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The PhD, the pandemic and the end of an adventure

It was a nice Christmas with my family in Spain (2019). Roast turkey, classic “embutidos” and all sorts of typical seafood. What I didn’t know is that I won’t spend the next Christmas with them. Instead, I was having a nice Indian takeway operating under covid pandemic while chatting to them through a videocall. Is that a drama? Not yet.

Let’s get deep into the matter at hand. I arrived back in Leeds early January 2020. I went to the lab as usual. So far, we had heard the news from China. I continued doing my experiments as normal until March, when the UK government began the first lockdown and suddenly we realised how serious the situation was.

Alongside this, a few issues of my own started just before the UK lockdown. We had received a faulty batch of electrodes that I required for my experiments. The company that was supplying them was in Spain, which was in lockdown already. This complicated our communication which was unclear and delayed. We had performed experiments which clearly showed the electrodes were faulty, including supporting XPS results. However, they replied to us after around 6 months of lockdown to say that the electrodes were not faulty and that they were not going to replace them whatsoever. Due to this, we had to contact an alternative company. Given the current electrochemical set-up, the only feasible alternative to the faulty electrodes was to have the new ones customised to meet the requirements of our current equipment. It took a couple of months to establish the electrode design and get some quotations. However, when we were about to proceed with the purchase, the company informed us that they did not supply adapters for those electrodes, causing further delays.

Given the gravity of the situation, we had to take important decisions; we needed electrodes and to try to make up for all the experimental time missed during the pandemic. Therefore, we decided to buy new electrochemical equipment which will allow to run multiple measurements at the same time, and new electrodes. Besides the ongoing global pandemic, the no deal Brexit agreement also played a significant role in the delay of receiving all the new equipment.

The good news though was receiving a 6-month extension of my contract as a result of being furloughed. This relieved my constant stress and panicked state.

By then, I had one year left to finalise my contract and still plenty to do: new electrohemical equipment and new electrodes. All the procotols and know-how of biosensors in Millners group had been accomplished for around a decade with those tools. Now I had to start from scratch by characterising the electrodes with different equipment. Due to the fact that the new electrochemical equipment allowed multiple measurements at the same time, I was able to accomplish it relatively soon and gain some control of the situation with my biosensing experiments.

Further progress didn’t take long develop; I soon accomplished what it can be said to be one of the main goals of my PhD, which was a proof of concept of adhesin-collagen biosensor, in collaboration with Ina (ESR4). We have written a short communication about these findings and we hope to have it published soon. After that, I did some experiments for Ina’s project, establishing another collaboration.

Besides this, before the lockdown I was performing some experiments regarding the pretreatment of gold electrodes, which I finished immediately after restarting back at the lab after 6 months at home, for which I am currently writing some interesting findings. In addition, I made a review about gold electrode pretreatment as well, which I hope will be finalised soon and to be of good use for electrochemists and people working with biosensors.

Right now, I am 6 months away from finishing my PhD. I still need to do experiments and a lot of writing, but it looks like I have a good plan to accomplish my thesis. I had heard many times that the PhD stage is probably one of the most challenging stages in one’s life. Our generation probably have to add a plus for the pandemic.

Being in the last stage, so far I would describe my PhD studentship experience as: achievements, mistakes, best and worst moments. The toughest project and the one from which I have learned the most. I have grown a lot as a person and as a scientist.

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