A while ago, back when I was still a PhD student and over here in the UK, Brexit dominated the news (and in hindsight that was only moderately upsetting), I shared a typical day as part of the EACR “A Day in the Life of a Cancer Researcher” series of blog posts. Things have changed dramatically since then. The B-word has been replaced by the orders of magnitude scarier Covid-19 (did anyone notice it seems to follow the alphabet? We’ve had Australian fires, Brexit, Covid-19…I dare you to predict the next one) and I’m now a postdoc!
Unfortunately, my boss still refers to me as his “student”. He says it’s kind of like with your children… The same man has also previously compared the PhD journey with finding yourself trapped in a plane that loses engine after engine… I could not have asked for a better PhD supervisor. But that’s for another day.
in times when my usual outlet (swimming) is not available, I’ve turned to writing.
The point is, we’re now in lockdown, which obviously includes all our labs. So all of us cancer researchers can no longer do what we love most – transfer invisible amounts of clear liquids between tubes and machines. Instead we have to improvise, adapt and overcome (if you do not get this reference Google it). I’m probably not the only one here for whom this pandemic has resulted in fluctuating levels of anxiety, to the degree where work is not always possible. So in times when my usual outlet (swimming) is not available, I’ve turned to writing. And I thought a more or less light hearted description of my postdoc life in lockdown might entertain, inspire or at least provide you with some procrastination.
Disclaimer: I live in a small terraced house with my partner and no children. So if you have caring/homeschooling responsibilities and find that accounts of productivity frustrate you – maybe this is not the blog for you.
Monday: General schedule
This is it. My first week as a locked down postdoc begins. I don’t feel great. This is mainly due to the likely cancellation of my wedding that’s planned for July. It will thus join the list of cancelled 2020 life events which includes my PhD exit seminar, my PhD graduation ceremony and my hen do. (and yes, I did spend the previous few days mainly in bed crying). But today I want to be productive. I am very much a morning person. So today I establish my work from home routine:
7:00: get up, make cappuccino, eat bread with jam and cheese. Read news. Note: I am only allowed news 3 times a day. With breakfast, after lunch, and after work, around 5/6pm.
8:00-10:00: read papers. (see Work Activity No 2) Note: I am currently writing a fellowship application for my actual postdoc, which I will start in September. Very excited to be moving to Zurich, Switzerland, to work on adult neurogenesis.
10:00-10:30: Refresh all email inboxes, reply to emails, refresh again. Cheeky excursion to Facebook. And maybe Twitter. But not more than 15 min. Roughly.
10:30-11:30: Databasing. Together with a developer I am currently building a database of our human clonal marks data (see Nicholson et al, 2018), which for me mainly involves cleaning a lot of different excel sheets. It’s tedious. And I regret taking on this task. But the end result will be very useful.
11:30-12:30: Exercise. Usually a run to the river. Or some plank/squats etc in the garden.
Note: As with microscopy (see my previous EACR blog post) I enjoy picking a “song of the day” and listening to that on repeat. Today’s song: “Comeback” by Ella Eyre.
12:30-13:15: Lunch break with my partner who is also working from home. This often includes a walk around the block to the post box.
13:00-14:00: Databasing again. Frequently includes nervous breakdowns which then means I have to calm myself down with anything from Fun Activities.
14:00-16:00: skype/zoom/teams/google hangout/whatsappcall/msn(just kidding) meetings (see Work Activity No 1)
16:00-16:30: coffee break
16:30: until I don’t fancy working any more. Emails, action points from meetings, preparing things for tomorrow
19:00: cook dinner with my partner. Since we have so much time in lockdown we try and cook lots of exciting meals from my backlog of recipes.
20:00: eat exciting food.
Rest of the day: Fun activities.
22:30: sleeping time.
Tuesday: Work Activity No 1: The Online Meeting
Today I follow the usual schedule (see Monday 1) with one important highlight of the day: A skype meeting with my boss and our two collaborators in Oxford. Topic of the conversation: data related to monkeys (stay tuned for an interesting paper) Funny as I try to be I’ve set everyone the task to bring along something related to our primate relatives. I am relatively impressed at the outcome: a bag that says “primate”, a banana, pistachio nuts and a photograph of a pig’s behind. Reviewer 3 would probably ask for revise and resubmit for the latter. Anyhow, here are my thoughts on online meetings so far:
- A 1h timeslot drastically improves efficiency. I swear once we all return to the outside world I will never ever agree on a meeting exceeding 1h. Everything can be said in 1h. It’s the magic number.
- They often turn into a “show and tell”. My current highlights include dog competition prizes, a humungous cat and said picture of a pig’s behind.
- Zoom is superior to Microsoft teams is superior to skype is superior to a WhatsApp call.
- Everyone loves a blurred background.
