Perspectives for the Final Year of a PhD: Emily Morra (ESR 6)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two and a half years since the start of the BioImplant program. Between moving to Belfast in July 2019, getting into my research, moving to Galway to carry out my industry secondment, and doing all this through a global pandemic, the time has flown by. And now, somehow, I find myself facing down the final stretch of my PhD. The end goal has never been clearer and by the end of this year I hope to have completed my degree. Given the timing, I thought this blog post would be a good opportunity to share some of the things I will keep in mind in the months ahead, with the hope that they could also be useful to other ESRs in the same position.

6 ways to stay on track and get ahead in the final stretch to the finish (and whatever comes next):

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Benefits from sitting in-between chairs: Felix Benn (ESR 5)

Two years ago, the BioImplant ITN project started and with that a new chapter in my life. The program’s structure foresees for every PhD candidate a home university as well as a home industry partner. Each home basis lays within the European Union but lays in different countries. While it was first of all extremely exciting to have the possibility to approach a novel and quickly developing research topic (in my case the additive manufacturing of biodegradable metal Magnesium for orthopaedic implant application) from both sides, the industry and academic side, there were also some concerns about how to combine both perspectives and do not end up in-between chairs. The final goal of the program for every ESR (Early Stage Researcher) is to successfully submit her/his (in our case of women to men 9:3 we could simply say her) thesis. While industry is naturally relatively straight-forward and progress driven (“the last experiment did not work, let’s try the next one”), academic research means to deeper analyise all findings, reflect them within the current global research community and finally publish it. So, each chair is dedicated to one home basis, on the one side industry and on the other side academia. At the end of the project, I have to sit in the academic one, but could I profit from both along the way?

Queen’s University Belfast campus
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Spain, Germany, Ireland and COVID-19: Cillian Thompson (ESR 12)

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. 

Madrid, Spain
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Finding Positivity in 2020 and Learning to Slow Down: Lison Rocher (ESR 1)

“Stay positive, but test negative”

I would lie if I said that this pandemic crisis and all the uncertainties going with it did not cause me anxiety and a feeling of being socially isolated and separated from loved ones. But from another perspective, this unprecedented situation pushed me to relativize, be resilient and try to see things differently.

Restructuring a working environment

In March, universities in the UK had to close for a few months and lab access was not allowed. Despite the virus still being around us, this is no longer the case. After the end of the first lockdown, I was impressed to see how the management staff of my university worked hard on a sanitary protocol to re-open the school as soon as possible and under safe conditions. Since the beginning of July, PhD students can gain access to the lab and do experimental work via a booking app system. This allows us to get back into a routine, make progress on our project and probably improve our organisation skills. As part of the BioImplant ITN, Bioimplant meetings and trainings were maintained and organized remotely. I could even sign up for German class again!

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Exactly one year ago I was leaving my own country, my family, my friends and the life I used to have to start a completely new adventure, to start a new chapter of my life. I have always wanted to do a PhD and applying for a position as an ESR in the BioImplant ITN seemed the natural continuation of my studies. Indeed, I would have the possibility to live in two different countries, to learn a new language and to improve my English, to work both in an academic field and in a company and finally to carry on a study for which I hopefully already had the basis thanks to my Master´s thesis.

I was telling myself: “What more could you ask for?”

Well, if all the aforementioned things seem on paper the description of the perfect PhD, as we would say in Italian, “tra il dire e il fare c´è di mezzo il mare” that translates as “there is a huge difference between saying and doing something”. This is precisely what I found out in the exact moment I landed in Germany and in the exact moment I started working at my Institute. I suddenly realised that learning a new language is not straightforward, I experienced the frustration of not understanding what people were saying and the feeling of not being able to learn my job. Sometimes I thought that the day when I could finally understand would have never come. Also, the continuous travelling is not as pleasant as people may think, or at least, not so easy. Indeed, as soon as you are able to build your own routine and you think you have found your own equilibrium, you have to move, leaving everything behind, to start all over again in another place. Another cold shower was people asking “What is YOUR plan?” “What do YOU want to do in your project” “What do YOU want to achieve in three years from now?”. All these questions made me abruptly understand that from that day on I was THE responsible person. From that day I was not a student anymore but the one that had to make her own decisions. I experienced it all of a sudden and I felt completely overwhelmed. I was figuring a huge mountain in front of me, to be climbed completely unprepared and without having had any previous training.

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Finding a New Normal: A PhD Student in a Covid Crisis: Clara Hynes (ESR 2)

It is just over six weeks since Northern Ireland began implementing lockdown measures in an effort to minimise the spread of Covid-19. Late to the party compared to the rest of Europe, it felt like we had a lot more time to prepare for what was coming, and yet finding a routine at home took much longer than I expected.

The way we live our lives changed dramatically in the space of a weekend. It was a bit surreal to think that only a few short days previously, we were still planning the trip to Madrid for training with the whole BioImplant consortium. The Madrid trip, like everything else, moved to the virtual world, and marked the first milestone in my new life in lockdown.

