A Belgian PhD Student’s London Lockdown

by Elisa Heyrman

Over three months ago, I left the lab and my home became my new work environment. In our shared house, our rooms became offices and my “colleagues” in the building have different jobs than mine. Zoom and Microsoft teams are a new way to meet fellow PhD students and staff from the lab. Without commuting, these platforms allow us to meet instantly and have journal clubs or brainstorm about future events. We have weekly team meetings and are discussing our future experiment set ups or papers related to our research.

Elisa Heyrman
The first Zoom meeting with our research group.

Preparing for what was coming

Elisa Heyrman
Learning R and python with the ‘Data Science for Immunologists’ book from Niclas Thomas and Laura Pallett.

My family and friends in Belgium started isolating one week earlier than we did the UK, so I knew what was coming. I did not set up extensive experiments and started freezing my cells. I wrote a document with information on where I interrupted my experiments and how to pick up on these experiments when returning to the lab. My focus changed from lab work to writing the introduction for my 18-month progression report and writing my first review. Writing requires focus and I needed variation in my agenda to keep up the productivity. To do so, I alternated blocks of writing with webinars, online courses and learning how to code R and Python. To improve my writing, I completed the Nature Masterclasses on scientific writing and publishing and followed courses on peer review. The further we moved through lockdown, the more I have realised that this period has been very fruitful.

New opportunities

Another exciting aspect of lockdown is working from home creates new opportunities. It has never been easier to set up an event. The biggest opportunity for me so far was teaching my first workshop. I explained to my fellow PhD Students at the institute how we can use the Inkscape software to draw scientific figures. This workshop had a “draw along” format and I am convinced that the virtual format was more educational than having the same session in a seminar room. Not being able to come together to share our knowledge drives our creativity and problem solving. This creativity goes alongside work, from cooking dishes with what is left in the fridge to turning cans of paint into weights for a workout.

Elisa Heyrman
Sketching up Vaccinia virus during the draw along Inkscape workshop for Barts Cancer Institute PhD Forum.

Acknowledging challenges and mental health:

Despite lockdown being a period full of opportunities and creativity, it came with challenges for me as well. Working from home made me reflect about distinct aspects in life. I began confronting myself with what I could do better or should change. I quickly noticed my friends and colleagues were facing similar issues and realised we are all having ups and downs. It is important to share those feelings and acknowledge that we are going through this together. By being part of the Barts Cancer Institute PhD Forum, I am trying to create awareness of these mental health related consequences of the lockdown for the institute’s PhDs students. As a PhD Forum, we have sent out a survey to all PhD Students and are working out ideas for improved mental health support and supervision tracking.

Elisa Heyrman
My local park, Burgess Park, is looking at its best during these sunny spring days.

To keep up my mindset I need routine. I get up early and start the day with either running or cycling, to boost my mood and get enough movement for each day. I break each morning into 3 blocks of work with small breaks. Just before having lunch I escape to the garden for a virtual workout together with fellow Adidas Runners around the world. The afternoon is usually also composed of 2 or 3 blocks of work. After work I call my family and cook a healthy, tasty meal. A highlight of one of my lunch breaks a few weeks ago was going for a walk and discovering edible plants at my local park. Since then, I have kept on discovering new fruit trees and herbs in my area. Overall, I am trying to focus on the positive aspects of each day and keep in mind that every day is a day closer towards seeing my family, working in the lab and seeing friends again.

Returning back to the lab:

On 29 May, we gradually returned back to the lab for those not able to do their research from home with a short period of future funding as priority. We are allowed in the lab 4 hours a day during an indicated time slot in the morning, afternoon or evening. Besides restrictions on our time in the lab and social distancing, we might face challenges related to the available equipment. Some of our devices are now at Public Health England for testing corona samples and other devices need maintenance because of a long period of non-usage. However, the institute and lab managers are working on detailed plans and I am sure we will adapt to our new routine quickly.

My recommended resources for getting most out of the isolation period as a scientist:


Elisa HeyrmanAbout the author:

Hello, my name is Elisa Heyrman and I am a PhD student. I grew up in Belgium but in 2019 I swapped my life in Ghent for a new adventure in London. I joined Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary University of London and now am a 2nd year PhD researcher in Prof. Yaohe Wang’s group. Together with the team I am trying to optimise Vaccinia virus for oncolytic virotherapy of therapy resistant lung cancer. In my free time I love being active outdoors and exploring cosy places in London.