Maria scientist
Maria Sharif

During this period of uncertainty, we spoke to some of our researchers in a series of blog posts to find out what it's like to be a scientist and working from home.

Hello everyone! My name is Maria Sharif and I am a PhD student in a lab of Professor Ben Willcox in the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at the University of Birmingham. I am currently in my 1st year and my project focuses on exploiting the immunobiology of gamma delta (gd) T cells for development of cancer immunotherapy.

As somebody whose PhD is 100% lab-based, the situation with COVID-19 pandemic has definitely had an impact on my work. With the University being shut down and only operating with very restricted access, a lot of laboratory research had to be ceased, including mine. On 19 March, I actually had an experiment going on when we were told that we are shutting down in the afternoon of the following day, so unfortunately, I had to stop everything I was doing and start closing down the lab with my supervisor and my team (and I am sure I am not the only one who has been affected this way). The University is now in the restricted operations mode from 20 March until at least 1 June, but the date of reopening will depend on the situation with COVID-19 so it could actually be later than June.

I’m almost two weeks into quarantine now, and it has been going pretty well for me so far. In fact, there are several things that I am planning to do whilst working from home as I have at least three months until the university reopens. The activities and tasks below are something I am doing, but I believe a lot of other scientists can relate to those as well:

In my case, this is my thesis, whereas for other people, this could also be grant applications, reviews, publications, and more. Quarantine is a perfect opportunity to catch up on writing various sections of my thesis. I’ve been writing my methods as I go along, and I’ve already made a start on my introduction section. I obviously have a lot to do (including new results to write about), so I will spend a lot of my lockdown time on this.

Again, this is something a lot of people do when working in research, and now, given all the time we have, we can do so much more. In terms of my PhD, reading up around my research area will help me build on the background knowledge of my project, and will subsequently help me write my thesis. This will also give me more ideas about how I could progress my project further once I return to the lab.

It is very important to keep in touch with the people you work with, not only for professional purposes, but also just in general. Personally, this gives me reassurance that I am on the right track with everything I am doing, and it also lets us all stick to our usual routines, such as having lab meetings on Mondays, and having one-to-one meetings with our supervisor on Fridays.

This is not just applicable to me, but also to other postgraduate research students. Alongside thesis writing, we have to write a report of our PhD progress and future plans. In my case, this report is 25-35 pages long, and it is basically a 'mini-thesis' consisting of introduction, methods, results, discussion and future plans. The deadline for submission is at some point in June, which is perfect as that’s when the three-month University lockdown supposedly ends.

My supervisor, myself and various other people have been involved in content management of the Cancer Immunology MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) with the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre and the University. Given the fact that we are all working from home, everybody can spend more time on finalising the content for this course.

Last but not least, many people are involved in something outside of their work, which could be sports, art, blogging, and so on. Just because we have to stay at home, this does not mean we have to quit all of those things we love doing. For me personally, this includes spending some quality time with my family, practicing karate, writing my Research Diaries blog on Instagram, drawing, reading books, watching movies, I could go on (I’m a rather adventurous human)! Doing all of these things helps me rest my mind from lab life and work, and it keeps me motivated and happy in general.