A Hertford Chemist in Lockdown
Professor Claire Vallance, Tutorial Fellow in Chemistry
We’re now several weeks into lockdown, and the “before times” are starting to feel like something of a distant memory. A number of us have been asked to write about our own experiences of lockdown, so here goes…
If I’m honest, I have to confess that my initial response, at least in private, was a complete meltdown. At the time, social distancing and relentless hand-washing to the tune of God Save The Queen, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or if you were feeling particularly unclean, Bohemian Rhapsody, were now all a familiar part of daily life and fairly easily coped with. However, over the course of only two days at work I had to shut down my lab on less than 24 hours’ notice, cope with the distress of my research group members, several of whose projects had been completely derailed, and deal with cancellations of a whole raft of meetings, workshops, conferences and other events I’d spent months helping to organise. At home, the prospect of many weeks of lockdown with my partner and his two grow-up children, trying to work with no space or even desk of my own was more than a little daunting. Coupled with the cancellation of sabbatical travel and every activity I had planned for the summer, and with a ban on pretty much all of my leisure pursuits, it all felt like more than I could bear as we listened to the prime minister’s announcement on that first Monday evening. I admit that I may not have covered myself in glory when I arrived home from the lab that evening for the last time in a while.
Fortunately, I’m generally fairly good at making the best of a bad situation, and by the next day I was counting my blessings. Firstly, many people have found themselves in much, much more difficult situations than mine, and my heart goes out to them. Secondly, being on sabbatical this year means I have dodged (or at least delayed) the bullet of having to take all my teaching online – with apologies to my colleagues, this is a fact that I still find endlessly cheering. Thirdly, I realised that maybe I would now finally have an opportunity to write all those papers and grant proposals I’ve been struggling to find time for, and to get stuck into a backlog of data analysis. Perhaps I could even brush up my skills with an online course or two, or follow some of the many inspired suggestions popping up all over the internet and the Twittersphere. After the initial adjustment, the possibilities seemed almost endless.
With plans in place, the first challenge to overcome was the problem of the non-existent desk. Thankfully this occurred to me before it occurred to everyone else in England, allowing me to beat the queue at Argos. Of course, it is not actually possible to buy a desk from Argos, but it is possible to buy several cardboard boxes filled with 382 different parts that can be assembled over the course of four or five hours into something resembling such an object. I inevitably forgot that I would also need a chair, but have resurrected a long-forgotten Swiss ball to sit on, which at least satisfies my natural inability to sit still for any length of time.
So, equipped with desk and seating, have I been spending a productive few weeks writing papers, zipping through my ‘to do’ list, and generally advancing the course of science? Well, not exactly. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans”, is an ancient Yiddish saying that feels particularly apt just at the moment. Under normal circumstances, the Department of Chemistry and Hertford College comprise my “day job”, but I am also the current President of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Faraday Division and co-founder of Oxford HighQ, an 18-month old spin-out company. It turns out that four institutions in crisis can generate a near-infinity of meetings, and it took me less than a day to collect the complete set of Skype, Teams, and Zoom. I also quickly discovered that bouncing on (or unintentionally falling off) a Swiss ball can be an effective way of lightening the mood in an online meeting – I fear that nobody will take me seriously ever again after all of this is over.
There is definitely more to life than meetings though. I am continuing to supervise my research group via Microsoft Teams – making sure all my students are coping and staying on track with their work, rescuing final-year research projects that have been halted by the pandemic by finding new activities that don’t require lab work (quite a challenge), and reassuring D.Phil. students who have been sent home that this is a setback and an adjustment rather than a catastrophe. On the company side, I and others have put huge efforts into investigating how we might be able to help, whether by 3D printing of parts for ventilators and face shields, or by contributing to the development of RNA-based or antibody-based tests for COVID-19. At the same time we have had to work out how to keep the company running, protect the jobs of our employees, and work towards a fundraising round within the next few months – wish us luck with that! Closer to home, I’ve been helping out a couple of friends and relatives who have been unlucky enough to catch the virus, as well as putting my drawing skills to the test in producing rainbows and bumble bees to stick up in the windows of our house for the neighbourhood children to find as part of a ‘treasure hunt’ on their daily walks.
Trying to be productive at the moment is challenging, and I have decided to be kind to myself by making sure I keep doing things I enjoy. As a keen cyclist and triathlete, by now I would usually be training hard for summer events, doing some early-season races, and getting Team Hertford geared up for the Town and Gown. It feels very strange to have nothing specific to aim for, and I miss all my usual group training sessions enormously. However, I’m very thankful to be allowed out for exercise and to be able to start the day with a bike or a run (both excellent excuses for a second breakfast), taking full advantage of the delightfully empty roads. This weekend we held the inaugural alternative Oxford Easter lockdown parkrun at our house, comprising 172.5 laps of the lawn. However, my biggest piece of luck in all of this is that we have recently moved into a house with a lake at the end of the back garden, and can do water-based activities without using up our ‘one a day’. As well as swimming, I’ve been amusing the neighbours by learning to paddle a second-hand racing kayak I managed to get hold of just before the lockdown started. It is very much built for speed over stability, and threatens to dump me in the water with the slightest provocation or gust of wind. Finally, I’ve reluctantly agreed to a lockdown challenge organised by a friend, which involves trying to pass the Navy SEALS fitness test at the end of the lockdown. I have the swim in the bag, the run will probably defeat me, but I’m getting pretty good at press-ups!
I hope that everyone in the Hertford community is keeping well and staying sane through all of the challenges that are facing us, and I very much look forward to seeing you all again soon.