stem cells in their environment

Lockdown Stories – Vasiliki Salameti

20 May 2020

by Vasiliki Salameti, PhD Student

In the wake of Covid-19, the lives of people around the world have been turned upside down. Researchers at the CSCRM are no exception, and all our staff are experiencing lockdowns very differently. The Lockdown Stories series aims to share the unique stories of individuals from across the Centre; what they are finding tough, positive, inspiring or even scary; and how each person is facing different challenges which are impacting their lives and work, and how they think their lives will be changed when the worlds opens up again...

For this instalment of the series, we hear from Vasaliki Salameti, a PhD student in the Watt Lab. She talks about what it’s been like to be on lockdown as a PhD student, and how she nearly got stuck in Greece as lockdown was approaching...

“We had all been hearing about the Covid-19 outbreak, but we would never believe what followed would ever occur. In mid-March we heard constantly about Italy and China having multiple casualties due to the virus. One Thursday evening I had to rush and get a flight to go back to Greece for a family emergency. So there I was, in an empty Heathrow airport, which was shockingly quiet for one of the busiest airports in EU. Most people were wearing gloves and masks and had a sad look in their faces. I boarded in an empty plane, a very rare sighting in my 7 years traveling back and forth from London to Athens. I went to my seat cleaned everything with Dettol wipes and reached Athens airport after a while.

In Athens, there were already measures taken by the government, people needed to stay at home, and everyone was wearing gloves and masks and looking for disinfectants. My mom picked me up from the airport and it was the first time in my life I couldn’t hug my mom, because I wasn’t “clean”. I went home, showered and I hugged my parents but because both of them were considered in high risk groups, I had to be more careful since I was coming from abroad. The next day the Greek PM announced that everyone coming in from abroad needed to self-isolate for 14 days. I had only booked a week trip home and the UK at that point had no measures, and everything was still open and running. As the days were going by, my parents were worried for me to go back to London as the number of cases was increasing sharply everywhere and in Athens, and thought I would be safer with my family. As the day of my return was approaching and there were rumours of the airport closing, I was trying to figure out whether I should stay or go back. By then, most people in London were telling me that people had started to stay at home as well, and the university was also giving advice to wrap up our experiments. I decided to go back to London as I was afraid that the flights won’t be permitted from/to Greece for the foreseeable future. When I landed, I remember receiving a text from my brother telling me that the prime minister in Greece just announced an official lockdown of the country, it was literally what you call ‘saved by the bell’. The next day I went in the lab, amazed in how empty the otherwise packed elevators were. Only a few of us were in the lab trying to wrap up our experiments. The next day, Tuesday 24th of March the UK went into lockdown as well.

The lockdown for wet-lab scientist is not as easy as for someone who has an office-based job. When your work depends on experiments which you can no longer do and especially when you are a PhD student with a limited amount of time to finish your work, that unfortunately gives you more anxiety. The first weeks I must admit I felt really strange and insecure about how things would work. But our virtual meetings, and seeing that we are in all of this together, made me feel better. My supervisors were checking on me and the alternative work I could do. The biggest anxiety about work is that we are still not sure for how long it will last, and it is a mutual thing all of my fellow PhD friends are discussing. Even though I live alone, I was and still am very lucky to have friends that live close by and so now I can see them safely from a distance. The biggest challenge I had so far in this lockdown is finding the motivation to maintain a work/life balance. When you are stuck at home, eventually you end up working longer, and emotionally I’ve had a lot of ups and downs - as many of us have. The biggest advantage of the lockdown is that I keep in contact with my friends and family even more than pre-lockdown. Mid-April there were 4-5 flights available again for Greece and I remember booking the one for 17th of April. I remember calling my mom telling her and we could not believe it as many of the Greek airports had banned all flights to and from Greece - except the ones coming from Munich and Brussels. Closer to the date, as expected the flights were cancelled and what most people were doing and what the embassy was advising was taking the Eurostar to Brussels and from there taking the flight. However, even though I wanted to go back to my family I felt it was too much of a risk to take. I am trying to get myself busy with online courses, exercising, cooking, reading and staying in touch with my friends, colleagues and family.

At the end of the day, what mattered most was to stay healthy and so far, my lockdown has been an experience that I never expected to have as part of my PhD life. When we go out, I am sure nothing will be the same, I feel like people will be more considerate of social distancing. Overall, I would rate my lockdown a 7/10 and I think the biggest struggle for me is being away from my family, as I know they worry a lot, and how much my work has been affected. The second biggest struggle is to stay motivated and productive.

But we should look at the positives as well, and this is how I would like to finish my lockdown story, myself, my family and my friends are all healthy, we are all taking things one day at a time and I feel grateful of all the great scientists and their work for Covid-19 which is so meaningful and the public has such an appreciation to our field. I am sure most people feel anxious about the future and no one has answers, but it is something we will eventually overcome, and I cannot wait to be able to hug my loved ones again and being able to go home.”

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