2020, the pandemic year where time stood still, or did it?

As I write this blog, we are rapidly hurtling towards the end of 2020. It can’t come quickly enough for me and it seems many others have the same feelings. Well, who can blame us? As I was Zooming my friends the other day (a phrase that I didn’t even know existed 9 months ago), they said it seems as if time has stood still this year. Ok, I will admit that a big part of me still feels like we are firmly stuck in March, in a slightly strange groundhog day, but we have in fact just celebrated Christmas. And while our lives seem to have been turned upside down, torn apart and thrown in the tumble dryer, I think that we’ve all achieved a heck of a lot this year! I hope that in the last few days of the year, you are all able to stop and take some time to be kind to yourselves and reflect on how far we’ve come in what has been for many of us, an incredibly difficult year.

We’ve done things we never thought possible

There is no doubt that 2020 has been challenging for all of us for lots of different reasons. Whether it was balancing working from home with childcare, being separated from those who we care about most or grieving for the loss of a loved one, tough and tragic things have happened this year. There is no doubt that the pandemic brought with it impossibly hard decisions and it continues to be emotionally exhausting and as we enter the New Year. But, I try my best to look on the bright side of life and despite the most difficult circumstances, we have adapted, we have tried our best and the kindness of strangers has shone through. Just take a moment to think about the challenges that we’ve overcome in what is (although it may not feel like it) a pretty short time frame. I think that is a huge strength in itself.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself this year, both good and bad, and in the trickiest of times we learn the most about ourselves. The lockdowns have provided me with some time to reflect on what I am doing and what I want to do. I learnt quite quickly that I needed to get back a sense of routine, so I have taken up yoga. I knew that I was unlikely to stick to doing yoga regularly by myself, so I set up a group of friends and we video call each other every night before bed to do our yoga. Even if it is just five minutes, it’s great to incorporate it into my routine, it gives me a sense of belonging, it’s time for me and it’s great for sleep hygiene. Although it took me until the second lockdown to jump on the sourdough bandwagon, a kind work colleague gave me some sourdough starter and I’ve been making some pretty damn good baked items even since.

Check out the crumb structure on my sourdough!! Mary Berry eat your heart out :).

Key workers is a phrase which seems to have been redefined this year, we finally seemed to realise how vital the work of many who are paid a relatively small amount is. I want to particularly highlight the incredible efforts of my scientific colleagues this year. I won’t delve into politics in this blog, but alongside the Herculean efforts of healthcare workers, scientists have been incredible this year. Science has shone, in terms of helping the public to understand the circumstances that we are living in and in less that 9 months we have a fully licensed vaccine being rolled out. The first vaccine is a phenomenal achievement and it seems as if there will be more in the pipeline. I think back to my fellowship, during which it took almost 9 months to just get the ethical approval to run the study! Team science has just been phenomenal this year and I have never felt prouder to call myself a scientist.

Work, work, work, work!

This year marked the first full year in my job as a Lecturer. I was ecstatic that my contract was made permanent and I can finally not worry about searching for the next job! But what a year it has been for everyone working in education, and particularly my colleagues in Higher Education. It was about late February time, at the beginning of the pandemic, when a colleague said this would be hardest year of my career. I remember thinking yikes, I’ve only just started this job! But she was absolutely right.

I’ve still done plenty of face to face teaching this year, in a socially distanced way while wearing PPE. It has been incredibly challenging but our students have been resilient and really appreciate the additional work that we have put in to help them and ensure that teaching can go ahead as safely as possible. The real change for me has been the migration to online teaching. My lectures will probably be remembered for my disco slides and the songs that I play at the beginning while we are waiting for everyone to join the virtual room. I also take song requests which have to be vaguely related to the lecture content. A particular highlight was my cardiac muscle lecture which was introduced after Bonnie Tyler’s total eclipse of the heart! This also means that I am fulfilling my dream of becoming a DJ and it cheers everyone up and let’s face it we could all do with a bit of that this year.

Another memorable moment this year was my involvement in clearing as an admissions tutor. It was quite a year to start this role and while I got very little sleep, it was an absolute privilege to be part of a fantastic team who pulled together through tricky times. The main thing that I will take away is the resilience and understanding of the applicants. Although there were sad and difficult conversations, particularly after Government U-turns, I was delighted to be able to make some people offers, to rapturous applause on speaker phone from their family waiting in anticipation in the background. I think it is fair to say that students were really messed around, but despite this they were incredible and it really restored my faith in our young people.

