The lockdown in Spain would start the 14th, and we proceeded to announce how ICMAB would face the situation in a news article, which was titled, almost comically in hindsight, “The ICMAB becomes an "Institute of restricted access" for the following two weeks”. The full scope of this pandemic was impossible to predict, and our future was unclear.
Slightly longer than two weeks later, we start to see a way out of lockdown, with worldwide efforts of vaccination slowly improving our chances to recover our lives as we knew them. After a year of research from home, Zoom calls, online conferences, and very little time in the laboratory, we wanted to know: how did we manage to keep going, to keep our research effort under this time of instability and social distance?
To figure it out, we asked some ICMAB PhD researchers about their experience this year.
Adara Babuji, from India, is currently in her 4th year of her PhD in Organic Semiconductor Interfacial Studies, which she is developing in the Physical Chemistry of Surfaces and Interfaces (SURFACES) Group:
“The lockdown happened when I was in my 3rd year of PhD. We had planned several experiments, beam times and research stays during 2020 and the unexpected lockdown was a hassle. In the beginning, we were clueless, but with time, all of us, the group, have managed to find a way to deal with the situation. The group meetings became online, we found convenient ways to share the data, to teach or learn different tools, etc. The lockdown gave me a lot of time to take care of myself, to cook several cuisines for the first time and I enjoyed eating that. The forbidden gatherings with friends were difficult but amidst these, I managed to visit my family and recharge myself. The social gatherings in ICMAB were a bliss, from lunchtime fun to PhD defense celebrations. We all miss those. The lacking thing between the pre and the post-pandemic situation is the smiling faces which are now covered by masks. I hope they will be back again one day.”
Vladimir Dikan is an EU-MSCA PhD Researcher from Russia, currently working on the Electronic Structure of Materials (LEEM) Group:
"First of all, I have to say that I'm somewhat "lucky" regarding the conditions that I faced during the lockdown. My primary work goal is implementation and use of the computational methods for abinitio simulations, so my "lab environment" can be totally "virtual". Many thanks to the ICMAB's IT department, who is super-helpful in providing all the necessary services for remote work within the ICMAB-CSIC network. With their help, and providing the virtual nature of the work itself, my transition to the "home office" environment was rather smooth.
Personally I faced the first lockdown with a productivity rush and in good spirits that lasted for a couple of months, never to be seen again. The main personal problems, I think, are not unique and well-known to everyone. […] I think that changes and transition to "remote" working are in general embraced by the industry and society, and good thing or not - they are here to stay. And we'll need to completely adapt somehow. I also hope to reunite with my family members and close friends this year. It still is a risk but a risk I'm ready to - responsively - take. I was ever happy to hear that my parents had got vaccinated recently! It makes the risk a better-estimated one."
Jewel Ann Maria Xavier, is a 2nd Year EU-MSCA PhD Fellow from India, currently working on Nanoparticles with metallacarboranes in the Inorganic Materials and Catalysis Laboratory (LMI) Group:
"Coming to Barcelona to pursue my doctoral studies, I thought, would be the perfect blend of work and life. Being in a city known for its happy-go-lucky culture, I felt it to be the ideal place to learn and grow, both professionally and personally. But thou shalt not be. Just as I was settling into the new routine and imbibing the cultural differences, the pandemic hit the world and everything came to a standstill.
Being an experimental chemist, the lockdown affected my work substantially as we couldn’t work in the laboratories anymore. But we adapted to the new situation through Zoom discussions and group meetings, trying to utilize the time in the best possible way. It helped me gain a better grip in the literature related to my field. But one of the major downside to it was not being able to go home. Luckily, with lots of rules and regulations, I was able to go home last December (2020). For me, ICMAB and PhD life has always been the ‘new normal’. In a way, I no longer felt new as everything was new to all of us. I have had a glimpse and heard a lot more about the pre-pandemic ICMAB and hope to experience it before I leave, but it still is uncertain."
Sergi Martín Rio is a Catalan PhD Researcher on his last year researching Complex oxide heterostructures for spintronic applications in the Advanced Characterization and Nanostructured Materials (ACNM) Group:
"When the first lockdown was declared it was the beginning of my last year as a PhD researcher, and the word to best describe that moment was uncertainty. Nobody knew how long it would last nor how it would affect our lives thereafter. At the very beginning, however, it was easier to handle because I had time to start thinking about my thesis script and read calmly about my research area. Nevertheless, after a few weeks of imposed routine and social distancing it got harder and harder to just focus on one task (a feeling I’m sure many people have experienced). I came back to ICMAB in June and even went to work with a research group in Donosti for like a month in October. However, although optimistic, for me the situation is still far from the pre-pandemic “normality”, we just learnt to deal with it."
Lavinia Saltarelli is from Italy, and she has just started her 3rd year of PhD in the Superconducting Materials and Large Scale Nanostructures (SUMAN) Group. In her PhD project, she develops epitaxial YBCO layers in the innovative framework of transient liquid assisted growth (TLAG), starting from a chemical solution deposition method:
"A PhD is undoubtedly a challenging experience, but who would have thought we would have to add a global pandemic to it?!
