Lab’s shut, Laptops open?

By Chloé Statia

After almost two months of quarantine, we are slowly but surely finding our route out of the intelligent lockdown. But how has it been experienced by our VU master students? Although some of the measures in the Netherlands may have been relaxed, the VU policy is that we will remain off campus, and most likely out of the lab until the end of June. Therefore, we need to continue on with what became the new normal just a bit longer, which means working from home. This often includes attending Zoom meetings in your pajamas, keeping up with friends and family online, or obsessively practicing TikTok dances. So, what are our classmates’ tips for keeping sane and filling in time while also staying productive?

Tinka Clement, Biomolecular Sciences

Tinka is doing her internship at the experimental Physics of Living Systems department at the VU. Her fundamental research focuses on a protein that affects the wrapping of nucleosomes, which she untangles by physically pulling the DNA with optical tweezers. Currently, Tinka is keeping busy with data analysis and writing from home, but she’s also planning to take an online course alongside her internship. 

Tinka’s kitchen work set-up

While some days data analysis goes automatically, there are other days where the distractions get the better of her. “I’d say my Netflix has never been as well used until now!”. What has also been a challenge is setting boundaries for the time that should be dedicated to your internship and what should be used for relaxing. Which was easier in pre-pandemic times because then she could just stay longer at her internship and finish her to-do list. Now, if she wasn’t too productive during the day she’ll make up for it in the evening or on the weekend.

What worked for Tinka?

She has daily contact with her supervisor and together they have established a weekly action list that keeps her on track. 

This really forces you to stay productive because they know what you should’ve done on that day. If you haven’t done it, your supervisor will know exactly how many Netflix series you’ve been bingeing.

Tinka also explained that the continuation of regular department meetings via Zoom really helped her motivation and keeps her involved. “This doesn’t make you feel sad and stuck at home behind your laptop, even though you actually really are”, she mused. Realistically, she’d love to return in September, but meanwhile, take time off during the summer for some long-anticipated vacation.

Liz ten Bergen, Biomedical Sciences

Liz was well underway with her internship at the Haukeland hospital in Bergen (Norway). She was analyzing samples from patients that underwent different psoriasis treatments, to stratify their outcomes  based on their dendritic cells. Unfortunately, only three weeks into her internship, the VU international office requested that she (and most students abroad) fly back home to the Netherlands urgently.

When I received the email that I had to leave the country immediately, it was quite a shock. I was being cautious of course but that’s when I realized the coronavirus situation was getting serious.

Liz was extremely impressed by the VU international office’s quick updates and overall guidance throughout the process. Especially, that they provided a phone number for students that might have personal problems at home to guide them through these difficult times.

Liz’s workspace

Since her return, Liz has been baking up a frenzy and even delivered a homemade birthday cake to her friend. She’s also been visiting her grandmother from a distance.

We visit our grandma every now and then, but we bring our own cup of tea. She sits inside and we sit out on the porch and we have our little tea party.

There is a positive side to the new arrangement, Liz is currently working on an extended literature component for her internship report which could get published in a journal. Still, she hopes to quickly return to Bergen to finish her internship abroad and further explore Norway, since she would ideally like to start with her second master’s degree in International Public Health this coming September.

What helps Liz stay productive at the moment?

She sets an alarm, even though she doesn’t necessarily need to, gets out of her pajamas and even does her make-up. Something that she also wants to try out is; taking a walk around the block for some fresh air after waking up and then get started with writing.

Vinicius Borges, Neurosciences

When the pandemic hit, Vinicius was busy with his final internship at the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience. There, he aims to predict rodent choices and behaviors based on the underlying neuronal activity. Unfortunately, just before the lockdown took effect some rodents got an unrelated infection and the fate of his internship now rests in the hands of the animal caretakers and finding alternatives.

There’s another aspect that has him worried: his residence permit. Vinicius is an international student, so he’s unsure how the study delays might affect his visa and tuition fees. All in all, he had a couple of difficult days processing the entire lockdown ordeal. To clear his head a bit, Vinicius enjoys keeping up with friends and family online, reading, and playing his guitar. Additionally, one of his favorite pastimes is expressing his creativity on his blog.

Vinicius’ elaborate home office

If there’s someone that has already had a taste of working from home, it’s Vinicius. Before his master at the VU, he had taught courses at high schools about student productivity back in Brazil and wrote a book about this topic. During the writing process, Vinicius worked at home for over a year, so he’d already established what works well for him. He blocks all distractions on his phone and computer, except between 6-7 PM. He thereby separates the working part of the computer and the social part, since those units of focused time are very useful for maintaining your productivity.

He has even recorded a “Working from home” podcast, where he discusses his best tips for working at home and the psychology behind why these work. 

What other advice does Vinicius have for classmates writing from home?  

“Don’t forget about your workspace setup: vary the method of input devices of your computer. For example, don’t only continuously use a mouse and keyboard. If you can, switch it up using a (drawing) tablet. You use different muscles and tendons for each device. This way, you also prevent the risk of developing repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

Like all of us, Tinka, Liz and Vinicius are trying to make the best of their current situations given all the uncertainty. Despite their various circumstances going into lockdown, and overcoming different obstacles, they’ve each established what works for their own quarantine routine and made decisive choices about how to proceed. It might still take a while before we can all get back to full-time work in the lab to continue our internships or coursework on campus. However, in the meantime, hopefully, these student’s stories, their workspaces and advice can inspire you to find and achieve your best working-from-home self.

Stay safe and stay sane!

On this VU page, you can stay updated on the latest announcements and FAQs about the COVID-19 situation.

About the writer

Chloé is a second year Biomedical Sciences student at VU, specializing in Immunology & Science Communication. She is continuously mesmerized by the world of science, and loves communicating this to a broader audience. Her interests vary from bio-art, rare genetic diseases & parasitology to neurodegenerative disorders.

Update: Unfortunately, Vinicius his internship got cancelled. But on the bright side, he’s writing a literature review instead about different methods of calcium imaging, comparing the surgeries, implementation and analysis pipelines of them.