But perhaps the most memorable and humbling moment of my work this year was a simple addition that I made to my online lectures. Despite doing a fair amount of science communication work I found the transition to online learning tricky at first. I love having an audience, so having no visual feedback while delivering a lecture is really tough, it kind of feels like you are speaking into a void. I also knew that it had been a tricky year for our students. Many of them were away from home for the first time and having to isolate in their student accommodation, worried about their families and friends at home and also worried about their own health. It’s horrible being unwell, but being unwell away from home with covid is pretty horrendous. So I made a relatively simple addition to my lectures, I added an introductory poll where I asked the students a simple question, ‘How are you?’ I was a bit worried at first, would they think I was odd, would they engage? Well you know what, they did and they loved it! It was my invite to check in with the students, and yes I added some silly options about their views on the rugby results and politics, but it was a simple gesture which provided them with an opportunity to check in with me and themselves. Of course it wasn’t the same as seeing hundreds of students in person, it could never be, but in the feedback questionnaires at the end of the semester, you wouldn’t believe how many people mentioned that they really valued and appreciated the check in! Kindness, compassion and empathy really shone through for me this year and I hope that it showed in my teaching.

It’s the little things that matter most

If 2020 has taught me anything, I think it is that it is the little things that matter the most. Maybe I am getting old as I celebrated a milestone birthday this year, and it certainly wasn’t how I’d imagined celebrating a big birthday, but we made the most of a rubbish situation. With lockdown restrictions we were forced to make tough decisions about who we could bubble up with, who we could and couldn’t see and I certainly appreciated my neighbours this year more than I ever have before. A simple chat over the fence, a socially distanced cuppa in the garden and fetching shopping for each other were all lovely acts of kindness that helped to get us through.

It was the little things that mattered this year, and we really began to appreciate the value of kindness, compassion and empathy. The year has been a year where people have been at the heart of what we have done and are doing. I have met some fantastic people this year and I’d like to thank them for everything that they have taught me. The people who I met while delivering food parcels to those who needed them, kind work colleagues would provided support and mentorship and the best friends and family who have been encouraging in the difficult times.

Perhaps the highlight in my year happened in April when we decided to adopt two little fluff balls. We’d wanted to adopt some pets for a while and although we still sadly don’t have time for a dog, we figured kittens were a nice middle ground and two meant that they’d always have a friend! The lockdown gave us the push that we needed and the lovely people at the Catwell cat adoption centre in Cardiff were delighted that we wanted to take two, before we knew it Peggy and Peter had settled in and were happily cosying up on our sofa. When I am struggling to find motivation to get out of bed in the morning, there are now two bundles of fur who would happily give me a friendly nudge that it was breakfast time. Peter and Peggy have also been happy additions to my lectures and students eagerly await their arrival! No matter what is happening on the news or in the world, Peter and Peggy will still let you know that they are hungry or in need of a cuddle!

Peter & Peggy became part of our family. Here they are posing for their adoption photos like cute little school children.

2021, I am coming for you!

2020 certainly wasn’t the year that I had planned, but I have learnt a lot. If you haven’t had the opportunity already, spend a bit of time looking back honestly and reflecting on how far you have come and what you have achieved. I know it may seem as if time has stood still, but despite this we have achieved so much.

I have some exciting plans in the pipeline for 2021. I have a book proposal in development and an incredible agent who is working with me to develop my ideas, I am so excited about this. I’ll continue my teaching and science communication work and now that I have learnt a lot about online communication, I hope that the reviews will continue to be positive.

In ending, I want to reflect about something that has really struck me this year, that is that how vulnerable we are, as people and as humans. At first it can seem pretty scary to accept that we are all vulnerable in lots of different ways, but the acceptance of vulnerability is often paired with gratitude and the generation of exceptional kindness. I hope that the generosity, kindness and acceptance that we have seen in 2020 both from ourselves and others continues into 2021 and beyond.

Happy New Year everyone, I hope that you remain happy and healthy in 2021 and that it is a prosperous New Year for your and your loved ones.

Emma x

2021 I am coming for you…!
Photo by Moritz Knöringer on Unsplash