It doesn’t seem like already one year has gone by since that last “normal” Friday at ICMAB, unexpected beginning of the highly demanding time that has been the lockdown. My PhD project is based on daily experimental work, so with no short-term possibility of going back to the lab and therefore, no new incoming data, our group changed perspective and strongly focused on all that had been done so far. […] Despite it being different and sometimes frustrating, it was insightful. Also not easy to cope with was the comeback at ICMAB, with novelties as initial shifts due to occupancy limits and Zoom meetings were bound to be our new normality, it has not alleviated the stressful feeling due to the experimental time lost in lockdown months. Considering the first adversities, I feel we have now adapted well to the new work situation and are making use of our time even better.
During summer holidays, I was lucky enough to spend some time with my family and friends in Rome, as the pandemic was momentarily better, but I am aware that this has not been possible for everyone. I hope for all of us at ICMAB, those who have not been able to go back to their countries in a long time, or those who couldn’t see their family and friends even though they are living close by, to be soon reunited with our loved ones."
Arnau Romaguera Camps, Catalan PhD Fellow on his 4th year, working in High temperature multiferroic oxides investigated by synchrotron and neutron techniques in the Crystallography of Magnetic and Electronic Oxides and Surfaces (CMEOS) Group:
"Our group (CMEOS) is formed by six persons. Being such a small group had some advantages and drawbacks along the past year. To organise and coordinate our work during the lockdown was relatively easy, but since we were used to communicate day to day in ICMAB, we were not used at all to online communication and telework, so it took us some time to get used to the situation. Since a big part of our research is based on experiments at large facilities, the pandemic specially affected our work as ‘synchrotroners’ and ‘neutroners’. Most of our experiments during this period were postponed or even cancelled, but the efforts to adapt to the situation made it possible to run extremely complex experiments from home, something that we never imagined that could be possible!
From the personal point of view and beyond my research work, the lockdown really made me appreciate and pay attention to small things that normally are blurred by the fast pace of daily life and traffic jams. Those days I really learned to enjoy small things like hiking or running through the hills near my home in Maçanet de la Selva, and discovering hidden places. I even grew my own vegetable patch, and the potatoes and tomatoes were delicious! In short, I learned not to worry so much by worldly things and to enjoy as much as possible everything we have at the moment."
Teresa Cardona, from Spain is in her 3rd year PhD working on Curcuminoid based materials toward their use as active components in two and three terminal devices in the Functional Nanomaterials and Surfaces Group (FUNNANOSURF) Group:
"I can remember being in the lab with my workmates on that Friday 13th of March. I was starting some reactions when our supervisor showed up and advised us: “You should stop everything you are working on and disconnect all the instruments we have in the lab. You should go home. The President has declared a lockdown and we don’t know when we will come back.”
When we could go back to the lab, everything was changed. The regulation that I noticed the most, was the lab shifts that my group needed and still needs to follow. […] We have to be more well-organised than before if we want to achieve all the proposed experiments for that day. This situation makes your research improve a bit slower but also somehow more efficient, because you value the lab time and you don’t waste it.
I miss the pre-covid ICMAB, where we could stay more than one person working in the lab or more than 2 in the lunch table and I hope someday we will get it back. However, what I really want, more than the pre-pandemic ICMAB to be back, is our pre-pandemic lives outside ICMAB. I miss going back to my hometown whenever I want, travelling around the world and meeting my friends without restrictions. Hopefully, the vaccine will allow us to slowly recover these previous experiences. Let’s hope people have understood the importance of the vaccine, the relevance of the science behind it and the importance of investment in science."
Pablo García Lebière is a PhD researcher from Spain, currently on his 3rd year working on the fabrication of nanocarbon-based supercapacitor electrodes through advanced laser processing in the Laser Processing Research (LASER) group:
"During this last year, many things have change due to the pandemic. For my research work, the inability to perform new experiments is an obstacle, but thanks to the time away from de lab I was able to focus on the writing of an article which takes more time than expected. However, other things cannot be overcome as many conferences were cancelled and these are the places where you can directly show your scientific discoveries. At the present moment, even working between home and the lab, I still miss the pre-pandemic time when things were easier. You could find workmates every day and the routine could be broken just with a lunch outside."
Milena Cervo Sulzbach is a EU-MSCA PhD Fellow from Brazil. She is on her 4th year, engineering brain-like synapses with ferroelectrics in the Multifunctional Thin Films and Complex Structures (MULFOX) Group:
"After this devastating year, mental health is demanding attention. On the first lockdown it was challenging to establish a work routine and to determine a life-work balance. Since the lab experiments were paralyzed, I used most of the time to analyze old data, learn with online courses and organize the research I have done so far in my PhD. However, on most days, I worked more hours than when I was going to ICMAB. There was a constant fear of wasting time and try to be productive even when the situation did not allow that. After a year of the COVID pandemic, the work-life balance is the most affected aspect of my life. The lack of interaction with friends or even going on holidays starts to play a critical weight. Also, I had to cancel two times visits to my family in Brazil, which made me lose serious situations."
