Life with lockdown at Technical Sciences
Working and studying has been different in just as many ways as there are employees and students, and together, each in their own way, they are keeping the wheels of Tech running. Separately. Meet some of them here.
Denmark and the rest of the world have more or less closed down, and for AU staff, the lockdown period can provide many challenges and opportunities. Many have had to move their working life into their homes, where there are no colleagues or study groups, but perhaps toddlers or loneliness to tackle. Others are experiencing frustration or concern because planned activities cannot be carried out on the research vessel or in the labs. There are also creative solutions and helping hands to support and perhaps find cracks to let in a little light.
Overall, the working day has been many different things for just as many employees and students. Some of them have allowed us to look over their shoulders.
Like a ghost town
Even though most of the students and employees have been sent home, there’s still life in some of the buildings around Aarhus University, where, for example, Allan Madsen from Facility Management is responsible for maintenance and operation of the buildings. He is part of a nine-man team that has split the buildings between them, so that they can all work their way from the bottom to the top of each building every single day.
It's strange walking around the corridors and in the buildings that are normally teeming with people. Now it’s just quiet - even the Chemistry Cafeteria is quiet. It's a bit like walking around in a ghost town, he says with a twinkle in his eye.
But even though times are strange, it’s also a very good opportunity to get some of the big jobs done that under normal conditions might cause a nuisance for many users of the buildings. For example, Allan Madsen describes how they’re in the process of installing LED lights in the lecture theatres, and how several other major projects are in full swing that would normally prove to be quite disturbing for employees and students alike.
Allan Madsen adds that the buildings are in good shape and that everything is fine. Both he and the many facilities will be ready when the rest of us can one again return to our normal working lives.
Lu Cao is one of the Chinese PhD students associated with the research centre QGG, which is based at Campus Foulum. She and approximately 20 other Chinese students live in the town of Foulum, which is close to campus. Lu Cao and the other Chinese students started paying attention to the dangers posed by the coronavirus when it became clear that things were happening fast in China – that is, a few months before the lockdown in Denmark.
When things were at their worst in China, the Chinese students participated actively at a distance to help their friends and families in China – and at the same time they made sure to stay abreast with the latest developments so they could share their knowledge with other Chinese students living in Denmark. Lu Cao tells that their Danish colleagues were very encouraging, and that she and many other Chinese students were already at that time sharing information about the coronavirus and relevant precautionary measures that should be taken.
As the virus spread beyond China's borders, the Chinese students took their own precautions and, for example, helped two students returning from a Christmas holiday in China, uphold two weeks of self-chosen quarantine. Lu Cao remembers that it seemed a little bit extreme at the time, but they all agreed that what was going on in China was serious, and that it was necessary to take drastic measures to eliminate the possibility of letting the virus spread.
She goes on to say that now that the coronavirus is in Denmark, being in lockdown is almost making her go a little bit stir crazy, and she misses her everyday life - she even misses the long queue at lunchtime in the cafeteria. But she knows it’s important to try and stay focused on something positive. Her research group has introduced an online coffee break every Friday via Zoom or Discord, and she also tries to go for a walk in the sunshine while still observing corona safety precautions.
Celebration speech put on hold
Professor Lars Juhl Munkholm from the department of Agro Ecology felt first hand what it’s like to be a virtual supervisor at Johannes Lund Jensen’s PhD defence on Friday 27 March.
“We didn’t have any technical problems, and both the PhD and assessment committee were very well prepared, so academically and technically, things couldn’t have been better.”
However, this slightly different way of conducting a defence has both advantages and disadvantages, says Lars Juhl Munkholm: "It can be difficult to read people in the same way when you’re online. On the other hand, I think it may just take the top off the PhD student’s nerves - if that’s an issue for them. When it’s online, they don’t have a large group of colleagues, family and friends that they feel they have to impress."
Lars Juhl Munkholm misses some things at the moment:
"It’s a little bit of an anti-climax not to be able to celebrate the defence in the way in which we usually do when one of our PhD students finishes their project. We managed to get a present for Johannes, but we’ll have to wait until this is all over and we can all be together again before we can give him a proper celebratory speech."
Lars Juhl Munkholm’s best advice to supervisors who are soon to be in charge a defence: “Remember to you test your connections and be prepared for things to be slightly different, and you’ll be alright."
Down to Earth
For the agricultural technician Jens Bonderup Kjeldsen, it’s not hard to keep a distance to his colleagues when he’s at work. He’s got all of Foulumgaard’s 70 acres all to himself and his staff of 11.
