Mobility in Times of Paralysis

Sabrina De Boer (ESR9)

The Marie Skłodovska Curie fellowship for early-stage researchers awarded by the European Commission is a unique opportunity to work on a PhD project in a strong scientific community. But there is more to it: Research stays (mobility) allow the fellows to serve as promotors for international research networks, which are an important tool for specialized groups to keep up the pace of modern science.1

For us as fellows, mobility during our PhD projects means even more: It means leaving everything but some oversized suitcases behind. Say goodbye to our lab mates and friends we shared many laughs and tears with. Decide which samples we will hide in our luggage, fearing leakage and customs, and which ones we instead send by post, fearing that the package will be lost forever.

Europe is not the same as it was one year ago when I arrived in Santiago de Compostela (Spain) to start my PhD. Facing the situation of Covid-19, the member states of the European Union had no time or resources to act in collaboration. Instead, states had very diverging opinions on how to manage the crisis. A global pandemic was decided to be tackled nationally, with all its implications.

For many international early-stage researchers, this meant not only to be out of the lab for months but also to be forced to fit into foreign societies, which had to redefine themselves daily. The opportunity to perform research stays during our PhD suddenly became an outdated and odd idea regarding the new situation. Nevertheless, we were encouraged to schedule our previsioned research stays, sticking to the original plan as close as possible.

For me, it was now time for me to move to Switzerland to perform a 4-month research stay at the FHNW in Basel. Here, I was going to study the efficiency of my previously prepared magnetic biocatalysts to degrade several antibiotics. Directly afterwards, I would move to my second research stay at RWTH Aachen (Germany). The procedure to find an accommodation, get all the paperwork done while trying to end all experiments on time is always a little improvised. But now, even more, things had to be considered when leaving for a secondment. The entry requirements of European countries kept changing daily, and Switzerland is not even a member of the EU! I knew that I had to stay in quarantine in my new home during the first ten days after my arrival, without being able to go to the grocery store. Fortunately, I had already found a flat, and even more important, kind people who could provide me food in these first days. However, I kept checking the swiss regulations regularly. Few days before my departure, I discovered this small sentence: “People from “Countries of Risk” may not enter Switzerland.” Some distressed minutes began for me since I was convinced that Spain falls in that category (In Germany, it does). Luckily, in Switzerland, Spain is classified as a “Country with elevated Risk of Contagion” since it is part of the Schengen Area. So, I was allowed to enter. The last weekend in Spain, I passed packing, both my suitcases as well as my stomach. The abundance of food in Galicia is impossible to be reached by any other region in the world. The farewell was numbed by facemasks and distance requirements, but I knew that in one year, I will be back. A direct, underprized, and underbooked flight brought me to my new destination. A flight where many thoughts came to my mind, memories, dreams, and fears. Memories of people that made my year in Santiago de Compostela exceptional and who taught me a lot. Dreams of how I will be able to go on in my project at the new research group. And fears about possibly missing documents, failure, and rejection. The good thing about planes is that they can not go backwards.

Actually, nobody of us can move backwards. We must face the world as it is. But we can try our best to understand it. Doing that, we are able to change it instead of fearing it. I am very grateful that even in this difficult situation the whole world is facing, I can start a new chapter of my thesis in a different country. Because I am convinced that only united and interconnected we can solve challenges that affect us globally and strive for new ways to ensure water resources will also play its role to assure human health in the long term.

1] Adams, J. The rise of research networks. Nature 490, 335-336(2012).
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