José Piers Jurado is an American PhD EU-MSCA Researcher at the Nanostructured Materials for Optoelectronics and Energy Harvesting (NANOPTO) Group:
"At the beginning of the lockdown, I was actually pretty happy. I had a lot of data analysis to do, and not being able to go to the lab allowed me to catch up on the “boring” stuff. After a few weeks, however, I started to run short of things to do, since I needed to get back to the lab. […] after only being allowed limited time in the lab, I realized how important it was to plan out my week, and to stick to that plan as best I can. […]
Since November on, it has been very frustrating being able to do limited things. So I feel like all I do is work, and that has affected my productivity. With time, mine as well as everyone else’s work-life balance will be better. […] I think a lot of good things have changed for ICMAB and other work environments. I don’t miss the pre-pandemic ICMAB. For example, I think teleworking is here to stay. In my case, since I commute from Barcelona every day, it’s nice not to have to go to ICMAB just to sit at my desk and do data analysis. […] My social life has definitely changed. Usually my friends always wanted to hang out at night, but with the curfew it’s not possible. I actually prefer this because I can go to bed early (yay!) and now I make my friends hang out with me in the afternoon!"
Marina Llenas Martínez is a Catalan researcher on the 3rd year of her PhD in Radioactive nanoparticles for cancer diagnosis and therapy within the Solid State Chemistry (SSC) Group:
"At the beginning, I suppose that like most of you, it was hard to adapt to that new situation, staying at home, not seeing the family, friends and colleagues and in general stopping my daily life. The work changed as well, we had to pause experiments that we were doing and made efforts to keep going without staying in the lab. It is true that not all was bad, I had more time to read papers, write and plot figures, things that normally it’s hard to find enough time to do. We also found ways to stay in contact with the group and the colleagues through videoconferences or calls and we even could still sing online with the choir.
When we were able to go back to ICMAB, I found the situation really strange, the corridors were empty, we had to follow timetables to avoid overcrowding the spaces, eat far from each other and change our way of performing technical services or sharing common equipment. However, we could start again with the work we had stopped a few months back. Now, the situation is not normal yet, but we are getting used to it, the online meetings, luckily combined with face-to-face talks, the mixture between home and laboratory work or the online courses and conferences.
I certainly look forward to getting back to the normality again, above all, to see people without being afraid, increase the contact with the others, or move around without time and location restrictions, but even though this has been a tough year, I think that we have found the best way to overcome the constraints, stay safe and carry on our projects!"
Jan Grzelak is a EU-MSCA PhD Researcher from Poland, who is in his 4th year working in Mesoporous magnetic nanorods for theranostics, as part of the Nanoparticles and Nanocomposites (NN) Group:
"I remember the beginning of the lockdown very well - I was forced to go back to Barcelona from a research stay. At first it was hard for me to adapt to the new situation, probably like for everybody else. Nobody knew what to expect and it was hard to find motivation amidst all the anxiety and uncertainty. In the N&N Group we started online group meetings quite fast. […] During the first weeks, the work consisted of writing draft papers with results available at the time and then slowly we started to go back to the “new normal”. I think that ICMAB did a great job to ensure that all the safety protocols are in place.
Although it may seem that the restrictions limit our lab work (3 people in the lab allowed at the same time), I think that it has greatly increased our productivity. We have to plan our experiments very well in advance to adapt them to the lab schedule. We have an online calendar where we put our names in given time slots. Fewer people in the lab also means more space and higher availability of the equipment so we can work more freely.
There are obviously many things that I miss from the pre-pandemic times and one of them is social life. In N&N Group we used to organize group activities every month to spend time together outside of work and have fun. I wish there could be more social interactions and I really hope that our lives will go back to normal soon."
Judit Tomsen is a Catalan PhD researcher on her 3rd year, working in the development of drug delivery systems for nanomedicine applications within the Molecular Nanoscience and Organic Materials (NANOMOL) Group:
"If the state of research was already uncertain one year ago (specially here in Spain), the pandemic situation of this last year has increased even more this sense of uncertainty, especially for those who were facing our last year of phD. In my case, fortunately, we managed to perform most of the experiments we aimed to do, although we had to cancel my stay abroad (already planned), and some experiments are still ongoing because of delays due to the past lockdown. Closed labs, virtual seminars, no possibility to share coffee breaks...
For those of us who work in science, and especially after starting the «PhD path», it is assumed that there will be moments of difficulty, stress, anxiety, or disappointment. But the warmth of friends and colleagues usually balances the bad days. And for me, it is probably what I am missing more during this year, although I have no doubt that we will get it back in the future! But, seeing the positive side of this pandemic, there is the amazing scientific work and research achieved only in a few months. This is something worth thinking about, since with resources, interest, and willpower, the world has the potential to make awesome and challenging things (and probably a pandemic situation should not be required for that...!)"
A year of COVID at ICMAB