This is my first blog in AGES!
How to begin....I think I can't avoid a few words about the pandemic....
I know the pandemic has been hard in different ways for lots of people. Work-wise I've always depended heavily on technology with half my lab based in different institutions and I was already using hybrid teaching before the pandemic so in some ways I was able to adjust perhaps a little smoother than others. On a personal level though I've found the isolation from family and friends extremely challenging.
Those of you who don't know me, I'm Australian with all my family and a large network of life-long friends all still in Australia, while I live and work in the UK. I normally try to make it home to Australia for Christmas every two years. My immediate family live in a rural area - the black summer fires of 2019 began in my home region - making video calls patchy at best so we use skype or Whatsapp as a phone rather than for video calls. So between trips home I don't see my family at all. Christmas of 2020 would have been the 'due' trip home but with borders closed from March 2020 and only just reopening a few weeks ago I've not seen family since Christmas 2018 - that's before the fires.
Now the first thing I want to say is I'm glad the borders were closed - my family were basically business as usual for that time. The flip side of the isolation that puts them at risk of bushfires, also protects them somewhat from the comparatively small COVID outbreaks that escaped the capitals during the pre-vaccine part of the pandemic. With all my family 'at-risk' with additional health challenges I am incredibly grateful that they have made it through and I'm not immediately jumping on the 2 flights and 10 hr train trip to see them at the risk of bringing the virus with me.
But it has been very isolating with comparatively few people around me in a similar exile from their family. Particularly hard has been hearing others complain about not being able to go to Portugal for their summer break or not see their family for a month during our UK lockdowns when they see family every other week. I understand that's hard too in the circumstances and that those people mean no harm, but hearing that kind of thing has made my own isolation that much harder. I share this now (and maybe should have earlier) because if you are a foreigner in your chosen country - you are not alone.
Like everyone, I've tried to make the best of the situation and focused on supporting others when I could - particularly the Christmas of 2020 when many of our international students were also stuck in the UK. I hosted a virtual "Christmas Fam" over the break with video calls a couple times a week, and for much of the online year, shared weird facts or pictures with enviro students and ran occasional virtual pub quizzes. Anything to take all our minds off the otherwise bleak situation. And I have to say the students have been an inspiration - my third years reaching out across the globe to interview scientists for their documentary videos, project students collecting data from local parks and greenspaces and tutees laughing about how they now know there's such thing as a Saturday morning (having gone to bed at a reasonable hour on a Friday night)!
While the past year has seen a big increase in workloads with in person and online switching on and off depending on the circumstances, there has also been some big progress. The lab has grown with Sandra who joined us in September from Columbia on an Envision PhD studentship and Alex who joined us mid October as a 6-month technician on a Tree Production Innovation Fund grant and we are finalising two other PhD studentships as we speak! Also the first of 3 PhD submissions has happened with Darwin submitted at the end of Feb. More formal celebrations to come!
We have also secured several grants in the past 6 months. The first is a Royal Society International Exchange grant with Erin Sparks (University of Delaware) to establish our work on support-supply trade-offs in Maize. The next was a Tree Production Innovation Fund 6-month pilot study to screen rooting ability of UK broadleaf tree species and most recently we have just discovered we were successful in securing a 3 year KTP grant in partnership with Whetman Plants International. More on all of these in due course!
So it's been a challenging few years, but change is coming.
I do hope things don't go back to 'normal' - there have been major advancements as a result of the pandemic. For example streaming lessons live (I use a laptop pointed at the front of the room with a Teams meeting and an earpod in one ear) has meant students not able to make it in person for any reason can still interact - and I've not heard a single sniffle of cough since I started teaching this way! (No more freshers flu for me!). Similarly the flexibility works really well for me (actually flexibility should work for everyone because they have the choice not to work at home too!), saving me time, improving productivity, using less fuel to commute and has improving my overall health (time I don't spend commuting I spend getting exercise). But I am very much looking forward to travel resuming - for family and for science! Nothing beats a good pub meal for sharing new ideas!
So I shall end my update blog here, but there will be more soon.