Eindhoven University of Technology: A research year with no juicy highlights

The ‘heroes of the month’ in June are TU/e’s doctoral candidates. For longer than expected they had to go without their beloved labs, and for the most part access is still limited, yet despite all the setbacks they are managing to steer their research studies towards the finishing line.

“Inconvenient”, those “couple of weeks” spent cooped up at home in the spring of 2020. Eventually there was nothing else for it but to start catching up on writing or tackling that literature study; doctoral candidates found themselves being nudged in the right direction by the pandemic. Now, like countless others, they have fifteen months’ experience of living and working with corona – and are bravely soldiering on despite restrictions, sometimes with added personal challenges in fact, towards their academic destinations on the horizon.

Gilles Timmermans completed his doctoral studies at the Department of Chemical Engineering & Chemistry in early April. A festive occasion – but circumstance dictated there would be no party.

It was with some humor that Timmermans and his colleagues approached the first lockdown in March of last year, news reports of a virus in distant China still only at the back of their minds. “I remember a former colleague now at DSM had said that people there were being sent home to work. ‘What an overreaction,’ we said to each other.” Ten days later the first lockdown arrived and the university followed suit.

“Is there anything else I should take with me? Maybe leave it all here? Oh well, we’ll be back in a week or two.” Timmermans recalls that above all he and his colleagues found the idea of having to spend a few weeks cooped up at home “inconvenient”, though he did regret missing out on the last few experiments he needed to do. Then again, “initially I was optimistic; I was in the last year of my research, and there was some writing I needed to catch up on and now I had a chance to do that. Then that was done, and I suddenly thought, ‘Okay, now what?’”

The bottom line was that working from home did not suit him, despite all the well-meaning online contact it involved. It was “really tough. Working and eating in the same spot, spending entire days at the same table, being home on my own; I found it difficult. I missed having contact with my colleagues, being able to have a quick chat with someone when you get stuck while working on a PowerPoint presentation or writing a paper, lunching together or going to the departmental bar on a Thursday afternoon.”

Finding and sticking to some kind of rhythm takes time too, says Timmermans. “Sometimes I would completely forget to eat lunch or take a coffee break, or if I did stop for a moment I’d find myself doing nothing for three hours. There was no clear separation between work and my private life.” Slowly he came to accept that some working-from-home days just aren’t as productive as others, he says now, “but I did find it hard. Even now I might occasionally think at 4 p.m., ‘Oh well, that’s it for today’ – but that critical voice at the back of my mind is still there.”

Gilles Timmermans. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
So naturally he was happy that in early May he and his colleagues were given access to the labs again, albeit in shifts and with very irregular working hours. “Everything was well organized and corona proof. And more than anything, it was really nice to have a coffee again with a friend from the office.” Careful planning and use was made of all allotted lab time, in part because of the shift working. “If something goes wrong, you can’t have a think and carry on two hours later.” But above all, “We were able to do things again.”

In his case, developing ‘smart’ windows with the capacity – thanks to a fluorescent dye – to make greenhouse horticulture energy neutral. Unfortunately, however, corona restrictions forced him to abandon some of his original research plans. Like the intended collaboration with colleagues in Wageningen “who were going to help us test our materials on real plants. And we had contact with a partner in China who was due to help us scale up the operation, and which would have meant my going over there for a while. That simply wasn’t possible. I’ve accepted it but it is a shame. It would have made our research more purposeful, more concrete.”

Timmermans is leaving academia behind him, is busy looking for a job in industry, “but the range of vacancies is a little disappointing.” And while online job interviews might be easier, “I have the impression it is harder to give a good account of yourself. And I miss the ‘small talk’ topics, like chatting about a shared hobby that you might have.”

These days what he mainly misses is the naturally sociabIe way of life pre-corona, “dropping round at people’s houses, having a drink, playing a board game.” But even this pales in comparison with having to go without a party after his defense. “It’s already been a little while since I was there, but I don’t feel I had a proper farewell. There has been no real closure. I hope that one day I can still have that party, together with a couple of colleagues who also gained their doctorates recently. And it won’t be a get-together with thirty people, it’ll be a real party with a crowd of a hundred.”

