Women in Science: The four seasons of a pandemic

Over the last year, we have been writing one of the episodes in history that enters the textbooks. We learn as children that humankind stepped on the moon in 1969 and that the Second World War ended in 1945. Future generations will have pictures of zoom meetings in their textbooks and will learn how the world went online. There will surely be a chapter about the race for coronavirus vaccines and how words such as lockdown and social distancing ruled our lives.

I am a Daphne Jackson Fellow and for my research project I work with wheat, mainly at our field station in Norwich. Perhaps that’s why for me, Covid-19 has been intertwined with the seasons. Perhaps also because working from home, I have witnessed four seasons of a Covid-19 world on my computer but also in my garden, my background and companion. Through four seasons I have gone from fear and uncertainty to hope and goals, from lost chances to new opportunities.

What were you up to in the spring of 2020, when the spiky virus flooded the news? After exactly one year as a Daphne Jackson Fellow, in March 2020 I was reengaged with academic life. Besides rebuilding my professional confidence, I was expanding the possibilities of my project with new techniques and an international collaboration. We had planned to work together sampling wheat roots and soil in our field station and running a big screening project at their university. The spring promised to be beautifully productive, busy with trips and experiments. One Friday I went on a short holiday break, next one I was asked to quarantine and then the first lockdown was imposed. As it happened to millions of people, our plans, our projects, our lives were interrupted. We witnessed the world shutting down from our television screens. With no access to the lab and so much uncertainty to even dare going to the field, with travelling suddenly restricted, the wheat roots were left in the field and ‘spring 2020’ was lost. For my career perspectives, most opportunities depended on a work I could no longer carry out. It took several weeks before I overcame the shock of being ‘unrooted from my roots’ in the lab.

The summer brought brighter times. Living in Norwich, we have been reasonably fortunate. Our institute started to resume a ‘new normal’ rhythm and we were lucky to participate in a testing initiative within our research park. I felt the privilege of ‘knowing’ I was negative. The testing initiative and the safety-first approach across the research park made it possible to resume our activities to a reasonable extent. The summer allowed me working in the field and I managed to save a part of my root sampling. It was time to reset my goals. With the sampling came new ideas and training and I entered the autumn with a new direction for my project and for the future of my career. Autumn was a season of renewal, of rebuilding my confidence and my research.

Winter brought the race for vaccines and courage to look at the future with optimism. We are all fighting a common war but also little battles on the side. Having an autoimmune condition, uncertainty made me count the hours I should spend at work. Only recently I was confirmed as ‘not vulnerable’, ironically by participating in a trial for the Novavax vaccine. Like for many others, my wellbeing depends on continuous health monitoring. With the NHS overwhelmed, many treatments needed for a normal life have been delayed. Without my ferritin infusions, that were a simple routine in the ‘before times’, my work rhythm has been increasingly restricted.

Nevertheless, I can only say that I am incredibly fortunate. The Daphne Jackson Trust, my supervisor and colleagues and my partner have been incredibly understanding and have supported me to take a new direction with my project that allows me a sensible but productive rhythm until I recover – I now have exciting results from my summer sampling, a set of new skills and I feel that my career is back on track. I look forward to the next season, the spring of hope.

Dr Maria Hernandez-Soriano is a Daphne Jackson Fellow at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in the Department of Metabolic Biology. Her Fellowship is sponsored by the John Innes Centre (JIC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

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