Starting my PhD in Madrid in September 2019 was daunting considering I was moving to another country where English was not the first language. I had studied Spanish in school but that was it, I was definitely out of practice but the thought of experiencing and living in another country made it more and more appealing as time went on. It took approximately 2 months to settle into life in Madrid, as I was still getting used to speaking the language daily, finding accommodation and just the general ‘culture shock’. After 3 months in Madrid it was time to leave again, just as I had settled. Next on the list, Aachen, Germany. Aachen was much smaller than Madrid and was easier to navigate as it was considered a ‘University City’ with a large student population. Instead of an hour commute each way to IMDEA in Madrid, I was now getting from my Aachen apartment to ITA (placement company) in about 15 minutes. It was much easier to settle into life in the city of Aachen, and despite not having a word of German, the people were friendly and open and almost everyone was fluent in English. I was planning to start German lessons in March/April.
During my time in Madrid just before I left for Germany, I found a company in the Netherlands that were manufacturing machines capable of producing filaments for 3D Printing (including composite filaments). 3devo was immediately on my radar as a company that I needed to visit to tell them about my project and what I wanted to use their machine for. As the company was only a short train journey from Aachen I went to visit them in February of 2020 for training. I am still in contact with them now. Soon after I returned from the 3-day visit, I started to hear more and more about this new, potentially deadly virus that originated in China called ‘Coronavirus’. As I was in Germany and it was in China it didn’t bother me, it had not reached Europe yet and therefore it didn’t worry me in the slightest.
Fast forward 2 weeks. ‘First Coronavirus Case in Europe Reported in Germany’ was a headline on newspapers and news websites everywhere. All of a sudden it was a big deal, the public began to panic, I went to the pharmacy to get hand sanitiser and they were sold out, we then started to hear stories of toilet paper being sold out in Australia and the U.S. in apocalypse-like fashion. All of a sudden, the ski resorts in Italy became a hotspot for the virus, people from all over Europe were skiing in February so it just started to migrate to all corners of the continent. After the first week of March I was told to go home to Ireland for a week and then fly to Madrid to do some experiments as flights from Germany to Spain were being cancelled to prevent the spread. I went home and within 3 days, Europe began to close down. 1 week turned into 1 month, which ultimately turned into 10 months. That being said I was getting time at home that I didn’t expect to get 6 months prior to Covid-19.
I consider myself to be optimistic and positive, I like to make the most of a bad situation in any way possible. An article in an Irish newspaper caught my attention in April/May. It talked about a company based in Ireland that was entering the biomedical 3D printing sector. As my PhD is based on the 3D printing of materials for orthopaedic applications I became increasingly interested and the fact that the company was based in my hometown of Galway made it all the better. I started to work with 3DTechnology and its sister company Medscan3D in June of 2020 until January 2021. While I was there I spoke with their mechanical engineer about designing a custom-built printer capable of printing advanced composite parts. We designed the printer and it is currently being built. I have now returned to Madrid to continue with the experimental phase of my PhD.
Without a doubt, moving around Europe is difficult, it strains relationships, friendships, and creates an adverse environment. It becomes even more difficult whenever the timeline in a particular country is only a few months. I remember reading online that on average it takes a person about 3 months to settle into a new country. 3 months is exactly the amount of time I spent in Spain and Germany the first time I went to those countries. I am extremely grateful and excited that I will now be spending the next year and hopefully the rest of my PhD in Spain. I view the adversity that I have faced during the first half of my PhD with a positive outlook. It was extremely difficult but my development as a person and my approach to adversity and complexity has definitely benefitted. The networking part of the PhD has been the biggest advantage so far in terms of the connections and friendships made in the different countries around the continent.
In terms of advice for not only ESRs in the BioImplant project but for anyone moving countries on a regular basis, flexibility is what will keep everything moving somewhat smoothly. Although I would strongly advise staying in a country for longer than 3 months if it is at all possible. Have a rough plan of accommodation before arriving and start looking at apartments you may be interested in and make arrangements for viewings but don’t tie yourself down to one accommodation, of all times, now it is extremely important to be comfortable in your own apartment so if it takes longer to find a place you are really happy with then take the time you need. If you can find any clubs or social gatherings for expats it is also vital to join them so you can create that social network outside of work. All in all, this PhD has been quite challenging but very rewarding and I am looking forward to the life lessons I will have learned from it at the end.