to keep working on their projects. For an entire year both were anticipating to catch up in person at the Ecological immunology workshop that the Rolfe lab hosts every couple of years, organised by Sophie Armitage for the first time in 2020. Under current circumstances the event was moved online, and Véronique joined in for some late-night networking due to the 8-hour time difference between Berlin and Melbourne.

It was and it is still such a privilege to share this experience with a friend on the other side of the world who not just understands the situation you find yourself in but also celebrates you for breeding mosquitoes in your living room or moving into a trailer in the middle of nowhere to experiment on grasshoppers. We both are also very lucky to have great supervisors who are thinking outside the box and supported us 100% to keep our projects rolling from home while keeping everyone safe. Nothing of the above would have been possible without them.