- See meme.
Do’s & Don’t’s:
- Be on time. Your laptop shows the time. No excuses.
- Familiarise yourself with the platform (zoom, skype, teams) before starting.
- Familiarise yourself with the microphone and camera of your computer/laptop/smartphone/fax machine before starting.
- Check what pages you’ve got open before sharing a screen.
- Wear clothes.
- Be late. The virtual nature of lockdown meetings does not preclude being on time. I hate lateness. Don’t be late.
- Make it obvious you’re actually online shopping.
- Show your family photo album.
Phrases to learn:
- Can you hear me?
- X – we can’t see you, can you click on the “camera” button please?
- Wow what a lovely dog!
Wednesday: Anxiety No 1
I did not sleep last night because I was so anxious about the Covid-19 situation. Therefore I am tired. My heart is racing. I am sad about my cancelled life events, especially the wedding. My boss is luckily very understanding, so at least there is no pressure to perform today. I spend the morning trying to catch up on sleep but it’s impossible. Then, I proceed to reading news on twitter and BBC, which turns into a downward spiral of corona-related negativity. I feel paralysed so after a few more hours of random existence I decide to call it a day and just go back to bed.
Thursday: Food Activity No 1: Grocery shopping
I feel better today. However, we are running out of food. (I mean we aren’t REALLY but you know what I mean). So instead of exercising, I use the 11:00-12:00 slot to go food shopping. It’s really quite lucky that I had passed my driving test 2 weeks before this lockdown. In my head, a friend’s recent analogy resonates: “Going shopping feels like going hunting these days”.
Arriving at the supermarket I make first contact with the new reality of food shopping: a queue lines the entire parking lot. It’s very orderly (one could call it British), with 2m gaps between shoppers. Assistants disinfect every trolley after and before use. Apart from the 1h wait it’s a very pleasant shopping experience with very few people inside the shop and most items in stock. I am able to hunt down almost everything on my list with the exception of:
- Crunchy peanut butter.
- Gluten free breadcrumbs.
- Tonic water.
It feels not too dissimilar from “Darling, I got some mammoth, blackberries and wood but they were out of saber-toothed cats.”
Do’s & Don’t’s:
- Shop once a week.
- Shop alone.
- Play “What will be out of stock”-lotto
- Freak out. Water works just as well as paper.
- Block the aisles.
Phrases to learn:
- Can you keep a 2 m gap please?
- Do you really need that much toilet paper?
- When will tonic water/pasta/crunchy peanut butter/<insert favourite food> be back in stock, please?
Friday: Work Activity No 2: Reading Papers
Today I want to talk about something all of us researchers have: The list of “to read” papers. So why not use your lockdown to actually read them? Or – let’s be real here- at least the abstracts?
I thought it might be interesting to some readers to hear how I read a paper. I look at the letters with my eyes – duh. No, but seriously, I’d love to hear how you do this. Here is my way: I am a very analogue person, which is my fancy way of saying “I love writing on paper”. (as opposed to, say, papyrus lol). I should also say that since I was 12 years old, I have used the same fountain pen for this purpose. It’s a waterman and I have written every single important word with it: exams, contract and hopefully I will one day use it to sign the registry (still can’t believe my wedding is cancelled).
To cut a long story short when I read a paper I actually take notes on paper. I write down the paper title, first and last authors, date published and date read. I usually skip the abstract, as I like the “suspense” of what the findings are going to be. As I read the paper I write down my main take-home points. And also any references that look interesting (and start a few open tabs in my browser for later…). At the end, once I’m done, I might re-read bits that I found particularly fascinating. Then I write a little summary of the paper in 1-3 bullet points. Here’s an example of one I recently read:
Neuronal activity may cause DNA double strand breaks, these may disappear after 24h.
Which admittedly is very similar to the title of the paper, which read: “Physiological Brain Activity Causes DNA Double Strand Breaks in Neurons-Exacerbation by Amyloid-beta”.
But I never claimed my method was perfect.
So there we go. That’s what I do every day from 8:00-10:00.
Phrases to learn:
- The data totally does not support the claims.
- Revise and resubmit.
- How did this get into Nature?
- Where is the single cell RNASeq experiment?
About the author:
Dr Cora Olpe was born and raised in Switzerland but moved to the UK in 2011 to start her undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge. She recently finished her PhD in the lab of Doug Winton at the CRUK Cambridge Institute. Her project focused on intestinal stem cells and how they acquire mutations that can lead to colorectal cancer initiation. She is currently writing up that work in the form of papers. Apart from experimental work Cora is passionate about teaching undergraduates and enjoys giving talks. Outside of the lab she is a keen swimmer, pianist and writer. Three years ago she co-authored a book on brain health and is excited to start a post-doctoral position in that area after the summer.