Suddenly trapped in a cage far away from family and friends
When I moved in December from Florence in Italy to Utrecht in the Netherlands to start a PhD in Molecular Virology within an Innovative Training Network funded by EU, I was really excited. Virology has always been my greatest scientific passion. I grew fascinated by how evolution has refined the relationship between organisms and their immune systems. For years, I wondered how a tiny virus could subvert the immune system and end the life of a young man, who accidentally fell ill with Hepatitis C due to a blood transfusion.
Being part of this Consortium would have meant an opportunity to be part of a training network, collaborating with other young researchers from all over Europe with whom I would share ideas, experiences, and techniques in the emerging field of antiviral immunometabolism. It is becoming increasingly clear that cell metabolism affects the immune response to pathogens. What we eat, the lifestyle we have, directly influence our metabolism and determine the ability of our immune system to defeat more easily or not an infection.
A few months later, a new health emergency arrived in Europe, first of all in Italy, where my family, relatives and friends live. I couldn’t believe it. A few weeks earlier I had read about the emergency that was spreading in China, but nobody expected it to arrive as quickly as it did. I kept thinking that it wouldn’t be that serious; but then suddenly, on the 9th of March, Italy declared a red zone and more then 60 million people were placed in quarantine. It was not easy to continue going to the lab and to focus on my project as if I had no worries on my mind. Not knowing when I would return home did not help.
Two weeks later the Netherlands declared a state of emergency and imposed social distancing. This felt surreal: not only had this new Coronavirus arrived in Italy, it was spreading quickly throughout Europe. Within a weekend, my life in Utrecht changed: on Friday I went as usual to work and by the following Monday I was at home, not knowing when I could go back and with all social events canceled…
Forced to work from home, I had nothing to turn to except theoretical knowledge. Reading scientific articles all day, making summaries and patterns reminded me preparing for exams, which is definitely not as exciting as planning and doing experiments. Luckily, staying in touch, weekly, with my supervisor and colleagues provided motivation —as did sharing experiences with expat colleagues on how we are all coping as we live far away from home.
Honestly, not being involved in SARS-CoV-2 research is frustrating especially for a virology researcher. But I feel pride at how the scientific community—and my department—reacted, and started to collaborate and share results despite distance and borders. I still remember when my parents called me one evening and, screaming with joy, they told me they had heard on the news the discovery of an antibody able to neutralize the virus found here in Utrecht in my department. Through the mobile phone screen, I could see the emotion and joy in their eyes, after so many days of distressing and worried news. I saw hope and pride reborn in their gaze.
This emergency, unique in our century, confronts us with a disconcerting truth: we are vulnerable beings. This first experience miles away from my family and friends made me really understand how everything can suddenly be questioned. I was afraid because, abruptly, I found myself trapped in a cage far away from my family and friends and unable to contribute directly to SARS-CoV-2 research. But this pandemic has both made me more certain of my choice, in life, to pursue virology, and more motivated. There will be more pandemics, and each day I get a chance to help defeat them.
Chiare Aloise is an Italian PhD based in The Netherlands