ESR Blog on Covid-19 period

I have the habit of turning on the radio as soon as I come home after a day out. It’s an old habit of mine, which happens to be extremely useful when you live alone and you don’t like television. I also have some favourite shows, that keep me company and beat my resting time. I still remember, one evening in late January, the hosts of one of these shows reporting about a video from the city of Wuhan that went viral all over the internet. Worn out by the overflow of COVID-19, Wuhan’s citizens screamed out of their windows to say that everything was fine, to support each other singing patriotic songs and spread hope (a short clip is available on the BBC News website here). This event happened not so long after our consortium 1st Network meeting in Munich, where we met for the first time and not only shared some science but also had fun together, setting the basis for new friendships.

I have to admit I was one of the sceptics that kept being very hopeful about the danger of the virus, and that didn’t believe it would have changed our lives completely. However, I had to quickly change my mind when in February COVID-19 cases started to dramatically rise in Italy, and when soon after most European Governments announced the lock-down. My daily life was upset and I had to reinvent my work in order to keep my mind active and come back to work without leaving too many things behind my schedule. Sharing these worries with Giorgia, one of my TRAIN-HEART consortium peers, I understood my feelings were not that odd and, most probably, common to the others in the groups, whose labs were also closed due to the pandemic. We thought about organising weekly web meetings, where we could discuss about science but – mostly – we could be together, chat, and maybe feel less lonely.

During better times: The TRAIN-HEART consortium at its first Network Meeting at Munich, Germany in the end of January 2020.

And what a beautiful experience it was! For the entire duration of the social isolation, we virtually met in Journal Clubs every Wednesday, where we presented papers and critically analysed them, shared ideas, asked questions but also laughed and, overall, had a very good time. The online seminars, conferences and courses organised by the scientific community (ISHR Cardiovascular Webinar Series, ESC and HFA webinars, iBiology classes, Coursera free courses to cite only some of the resources we used) represented another incredible opportunity to all of us. In this sense, lock-down was a very fruitful time. Indeed, working in the lab is usually very intense and it can get hard to find time for education. Without experiments to do, we suddenly had a lot of free time to manage as we liked. Online events to watch from the comfort of our homes and usually available for streaming on demand gave us a lot of freedom and represented a remarkable source of not only scientific but also personal growth. Indeed, most of us took advantage of other e-learning, non-scientific platforms that made available their classes to learn new things.

Keeping up each other's spirits: The TRAIN-HEART Early Stage Researchers during one of our recent virtual Journal club meetings

However, I’d be telling only part of the story if I limited myself to the unexpected exciting aspects of quarantine. The other side of the forced stay-home was a diffuse sense of anxiety, loneliness and apathy. We had started our PhD projects less than four months before and we had to completely stop our activity in the lab, which meant a complete reshape of our plans. Indeed, working with science involves dealing with reagents, cells, animals, external facilities and other research groups which are usually interdependent. Thus, if part of the engine stops, the entire system has to slow down or, at the worst, stop as well, and the restart takes time. Generally, a lot of time. Therefore, it is not surprising if many of us felt on their shoulders the weight of several months of lock-down. Our projects seemed compromised, the thrilling ideas not feasible anymore and a feeling of defeat started to creep in our minds.

Although some of us reported a feeling of resolution and new energy to start fresh with their project at the end of the quarantine, some worries about the future still remain. A sense of uncertainty is always present and reality seems to balance on a razor’s edge. Will there be a new lock-down? Are the distancing measures and working limitations going to ease? Will we be able to make the best out of this revolutionary situation and achieve good results? Because, in the end, it all comes to this latter fateful question. As young researchers, our academic career mostly depends on the results we achieve during our PhD. Although we had, probably for the first time compared to previous PhD students, the chance to fully dedicate ourselves to our education, it’s very hard not to think about this stay-home time as a wasted time. We’re accustomed to daily routines that run fast, and to always feel behind our schedule, that being forced to stop and freely manage our time feels unproductive and, quite simply, a farce.

A few months of our PhD have surely now passed without our hands practically on experiments - this is a fact that none of us can deny. But, in my opinion, we have also had the opportunity to notice the importance of our freedom (to go out, to travel, to spend time with our beloved ones and be surrounded by people), our health, a mindful routine where working time is balanced with self-time, and of the connections we create. COVID-19 demonstrated to us that, when countries do not act in synergy, a virus – any virus – can easily spread everywhere, despite borders and cultural differences. It also showed us the importance of mutual aid and support. Like the doctors and healthcare workers who came from China to Italy to help us handle the pandemic and share with us the lessons they learnt from it. Like volunteers who delivered groceries to elders and people with financial difficulties. But also – without going into extremes – like our weekly Journal Clubs and the opportunities we created for ourselves to feel less lonely and – although virtually – closer to one another (web birthday parties, online dinners with our families, web movie and book clubs, online workouts, and many more). As we made the best out of this dramatic situation, I’m sure we will do the same with our projects that, in the end, are just at the beginning and with a lot of scope for changes.

So, stay tuned for some exciting science from all of us!

Francesca Cecilia Lauta

The author, pictured here in good spirits on being back in the laboratory

This article has been written as a result of a survey to which 13 out of the 15 ESRs of the Train-Heart consortium participated. The survey has been active from August 8th until August 25th and consisted of 10 multiple choice questions. The complete results are available at the following link:

The author is an Early Stage Researcher and Doctoral Candidate at Humanitas University, Milan, as part of the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie and H2020 funded TRAIN-HEART consortium. More details about her can be viewed here.

Mon, 07 September