After a couple of weeks of distancing themselves and doing as much as possible from home, on Monday they got started on the more hands-on tasks of ploughing, fertilising and sowing crops. It's time to plant barley, broad beans, oats and spring wheat.
"We have our morning meetings on the phone. Once we’ve done that, it’s not difficult to keep to ourselves, especially when we’re out on the tractor or doing manual work such as preparing the fields for sowing. Every now and then we need to get something from the office building, but we make sure we don’t go in at the same time. By the way, it smells of sanitizer everywhere,” says Jens Bonderup Kjeldsen, who’s the manager of Foulumgaard.
The team is used to using Skype for meetings with colleagues and researchers from other research institutions. And even though most research activities have more or less been put on hold, he still needs to maintain some contact with the researchers at the Department of Agroecology, to make sure the fields are ready for the researchers when things return to normal.
“I can do that from home, all I need is my laptop. I don’t have any children, so there’s no one to disturb me. And of course we’re mindful of our colleagues who are home-schooling their kids right now, so at the moment there are only 9 or 10 of us in the field,” he says.
Like seamen in a cage
For marine biologist, Captain Torben Vang, the lockdown period is an unexpected, and slightly frustrating, break in a busy calendar. Under normal conditions, this would be peak season for the research vessel Aurora, with a bulging order book every single day. But all expeditions have been cancelled now because of actions by the authorities to combat the coronavirus.
Torben Vang explains that the cancelled expeditions can’t simply be pushed to later in the year, because they must be conducted at specific times of the year.
So, even though a ship is in many ways isolated at sea, as the captain says, Aurora is now docked at the Port of Aarhus where four crew members are taking turns at looking after her. A strict hygiene protocol has been introduced and all surfaces that have been touched are cleaned with sanitizer daily.
During the lockdown period, the administrative tasks that are normally squeezed in between the many spring expeditions are also being dealt with, and we’re making the most of the quiet time to replace and upgrade the ship's equipment. So that Aurora and its crew are ready to cast off as soon as they’re given the go-ahead.
At Food, there’s no meat on their hands
At the Department of Food Science, the majority of research activities has been put on hold. Very few, if any, of the research projects can be done at home. This is very much the reality of Jette Feveile Young, associate professor. One of her areas of research is meat quality and slaughter methods, but she can’t visit any stables or slaughterhouses at the moment, nor can she analyse any samples at the Agro Food Park laboratories.
The members of the research group Differentiated & Biofunctional Foods that Jette Feveile Young is head of are faced with the same challenge. So right now her work mostly consists of administrative tasks.
“We have more group meetings than we usually do, and we’re trying to come up solutions to the challenges posed by the lockdown - both for our research and for our teaching. We’re writing applications and adapting our activities to today’s reality, and trying to determine what we can do with the data we have. Because the students can't do laboratory work, we have to give them data from last year, so they can write the reports they need to write in order for them to be able to take the exam,” says Jette Feveile Young.
One-year surveys of the climatic conditions in poultry houses throughout the year are an example of projects that need to be adjusted. Because of the situation today, the spring season will be lost, and the project simply doesn’t make sense anymore. So now the group is trying to put together some new project descriptions, and hopefully these will be approved instead.
“On top of that, I’m using quite a lot of time assessing scholarly articles, and so is the rest of the group, so we are getting some research done. We’re not as busy as we normally are, but we’re not completely idle. But we’ll be very busy when we can return to the lab,” she says.
The young man and the sea
The focus of the Teis Boderskovs industrial PhD is to come up with a profitable and scalable production method for sustainable seaweed fields for one of Denmark's major mariculture companies. Teis is affiliated with the Department of Bioscience in Silkeborg, and while most of AU is under lockdown, he can still putter out to sea in a small boat and check his seaweed.
He put the seaweed out last October, and plans to harvest in May. However, to be able to do so, he needs to weed the seaweed and clean his equipment regularly. He is still able to do this – normally he brings other AU staff out to sea with him, but right now he is all alone at sea.
He explains that while his mariculture activities can more or less continue unhindered, it’s a completely different story for his activities on land. A lockdown of the labs has meant that students haven’t been able to carry out planned experiments with fertilization methods.
There’s also a risk that planned measurements and samples will be delayed, because the lab technicians will fall behind in their work during the lockdown. Moreover, he is also under pressure on the home front; his wife still has to go in to work, so he has to help his children with their schoolwork during the day, and therefore can't work as many hours every day as he normally does.