Abandoning the Plan, and Setting New Goals

In the first two weeks, everything felt a little disorganised and crazy. In the lead up to the lockdown and closure of the Universities in the UK, I felt like I was emailing my supervisors with a revised project plan on a daily basis. I knew on some level; I was never going to act on any of my plans, but it felt more productive than reading every news article about the rising Covid-19 numbers.

I made every effort to be proactive in the transition to at home working. There were weekly supervisory meetings, and the small group of Queen’s based ESRs, who were now spread across four different countries, arranged virtual coffee breaks to keep in touch. As a group we managed to keep in contact, and keep a level-head, but that was about the extent of it.

In reality, the first weeks were spent feeling around in the dark, repeating the same conversations over and over, reading the latest news updates, and staring blankly at the computer screen trying to come up with a plan for when this was all over, while ignoring the fact that we really didn’t know how or when this would end.
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Turning culture shock into a positive experience as a non-EU BioImplant ESR: Syed Wahaaj Ali Rizvi (ESR 11)

Moving from familiar to an unfamiliar environment, leaving one’s own country; family and friends, is not the easy decision but curiosity to learn, bright future, a better quality of life, and desire to explore the world supersedes those fears. After moving to a new culture, in the beginning, we feel anxiety, low moods, isolation due to differences in values, climate, food, languages etc. but positive-minded individuals end up learning new and worthy life experiences. I think most of the Non-EU ESRs particularly from the east, are exposed to this phenomenon of culture shock. I would not delve much into what culture shock is because already myriad literature exists about it. Instead I would like to share my few (by the way there are more) experiences about what I found distinctive, avant-garde and unforgettable in IMDEA materials and Spain. I belong to the south Asian country, Pakistan and spent my last two years in an East Asian country, South Korea. Joining IMDEA materials as BioImplant ITN Ph.D. fellow has been a unique experience and since IMDEA is in Spain. . . I was also exposed to a new culture as well.
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From 17th-19th of January 2020 we had the chance to present our work at the conference Bioengineering in Ireland. The event took place in the very nice Mount Wolseley Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort in Carlow. We travelled there from Galway, Belfast and Aachen.

After the registration and lunch on Friday afternoon the first talks took place. In the first session four PhD-students presented their work in order to win the “Engineers Ireland Biomedical Research Medal”. The prize goes to a person making a significant contribution to the field of biomedical engineering research. Maybe in the future one of us will have the honour to present our work at this point. The keynote lecture was delivered by Prof Liam Grover (Birmingham), who talked about his experience in bringing a medical device to the market. He presented the development of a fluid gel, used as an eye drop which consists of a protein (Decorin) and has a natural wound-healing effect. Then the sessions of postdocs and PhD-students presenting their work in the fields of Biofabrication, Biomechanics and Cardiovascular, started. The first conference day ended with a delicious dinner and a funny table quiz.
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Becoming a BioImplant ESR: Let the adventure begin: Martina Bernini (ESR 7)

Among the biggest events I went through last year, there was the beginning of my job as a BioImplant ESR at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG).

My journey to NUIG begun in January 2019, a few months before my Master graduation, when I applied to this position and went through the interview processes. A few weeks later, I was offered the role and in August I gathered up the courage and made the big leap of moving to Galway.

Moving to a new country has its own challenges, such as finding accommodation and making friends, however, I was fortunate to meet two other PhD students in the BioImplant project that started with me, who have been a reference point since the very first days.

Despite all the challenges, the warm welcome received from supervisors and colleagues set us up for a good start; and now that I have been working here for 6 months I can really state that what I love most about NUIG university is the international environment and the coexistence of ancient tradition with the need of innovation, as testified by the presence of the quadrangle building (below left), now used primarily for administrative purposes, and the Alice Perry Engineering Building (below right), where my office is placed.
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BioImplant ITN ESR Induction Event – Reflections: Flavia Caronna (ESR 10)

The first BioImplant training event was held at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) on the 26th -27th September 2019. All Early Stage Researchers attended the Event, nine of them came to Galway travelling from Ireland, UK, Spain and Germany, while three joined via Vscene. After a warm welcome given by Peter McHugh (NUIG), head of the School of Engineering, and a brief project introduction by Ted Vaughan (NUIG), BioImplant ITN Project Coordinator, all ESRs introduced themselves and their project. Together with BioImplant ITN partners, some lecturers and researchers from NUIG Biomedical Engineering department joined the meeting, actively contributing to the technical and scientific discussions. Later, Ted described in detail BioImplant project objectives, structure and research programme, explaining the role of an Early Stage Researcher. From the Training Committee, Eimear Dolan (NUIG) and the Training Coordinator William Ronan (NUIG) gave an overview of the training programme, highlighting the role and importance of workshops, network and external events, progress reviews and supervisors. Continue reading