In the middle of March this year, like so many other businesses and institutions, the FRAME Alternatives Laboratory (FAL) at the University of Nottingham closed after the government announced the coronavirus lockdown. PhD students, technicians and post-docs quickly collected essential items to work from home and left the building, not knowing when they would return.
Initially, the mood amongst staff was good – everyone had plenty of writing to get on with and people caught up on reading scientific papers that they had been too busy to look at. The FAL WhatsApp group helped us all to keep in touch, and we held regular virtual lab meetings. As time passed however, our PhD students in particular began to find it more difficult to find productive work to do. The PhD students in the FAL, like many other practical bench-based scientists, need to be physically based at the lab, carrying out experiments and generating new data. Without these experiments, there will be no PhD. Most postgraduate students have a three or four year scholarship which pays fees, as well as a stipend to live on – these are time limited and all students are required to submit their thesis within four years.
Lockdown has been difficult for almost everyone, but for PhD students, the clock ticking away meant less time to generate the data they needed to produce their thesis. At any given time, there are between six and ten PhD students working in the FAL, and ensuring that they were supported both financially and in terms of their personal wellbeing was a key priority throughout lockdown and beyond.
The FAL students are registered at the University of Nottingham, and have all been granted at least an additional 6 months to complete their studies. Due to the continued support from FRAME, they also have the necessary funds to spend on lab consumables and equipment to allow them to complete their experimental work.
A new normal
The FAL opened again on the 24th August 2020, after five months of closure. The lab needed to be made COVID-secure, with only six people allowed in the lab at any one time, one-way systems in place and strict cleaning rotas for equipment and furniture. Staff are working in two ‘bubbles,’ with one bubble working from 07:30 to 13:30 and the other from 13:30 to 19:30 to allow everyone to get back to experimental work again. This means there are far fewer available hours in the lab, and we have had to learn to work as a team, for example, students may have to ask another lab member to finish off their experiment.
This is our new normal, and we are adapting to make it work as efficiently as possible.
The next generation of scientists will have many challenges in a changing world, and it is unlikely that the current coronavirus pandemic will be the last of such emergencies. Supporting our PhD students now will equip the world with bright, committed and highly trained individuals to help us deal with whatever the future may bring.