ESR09 – Olha Khomenko – Keeping up with the academia in the midst of the global pandemic as an early stage researcher

Olha and Team

I started my PhD in 2019, which means that ¾ of my project happened under or between national lockdowns. It would not be true to say I enjoyed being among those who had to pioneer the whole remote and hybrid research, but I definitely learned a lot from this experience.

A Good Start

The start of my journey was smooth. In autumn 2019 I joined a great lab and started work on my project having amazing support and guidance from our Teagasc supervisory team. By February 2020 I had my experiments planned, my training completed, and was ready to start my experiments. But before that we had an exciting opportunity to organise the first REFLOW training school which was planned for March 2020. All February we were working on the agenda, inviting speakers, and were looking forward to meeting the team for the first time. This is when some worrying news started reaching us.

The Bad News

No need to say that our first REFLOW meeting did not start as planned. Ireland went into the first lockdown the week we were planning to welcome the team here. But it is not only networking which had to be cancelled. With the research centre closing my whole PhD looked like one huge question mark. Will I be able to start my field work on time? When will I be back to the lab? 

I spent the first weeks of the pandemic asking myself these questions, constantly updating news pages. Not surprisingly I was barely able to work on my research during the first few weeks. My not-so-great home office was a source of frustration, and daily COVID19 statics – a source of anxiety. Moreover, having gone from daily lunchtime jogging around Johnstown Castle Gardens to staying indoors 24/7 made things even worse.

COVID-19 impacted us all in many ways, and one of the challenges ESRs have faced is isolation, both personal and professional. For me isolation and uncertainty were a perfect growing medium for anxiety which greatly impacted my productivity in the early stages of the pandemic. Tackling anxiety was the first step in adjusting to the new norm and I could not stress this enough. You need to calm your mind before you can do your work. Take care of your mental health and remember that not every anxiety can go away on its own, but every anxiety can be managed with help. If you feel like you are stuck – do ask for help.

I was extremely lucky to have a very supporting supervisory team who helped me to progress with the research during the lockdown. Even more, after the initial few months under a lockdown I was permitted to start some of the time critical work in the labs. But while I started progress with the experimental component of my PhD an enormous fraction of academic life was still missing. It is true that all efforts were put in to allow us to progress with our projects, however strict social distancing measures meant that networking and dissemination was almost impossible. Missing out on conference experiences and even social chats with other researchers makes the PhD journey even more isolating.

The Silver Lining

To feel less isolated and to keep up with academia you have to stay connected. Having most of the planned conferences cancelled or postponed I started looking for alternative ways to connect with other researchers. Lucky for me, online events and training were becoming more and more common and during this time I attended dozens of webinars and workshops provided by my university and by my host organisation. For me it became a routine to plan my lab work around these training events so that I could progress with my project while gaining soft skills and stay up to date with advances in my field.

Another tip which helped me to stay up to date with recent publications in the field was to connect with other researchers on social media. Twitter is great for this, but it may get overwhelming with all of the posts you receive daily. To track specifically publications and update my library I subscribed for updates from researchers working on P modelling on ResearchGate and Google Scholar.

Later, when online conferences became a new norm, I started applying for presentations. Online conferences have their cons, but the truth is they are more accessible and in many cases more affordable than conventional physical conferences. Subscribing for as many (relevant) newsletters as possible helped me to stay up to date with upcoming events. For example, I found out about one of the recent events I attended, The 1st young soil scientists forum, from The European Commission’s science and knowledge service newsletter. Participating in online conferences and dissemination events gave me an opportunity to learn how to fit a research project into one screen, how to get and to keep the attention of a primary school student in an online class, and how to write a script for a video, film the video, and edit it. It is true that not everyone will be making posters after they graduate. But knowing how to create and present concise infographics will be useful for most graduates. And the knowledge of how to use different types of content and how to deliver it to a wider audience while keeping their attention online will definitely benefit my career.

We were unlucky having to navigate our projects in the midst of a global pandemic, but we had many lessons to learn from this common experience. And the lessons learnt will help us to become more resilient and robust researchers in future.

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