Dec 20, 2020 | Atlanta, GA
The Covid-19 pandemic hit hard on everybody, and PhD students were not spared either. I was completing my first year as an OSE PhD student when, in March, we had to transition to online classes, which also meant stay-at-home students for us who were not working in labs at Georgia Tech. Fortunately, I had roommates which I got along well with, which made this burden more bearable.
I spent the first month sequestered in my room, trying to make sense of this new reality and sturdily following my two online courses: Biological Oceanography and Physical Hydrology. Professors made their best to have us captivated by strongly encouraging participation, which honestly was what kept me on my chair. I was completing the assignments, studying for the exams, keeping up with my research meeting regularly with my research group and my advisor. I was basically winging this Covid thing that everybody was complaining about. Right? But day after day my moral kept declining and waking up in the morning became laborious. I started feeling depressed, sad, even angry at times. Maybe I was like all the others after all…
I was opening my eyes to the first sun rays with the feeling of not having slept at all. Something was missing. Adapting to a new reality means that all the facets of your life have to adapt too. Not just what brings the bread on the table, so to speak, or what makes your advisor happy. I had to figure out what used to make me a complete human being before the pandemic. What is defining me? I used to go climbing about 3 times a week at the CRC, I was participating to some ORGT activities like sea kayaking or hiking, I was going out with friends on Friday or Saturday night at the Rocky Mountain Pizza, I had countless coffee breaks with colleagues at the department, I was playing guitar some evenings, I was listening to music. Trying to focus on my PhD only had me forgetting to socialize, be active, and even listen to music somehow. I could say there were three “spheres” outside of the work that I had to work on: Learn, Live, Love.
What gets me going is having stimulating hobbies, often non-science related, such as learning languages, a music instrument, or just reading a book. Culture is such an important part of our daily lives, even more for scientists I’d say who aren’t exactly bathing in it… unless we make an effort. Things I learned by spending so much time at home was obviously making bread, which eventually translated to tremendously improving my cooking skills when I discovered the Chef Ottolenghi. I also committed myself to weekly online guitar classes which I have wanted to do for years now. Some songs I learned included All the things you are, Autumn Leaves and Quiet Night. I’m proud to say I can now play jazz on the guitar, something I’ve wished for, for years.
I take it as experimenting. Doing things you’re a little afraid of or simply being spontaneous. I started by going for exploratory walks in Atlanta, without specific itinerary, wandering about in parks, gazing at the colorful flowers, listening to birds singing, petting cats. I went rock climbing in Tennessee, overnight backpacking in North Carolina, and fly fishing in North Georgia. All safe activities where contact with nature really boosted my energy. I also experimented with new workouts: online sport routine I found on YouTube (I found it easier to train with people cheering you up!). Some of my favorites are Chloe Ting for an intense burning workout of all sort and Kukuwa African Dance Workout for laughing, working out and having so much fun at the same time. At the end of the summer, I moved back home in Canada, where I stayed with my aunt during the Fall semester, who lives in a charming countryside filled with marvelous valleys, mountains and vineyards. I was lent a bike which really gave me freedom, access to nature with amazing encounters: I saw two deer, a red fox, several rabbit traces and even wild turkeys!
An old friend of mine called me one night and we had the usual ending conversation about how it was great to finally have news after so long and how we should call more often. I’m sure you know what I mean. But we actually called every single night that week, and then every week for a while, and this just filled my evenings with laughter and emotions. I also spent some time at the Piedmont Park dog park to play with dogs and had several Netflix Parties with friends. Talking to love ones helped me cope with loneliness and kept me sane. Call your family, call your friends, call your lovers. Ask them how they’re doing.
Covid has taught me that humans are social beings: we need laugh and love. It has also taught me to take care of myself, which I did through music, sport, calling friends, etc. As one of my favorite Montreal-based writers once said:
Life is so complex and loving each other so simple. – Kim Thúy
PhD Graduate Student, OSE