The Graduate School Experimental Plant Sciences (EPS)

Unexpected peer interactions during this Covid-19 crisis

As PhD students, and also like many other researchers, we always have this time pressure hanging ominously above our heads. It forces us to be efficient, make quick and smart decisions and prioritize. Obviously, these are good habits in the world of science, but they force us into making constant trade-offs. This time pressure tends to take away opportunities for doing things that might not seem very useful or vital to our research at first glance. We tend to solely focus on our own research and this is exactly where the Covid-19 crisis turned the tables. Out of the blue, we all had to drop our work and leave our beloved labs, greenhouses and offices. Work slowed down and we had to figure out a way to keep things productive without running from the lab, to a meeting, to a seminar. Although this caused a lot of unease, and sometimes even stress, it also meant that we had more time to dedicate to things which were not directly in the scope of our own research.

For us NIOO PhDs, this extra time meant we could start having weekly meetings, all of us together and the department head, Professor Wim van der Putten. Before the crisis we always had a very hard time organizing meetings which we could all attend. What else can you expect when over seven PhD students are involved? But since we did not have all the other obligations anymore, we easily managed to meet digitally an hour a week on a fixed time and date. The first meetings were mostly intended to keep us updated on the latest developments at NIOO and to keep a line of communication. Besides the more practical updates, Wim also created space and time to allow us to discuss more personal issues. As many of us PhD students are international, and have varied living-situations, it was really nice being able to share issues or problems that arose due to the crisis. We would try to come up with solutions, even if this was not always possible. But just sharing, keeping each other updated and realizing we are not alone with our issues was already warmly welcomed.

As the first hurdles of the crisis were overcome, we kept sticking to our weekly meetings but shifted the content. We were inspired by an article published in the Resource (Wageningen University magazine) discussing the so-called imposter syndrome. (If you’re not familiar with it, we highly recommend reading a bit more about it!). Wim took the lead by discussing his insecurities when he was a young researcher. This created an open and safe discussion, allowing us to identify why, what and where the issues came from and how we are affected by it. For Wim, it was eye-opening to realize that many, if not all, PhDs suffered from this syndrome, and for us it was eye-opening to see that direct peers also struggled to face it.

We realized how insightful the concept of a senior scientist discussing a science-related subject could be. So we arranged more meetings with the other senior scientists of our department, each of them conveying their own expertise or interest. Dr. Koen Verhoeven kicked off by discussing efficient data management techniques and with Dr. Arjen Biere we talked about how to search and process the best literature. Prof. Dr. Jeff Harvey followed up with a discussion on how to write an impactful scientific paper, with the added bonus of him giving a personal pep talk to all the PhD students. As the youngest of the senior scientist, Dr. Ciska Veen gave us career tips for young scientist based on her own personal experiences. For us PhD students it was amazing to have such approachable and personal discussions. For each topic, we all were given the opportunity to ask questions, talk about our worries and insecurities and share our own personal experiences. Besides us having a great time, the senior scientists also really enjoyed interacting with us and sharing their immeasurable wisdom as they often only interact with the PhD students they are directly supervising.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, none of us (both the senior scientists and the PhD students) would have thought of this, let alone have time for it. We can firmly say that although the crisis has had a major negative impact, it has also provided us with unexpected interactions which will benefit us during the rest of our (research) career. And although we’re slowly returning to normal as labs are filling up, borders are opening and we are all starting new experiments, we would love for you to take along our experience and keep it in mind. Or better yet, try this out in your own lab or peer group! You’ll be amazed how much useful and insightful knowledge is hidden in your group. And besides the content, it is really good to spend some non-science time with your colleagues and talk more to colleagues that are not your direct collaborators. You will soon come to realise that unexpected interactions can be more valuable than solely focusing on your own research 😉

Vera Hesen & Morgane Van Antro