Hello 2021: A recap of my PhD life in 2020

Photo by Max Andrey on Unsplash

It’s 2021, and this is the time when I get asked “What is your new year resolution?”.

Before I move on to answering that question, I think it’s about time to sit down and reflect how my 2020 has been. If you are new to my blog, I have written another reflection post since I started my MPhil (here). Towards the final months of my PhD in such unusual times, reflecting by writing would help me think clearly what are my goals for 2021.

2020 has been unusual. I recall returning from my overseas trip home while COVID-19 pandemic was still at its “infant” stage. I guess no one would have expected a complete lifestyle change and how the rise of this infectious viral strain would have changed our lives so dramatically. I remember vividly my first 2-3 months of 2020 was just rushing experiments for unbelievable long hours (10-12 hours in the lab non-stop), literally living and researching by day as the lab/university would be shut down any time, depending on how Adelaide is coping with the pandemic itself. Borders were locked – hence bye-bye international conferences as no one is allowed to enter nor leave, with exception to circumstances which travel is consider essential. I had planned for 2020 – a year of of long-awaited international conferences, scheduled breaks for better work-life balance, interdisciplinary and international collaborations of research. Well, the pandemic just tipped everything I have planned off the scale, and I have to replan my year, or much more accurately, to adapt to a whole new world of Covid-19 pandemic.

Celebrate wins, no matter how little they are

Nevertheless, there are still quite some interesting events/milestones that happened in 2020.

✅Won the Millennium Science Ground Breaking Technology Awards @ Symposium Down Under: Mechanism Controlling Plant Reproduction by the SexSeed Consortium (an initiative supported by the European Union Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Staff Exchange programme)

✅Attended two international virtual conferences (for more information read the blog post here)

✅Presented my work on virtual posters (you can view it in the poster gallery here on my page)

✅Featured speaker on Malaysian Research Insider by Malaysia Bioscience Scholar (MBIOS) (was live on Facebook with 1.7 views now on youtube)

L’image contient peut-être : 20 personnes, texte qui dit ’THANKYOU RESEXRCH INSEDER to our scientists, audience and hosts!’
Image courtesy of Apple Chew from Malaysia Bioscience Scholars (MBIOS)

✅Featured panel on online forum by Editage Insights and Cactus communications on the importance of science communication to researchers in China

✅Selected to be one of the student speakers for the upcoming TedXUniAdelaide event (Initially was to be held at 21/11/2020, now rescheduled to 5/3/2021) and it’s officially on the TEDtalk webpage here

Image courtesy of TedXUniAdelaide Facebook Page

✅ Started two businesses aka scientistbakes and bake@licious (while doing a PhD? YES)

✅Two manuscripts in submission for publication.

✅Two international collaborations in research projects

✅ Supervised my very first undergraduate student for a wet lab project

✅Designed a bioinformatics practical for Masters of Bioinformatics students.

✅Graphic design invitation for two R packages! (YES TO MORE HEX STICKERS)

Struggles and Challenges

  1. Transitioning to online teaching

As I have mentioned earlier, one of the struggles of coping with 2020 was the fact that the lab (or the university even) can be shut anytime if there are high number of cases on campus. Definitely not surprising to learn about financial support cuts and reduced staffing. Casual contracts for teaching were halted and we were only given a short period of time to move everything online. Most PhD students I know around me were called for emergency assistance of the online teaching transition, myself included. It is extremely challenging even as this requires beyond the knowledge of our own expertise – when most of the solution requires advanced computing skills and filmography. I do take pride of being part of the emergency teaching support team, though unpaid, to help provide relief to undergraduate/masters by coursework students who are in isolation and extreme stressed. There were a few heart-warming moments where the students wrote thank you emails or zoom called just to express their gratitude for keeping teaching afloat in this challenging times. For us, a simple “thank you” and other gesture of appreciation goes a long way

2. Solo-ing wet lab and bioinformatics

To date I still think this is the craziest thing I have done in my PhD journey so far. I remember starting my time in the lab intensively working on data/ coding-based projects, collaborating with some of my talented colleagues/ collaborators who are much more experienced in wet lab. As we lost some manpower (one could not travel back and was stuck in her home country, while another was discontinued from her current position in the lab), I was left with only one option: to soldier the wet lab aspects of my remaining PhD projects.

I could remember 12-hour days for months, including weekends, and late nights in the lab during 2020. At the end of the day I was so tired when I got back home I just crashed on the floor and slept, then back to the lal the next day. There were moments which I find it is a complete struggle, and sometimes help is almost impossible as everyone is overloaded. It does not help when I realised some of the work done by my previous colleague has no proper documentation which I can back trace, nor figure out if the results were properly backed up. That took a bit of my time. Although I did not manage to complete the milestones I have set for myself by the end of 2020, which I will explain in the following section, I am satisfied with my learning progress and some research output I have not expected of myself – which led to one co-author paper currently in submission.

3. Repetitive strain injury (RSI)

I am no stranger to RSI injury (read my blog here). As I have pushed my limits in terms of wet lab hours, doing technically repetitive yet challenging experiments, my wrist gave away. At the end of the year, I ended up visiting a physiotherapist and to be officially diagnosed with nerve compression issues on my arm and wrist. This condition causes my wrist to be weak, and I have trouble performing tasks that requires fine motor skills, such as flipping a book page. I could not do much thesis writing nor any blogging (which explains my blogging hiatus) either as I could only type continuously for two hours.

However, I am extremely grateful to my supervisory panel, the work health and safety team of The Faculty of Sciences, the Adelaide University Graduate centre, and the university’s disability support for acting quickly in addressing the issues and provide me with the support I need. Being in the same shoes myself, I understand the difficulties trying to work during pandemic times, but they were totally above and beyond in terms of their professionalism and work ethics. There is nothing I can be more grateful of during down times like this, and their help gave me a surge of confidence once I have recovered from my injury, I could jump back onto the horse in no time!

4) Challenges working around people during the pandemic era

It has never been easy working in a team, moreover working with a group of people during a-year-long pandemic. As our lab is quite multinational (we have people from China, England, Malaysia, Australia, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka) everyone reacts quite differently emotionally and mentally towards to the pandemic. I noticed there is a slight complexity of cultural background involved in terms of how people perceive the current pandemic situation, both locally and globally. Some gets more stressed and depressed than others; some are much more sensitive to topics around the pandemic and death rates; some are much more resilient but that does not mean they are completely invincible. I think working as a PhD student during this time takes a lot more than just intelligence and learning ability to keep going. Certain qualities such as empathy, kindness, generosity, appreciation, adaptability, resilience etc is important to keep the team going. No one is going to make it through this challenging time alone, but we can overcome obstacles better together as a team.

I used to apply for leaves whenever I feel things get too stressful, usually a getaway interstate to put my mind off things or colleague-related conflicts. This pandemic took away this option for me, as well as for my colleagues in the lab. Being in the same office for months during pandemic does help us bond more, but simultaneously I do notice there are more frictions between colleagues in the lab, maybe because we have been with each other for a little bit too long. I have learnt that sometimes keeping some personal space from work is important, apart for the mental health and work-life balance. Giving and having space is essential for healthy relationships between colleagues too.

What’s for 2021?

As I am writing this reflection on the first day returning to the lab, I am thinking what should I be looking forward to 2021. There is still a lot of work to be done, before I could compile my work into a thesis for submission. The uncertainty does worry me a little, as the the fifth wave of pandemic hits.

But I remembered one of my favourite quote from my supervisor : ” You can never live today properly, if you keep regretting on the past, and worry about the future.”

And off we go again, to the final showdown of my PhD. 2021, show me what you’ve got!

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