Working from home, living in a small bubble; not by her own choosing but Federica Centorrino was already a veteran when corona came waltzing into our lives in the spring of 2020. Nine months earlier the Italian doctoral candidate had received a diagnosis of breast cancer.

One month separated her last chemotherapy and her subsequent operation, in March 2020 in Milan. Who could have predicted that in those very weeks her homeland would be turned upside down, that Italy would become the epicenter of the corona crisis emerging in Europe? That upon arriving at Milan’s airport she would be called by her hotel to be told their doors were closing at that very minute? “Luckily, via Airbnb I found a place where I could stay, together with my parents who had come over from Sicily. And after my surgery we were able to spend two weeks with friends of my parents in their large house outside Milan, that was good. Once I had recovered, I traveled with my parents back to Sicily.”

No doubt about it, it had been a difficult decision to leave her life and work for a while to have surgery in Italy, “but I needed that familiar home environment, I needed my family.” Her boyfriend stayed behind in the Netherlands. “I said to him, ‘We’ll see each other in a couple of weeks’ time’ – but thanks to corona that turned into two months.” In May this researcher was able to return to the Netherlands, “I think I was on the very first flight from Rome to Amsterdam. The airports were deserted, everyone was wearing a face mask, people were afraid – I was too.”

But she was, at least, back in Eindhoven, where for the past four years she has been doing research within the Chemical Biology group on the interactions between proteins, on how they are modulated by molecules, and how these mechanisms can be used to treat diseases. In July, with just under a year’s delay, she hopes to defend her thesis, and she doesn’t hide her feeling of relief. “I am incredibly happy to have managed this, in spite of everything.”

The past two years have been a challenge, that’s for sure. Due to corona, as so many people have found. But also due to her disease, which nine months earlier had already taken her life in a new direction. A long process, with good and less good days. “I didn’t feel ill the whole time.”

Having to stop her research completely was fortunately not something she ever had to do, and even during the periods spent at home she was able to get on with useful tasks – like processing data and writing. “But I also had a considerable amount of practical work to catch up on. So I was happy when at the end of May, when I was feeling sufficiently recovered, I could get back to the lab, which had just re-opened. I might not have been up to a hundred percent yet in terms of my energy, but at least I could do something again. And I felt a bit normal again, not like a patient. Finally.” This is partly why she never ‘went public’ with her disease. “I didn’t want people to be giving me an extra wide berth, just as a precaution.”

Federica Centorrino. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Nonetheless she was a little anxious about going back to the lab and being in close proximity to others outside her bubble – albeit it at 1 meter 50. “But everything was well organized and fortunately people are generally very careful. And if not, it’s up to me to be extra alert.”

By her own account, her supervisors gave her plenty of scope to assess anew each day what was do-able and to build up her work slowly; the limits she most needed to learn to accept were actually her own. “I have learned to set small, more achievable goals. I really had to say to myself, ‘All I can do is my best, with the time and energy I have today. Whatever I achieve is what I achieve – and whatever doesn’t work out is okay too.’”

Not only the support of her family and friends, but also the focus on her research helped her through the more difficult periods, without a doubt. “At times like that, it is good to have something you can pour your energy into. Of course there were moments when I thought, How am I going to manage? When I felt the whole situation was unfair. But so many people are in worse situations.”

Above all, one day life is bound to return to normal, continues the Italian. She is looking forward to “all the little things you normally do with your friends, going out, having a meal in a restaurant, travelling. They aren’t the most important things in the world by any means but I miss them, and the waiting is getting harder and harder.”

Centorrino looks back on a “ridiculous” period, one in which in some respects she may well have lost a year, “but I have won so much as well. When you go through a difficult period, you have to find ways of dealing with it. With acceptance, with patience and with resilience. Now, all that I’ve learned through having this disease I am trying to apply in the pandemic.” She laughs, “Yes, maybe you could say it’s given me a head start.”

Marle Vleugels does research in the Macro-Organic Chemistry group. Although the corona rules are still being followed to the letter, the atmosphere in the labs has become more comfortable, she feels.

