One of Ireland’s first cases of coronavirus occurred in Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI). The pandemic then led to the abrupt closure of campus and – for the most part – the closure of research labs.
This impacted PhD students in particular – both the closure and the reaction of College and academic funding bodies.
Lianne Shanley, a first-year PhD student whose research lies at the intersection between engineering medicine and immunology, was fairly optimistic about the post-pandemic future: “I’m not particularly bogged down in getting worried about funding down the line. We’ll deal with the funding issues at the time if we get to it.”
Despite being in the data collection phase of her PhD she used her lockdown time outside of the lab very efficiently.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been major impact”, she says. “Of course I would prefer three months gathering data than sitting at home writing but it has allowed me to get really familiar with the literature and make a solid plan – maybe that aspect will compensate for the time lost.”
When I asked her how the college dealt with the crisis, she was equally as positive saying: “I feel they did as much as they could. To be honest, they’ve been good at communicating with the postgrads and putting a plan in place.”
In contrast to this, other PhD students have had to alter their studies significantly. One such student, Jamie Sugrue, was researching the blood of women who were infected by hepatitis C during blood transfusions in the 1970’s.
Pre-lockdown he had just 27 of the required 60 blood samples and could not get the rest when lockdown was instigated as many were in high-risk categories.
“We had a whole bunch more planned for the week of lockdown, but obviously we had to cancel those”, Sugrue says. Even when lockdown was largely lifted he says that he didn’t “think it would be proper to ask someone from Kerry or mayo to travel to Dublin. It’s too much of a high-risk situation”. Further qualms arose as a result of perishable kits which had to be repurposed or given away.
Many of the students were allowed back into the labs in the TBSI fairly promptly, for example, since the lockdown. The research labs use social distancing measures and limit the number of people allowed into each room. Over the summer, researchers could book two or three slots in the lab a week.
So far so good – but is this enough?
“They are good enough for the minute”, Shanley says, “because most of the time you spend in the lab is in the normal workday but because you plan so well people are being more productive than they would be in a normal day”.
Shanley had also signed up to be a paid demonstrator for the undergraduate labs. Due to the unfortunate timing of the pandemic, these were cancelled. However, she was financially compensated by the college.
Hauke Weiss, a first-year student whose PhD was based on a compound called itaconate, which as it turns out has potential anti-viral properties. Weiss was asked to come back to research earlier to investigate these properties.
As a result, he says: “We started back on the second of May. My initial project that I was hired to do here has changed, so it is not clear if I go back to my original project once this is resolved, or if it changed to the viral project. My original project I haven’t done anything since March!”
There remains some confusion if it is possible to change PhD project and to retain funding. Weiss says that the “working conditions in Trinity slow us down immensely: the rules of what you can and cannot do is very strict. There is a number on the doors of how many people can be in the room and you have to organise shift work. The whole process of doing research is way slower”.
“My friends in Europe had more freedom to carry out work despite having more infections”, he adds. Though frustrated his work was suffering, he did acknowledge that College was in a tough spot.
Alexander Hooftman, a final-year PhD student also working on the itaconate project says: “When COVID hit I was three years into my four-year PhD. I had the bulk of my work done. The break came at a good time because it gave me the opportunity to write up a paper. Being asked to work on the COVID stuff was quite good because it was a break from my project.”
He adds that “a professor in the department was applying for extensions for final year students” – a positive for the students, despite Hooftman saying he possibly wouldn’t need it.
Hooftman isn’t on a specific grant either and so he is not reliant on specific amounts or deadlines and as a result he probably can get a funded extension: “All of the money that goes into the lab is essentially put into a pool and I get funded out of that. I can play it by ear and there should be money for me to do another six months if needs be.”
Like Weiss, Hooftman felt College could have communicated with students better.
“I think the communication from both the College and TBSI have been really, really poor throughout the whole thing”, he says.
One email sent from a college official said that TBSI would not reopen until protocols were in place, and that those protocols could take some time to design. To make matters worse, this email was not even sent to PhD students. “That was actually only sent to the staff so PhD students like myself didn’t receive the email which is not great because PhD students make up half of the building. We as PhD students were kept in the dark even more than other people.”
This lack of clear-cut communication led to significant stress on some PhD students. Hooftman said that “it’s hard enough to be at home not doing anything without any kind of information about what’s going to happen at one time, because it sounds like it’s going to be indefinite everyone’s going to be at home till God knows when”.
“It would have been so helpful to have clear advice from people, but it just didn’t happen. From my experience in Trinity the number-one factor in my stress levels is how the college conveys its messages in a series of conflicting emails followed by apologies of accidentally sent emails with little clarification.“
Finally, like Weiss, Hooftman was critical of the implementation of the protocols in the TBSI. He cited confusions over the new rules as there seems to be two conflicting sets of rules as lockdown eases which has given rise to confusion. “Even when info came about reopening we have all these rules in place. The 30 per cent and 70 per cent and then the numbers on the doors and they’re all slightly contradictory because which ones do you actually abide by – the percentages we’re meant to be having in the lab or the sign on the door?”
Trinity’s Dean of Research Linda Doyle was not available for comment on these complaints.
However, Stephan Cunningham a second-year PhD student’s opinion differed to that of some of his colleagues.
“We were always kept in the loop on these things”, he says. Cunningham’s time in lockdown was spent very productively too. After 18 months, a PhD student must do a conformational thesis to ensure their research is on track. This happened to coincide almost exactly with lockdown.
He did, however, encounter some difficulties on his return. “For us to do this we need stocks of animals to be bred up and there to be ample numbers available for everyone to use so that’s going to be one of the main factors at the moment waiting for the mice to bred up”, he tells me.
“It’s a strange stage, we’re waiting for the mice to get old enough. We don’t know how much of an impact this will have.” However, Cunningham said his funding body, the Irish Research Council sent out a message saying they will provide costed extensions on a case by case basis. “They’re being quite lenient with your time being extended and your pay being extended”, he adds.
Aaron Douglas, a third-year student, had a similar problem with waiting for mice to come of age. He spent most of his time “catching up on bits and pieces”: “You’re trying to get back up and running and get all the samples you need so the next couple of weeks is going to be the hard part.”
Douglas was living by himself during lockdown as his house mates lived around Ireland and acknowledged that isolation did affect him. However, his mentor professor Lydia Lynch was there for him throughout, emailing him every few days to check in. Another difficult effect the virus had was that he could no longer give talks to disadvantaged school children about his work in order to democratise science and make them realise their potentials.
The effects of the virus on PhD students were wide ranging and often surprising. Some were good – such as giving time for students to study and to manage their time better. However, others – such as bad communication and having to wait for mice to grow up – were less welcome. Trinity’s PhD students have shown, it seems, how far a good work ethic can take you.