Studying in the age of the coronavirus – A few examples from nanoscience students and the SNI PhD School

We have all had vastly different experiences over the past few weeks and months. Some people may have found that they are more efficient and productive when working from home. Others may have been contending with major worries, struggled to find the peace and quiet they need at home, or have even fallen sick themselves. We asked some students from the nanoscience degree program and the SNI PhD School about their recent experiences, the problems they have faced and what they have learned during this time.

Elaine Schneider, Julian Köchlin, Nicolas Brunner, Patrick Weber, Sarah Müller and Timon Baltisberger have given feedback from the nanoscience program. Doctoral students Alexina Ollier, Mehdi Heydari, Paolo Oliva, Stefano Di Leone and Thomas Mortelmans have also shared their experiences of the past few weeks.

Patrick Weber (right) was able to complete his internship at the start-up Anjarium Biosciences, founded by Joël de Beer (left), with almost no restrictions. (Image: P. Weber)

An internship with no significant obstacles
Patrick began a six-month internship at Anjarium Biosciences back in February, and was able to complete it with no major restrictions. He really enjoyed his time with the biomedicine start-up, which was founded by nanoscience alumnus Joël de Beer, and can definitely see himself working in a similar environment after his doctorate. He looks back on these months fondly, despite not being able to see his friends or family. The time he would normally have spent seeing friends and attending cultural events has instead been used for self-reflection, among other things. “In today’s hectic world, we rarely have the opportunity to relax, let our thoughts drift and consider our place in society and the world as a whole,” he comments.

Project work in Luxembourg
Sarah Müller has also found positive aspects to the last few months – she has had more time to herself and other people seem more relaxed. She started her project work on marine phytoplankton at the University of Luxembourg in the middle of February. She experienced a great deal of uncertainty at the start of the coronavirus crisis – it was unclear whether she would be able to finish her work as planned on lipids as biomarkers for physiological stress. In the end, she was able to continue her lab experiments until Luxembourg went into lockdown in the middle of March. After that, she continued working from home – first in Luxembourg, then in Basel. Sarah has also missed her partner, friends, parents and siblings, and simply being able to meet them for coffee. However, she hopes that the past weeks have taught her to be a little calmer.

Online events have advantages too
Over the last few weeks, numerous online lectures have been scheduled for the early semesters of the bachelor’s program. Elaine, Timon and Nicolas actually found this to be quite good, as it allowed them to manage their time as they wished. “The advantage of video and audio recordings is that I can replay anything that isn’t clear and work through the lecture at my own pace,” adds Nicolas. “However, minimal contact with colleagues and students from later semesters has made it difficult to gauge how much I have learned and progressed,” says Elaine. More generally, students have missed having contact with other students and their tutors and the opportunity to learn and practice together.

Changing habits
It hasn’t always been easy to get used to learning at home, ignoring the many potential distractions and forcing yourself to take time off from studying. “It’s great to have total flexibility when organizing your time, but this also makes it difficult to separate work and leisure,” says Julian.

Elaine plays for a volleyball team, and has missed the way that sport offsets the other areas of her life. Others have found this to be the perfect opportunity to try new hobbies. Sarah has started practicing yoga and Nicolas has spent his evenings “cooking lots of new dishes and totally ignoring the tasty takeaway services around the Department of Physics.”

Exhausting, yet inspiring
The students have also had to endure the uncertainty of the last few weeks. It was initially unclear whether written examinations would take place, which block courses would still be going ahead and, for example, whether the small conference on the “Smalltalk” block courses would be able to happen. A good solution was found for “Smalltalk” and a couple of other block courses; unfortunately, other projects and forms of work had to be postponed or cancelled altogether.

However, some students say that these experiences may have ultimately helped them to become more disciplined and confident, and also more laid-back. “It has definitely shown us that there are technical solutions for many problems,” says Timon, referring not only to the university podcasts, but also the many conference calls to maintain social contacts.

The last weeks and months have also confronted the SNI PhD School students with a new situation, although all respondents said that they had been coping well.

Many weeks alone
Alexina lives in France and spent around six weeks at home in almost constant solitude – the rules on leaving the house were much stricter in France than in Switzerland or Germany. “Every day was the same and I basically spent the whole time working – I live alone and didn’t have much else to do,” she says. She used the time to process her data. After four weeks, she started her first experiments, using her microscope at home at first then returning to the lab. She probably hasn’t lost all that much time – luckily, the experiments she started went well – but she missed the ease of talking to her colleagues and supervisor. “It’s so much simpler to pop into the office and ask them a question,” says Alexina. “On the other hand, this has helped me to become more independent.”

Stefano is delighted to be back in the lab after many weeks working from home. (Image: S. Di Leone, Department of Chemistry, University of Basel)

Stefano has had a similar experience. Although he lives in Germany (where the rules on going out were not as strict) and had more time to relax, he still felt like a prisoner. He also began by analyzing his data and then wrote a paper. Webinars and online lectures also helped him to make good use of his time. Nevertheless, he was delighted to be allowed back into the lab after eight weeks away. “This time has taught me just how important my social life is. Sometimes we don’t appreciate that enough. On the other hand, I was really impressed with how online courses and meetings were organized.”

Harder to separate work and leisure
Some doctoral students also mentioned the difficulties they experienced in taking breaks when working from home and developing a new routine when there is no physical separation between work and leisure. Paolo was one of the people who struggled with this aspect. He had already completed all of his experiments, so he wrote his doctoral dissertation and prepared for his virtual dissertation defense. Everything went really well and he learned to plan his days better, take more time for himself and remember that work shouldn’t always take priority.

Home working is valuable
Thomas used the first weeks of the coronavirus shutdown to conduct theoretical work such as simulations and to optimize the design of his microfluidics system. He was allowed back into the lab part-time from mid-April because he is currently working on a platform to demonstrate Covid-19 immunity, and these sorts of projects are currently being prioritized. He works in two different cantons at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), which meant he had to examine the different operational concepts and draw up detailed plans of when he wanted to work and where. He believes home working is valuable and would like to continue with this when he is not running experiments. Like everyone surveyed, however, Thomas says that regular contact with colleagues and friends is essential.

Loss of ease
Mehdi has missed this contact too, although he has been more productive than usual over the last few weeks. He tried to get extra testing time with the PSI’s highly coveted synchrotron light source and to progress with his experiments. While there have been very few restrictions on his scientific work, he has struggled to relax and enjoy his free time. He wasn’t afraid of the virus on his own account, but his concern for the people around him and his inability to help have made him feel depressed. Most of all, he has missed that feeling of ease and having nothing on his mind.

These are just a few, randomly selected examples of how some of the young people in the SNI network have been feeling over the last few weeks. They have managed well at this difficult time and can see positive sides to this extraordinary situation. We wish the respondents – and the rest of you – all the best and hope that you continue to remain healthy and to cope as best as possible in these challenging times.