On a Friday in March 2020 she had just had her first-year interview with supervisors Bert Meijer and Anja Palmans, and been given the hoped-for ‘green light’ to continue her doctoral research. “Then on the Monday the university had to shut its doors to us.”

For her research Vleugels is working on supramolecular polymers, more specifically on their adaptation and use in medical applications, such as the treatment of cancer. She agreed with her supervisors that she would use the lockdown to complete a literature study and write a paper based on her graduation project. “That had been hanging over me for a year; being forced to do it worked in my favor. Though to be honest, what you really want to do is get on with the results of your experiments.”

“There was something special about it,” she recalls of the first weeks in lockdown, working from home at an improvised desk in the bedroom, meeting up online with colleagues to have a drink on a Friday afternoon. “While it is happening you are too immersed in it to reflect, and you don’t realize how long it is going to last. But at some point it loses its sheen. Really, it was only after the summer, when things suddenly took a turn for the worse that I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we could still be here next year.’”

She counts herself lucky to have been able to return to the lab in May of last year, “though the practicalities took some working out, especially in the beginning. But you soon get better at judging how long things take. Bert and Anja impressed on us: Don’t worry about needing an extension, we’ll sort that out.’” In the meantime, despite all the rules and arrangements, the atmosphere, says Vleugels, has relaxed a little, “It has become a nicer, more enjoyable place to work again.”

Nonetheless, she misses the spontaneous one-on-ones, dropping by the office of one of her supervisors, for example. “You have to be more proactive about looking for help, planning meetings.” The fortnightly informal lunchtime meetings recently resumed in person; the monthly group meetings, at which colleagues bring each other up to speed on their work, are still online. This form continues to be challenging, Vleugels finds. “You can’t see, for example, how people are reacting when you are showing slides on the screen; can’t see whether they are interested in them, or maybe they are looking critical or have a question.”

Marle Vleugels. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Alongside her work as a researcher, Vleugels is also actively involved in both the Departmental Council and the PhD-PDEng Council at TU/e. Finding her role and scope was made that little bit harder with everything being online, she explains, especially on the PhD-PDEng Council. Still, she and her colleagues managed to step up when needed or useful. Like when the university first started communicating about corona and many doctoral candidates felt a little neglected, as a group “midway between students and employees. We were missing a heading ‘PhD candidates’ in the newsletters.”

And also by contributing ideas (as a PhD-PDEng Council member and on behalf of her group) to the debate about working in shifts, just before the labs were due to re-open in the spring of 2020. The original plan was to have everyone vacate Helix between 13.00 and 13.30 every day so that the whole building could be disinfected between shifts. “That’s fine if everyone is working half-day shifts, but we have a corridor here where people often work a full day. Which makes it annoying when as a group you’re asked to leave the building for half an hour.” And she adds, “Lots of good decisions are taken, but sometimes the best decision gets overlooked.”

She is happy that together with the latest steps to further open up the campus to students, the rules on PhD conferral ceremonies have also been relaxed a little. “I get that you have to draw the line somewhere, but until recently an audience of only one was allowed to be physically present, while the halls are so big. Depending on the size of the space now, fortunately, a few more people can attend.”

Vleugels hopes that in other areas too we’ll see a gradual increase in what is possible. Because while she says she’s not had a problem continuing her research work, “you do miss the juicy bits; the international exchanges, conferences, the social contacts there.”

“But,” as she goes on to say, “I’m not yet very optimistic. I don’t see any conferences and other large-scale things happening this year, certainly not until everyone has been vaccinated.” Similarly, in our private lives there’s nothing for it but to accept circumstances and make do, in anticipation of better times. “Normally, you’d put it on the group app: ‘I’m going to the park, who wants to come?’ Now you have to be very selective in what you do, with whom and how. There’s no spontaneity.”

Selective also describes her news intake these days – whether the topic is the effectiveness of vaccines or, say, the much-discussed risk of trombosis, “some of it is just scare-mongering. I have a newspaper subscription, but actually I skip over everything about corona.” She laughs. “This has its advantages. There’s not much other content at the moment so I’m done pretty quickly.”

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