Blog series #11: International cooperation in the time of pandemic

Dr. Scarlett Sett is a postdoc at DMSZ – German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH and works in the area of science policy. In the eleventh part of our blog interview series, she gives us insight into her work at the interface between science and policy and what can be aligned there to deal with the pandemic.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Scarlett Sett
DSMZ – German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH, Braunschweig
Microbial Ecology and Diversity Research group
(Science policy group)
Leibniz Section C

Research topic:
Who owns pathogens during pandemics

Main featured instrument or technique:
Science diplomacy

Trying to build bridges between science and policy to encourage cohesive solutions for global issues.”

Dr. Scarlett Sett, what was your personal motivation for joining the science policy unit of a Leibniz institute?

Honestly, I think it was a mix of serendipitous events that landed me in this group. I was looking for an opportunity where I could be challenged professionally. But, I felt I also needed to find a job that gave my work a sense of meaningfulness. The work we do at the science policy team gives me both.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

I have been working with the practical implications of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) obligations and the Nagoya Protocol on academic research. Over the past few years, my role has been to enhance awareness among scientists about potential obligations they might have with countries if they use their biological material (i.e. non human material containing DNA/RNA, including human pathogens).

What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

The main results confirmed our suspicion, namely, that pathogens do not fit into the traditional role of a resource that can be negotiated bilaterally between two countries. The nature of pathogens and the speed and scale at which they spread makes it very difficult to pinpoint an exact origin. Based on our data, we showed that during a global pandemic, like the current one, rapid exchange of information and material is critical for the development of counteractive measures to fight the spread of the disease.

With this knowledge, can you speculate what conditions need to be established to facilitate global collaboration in the future?

I think in general, as researchers, it is in our nature to work collaboratively. But as a foreigner, I also know the reality in other countries. I think our efforts should go simultaneously into training and infrastructure development to make sure we have spread infrastructures and trained personnel ready to react when this happens again. Otherwise, unfortunately, we end up with highly trained researchers in countries without infrastructures or highly advanced infrastructures without trained researchers to properly used them.

How has COVID affected your life?

I signed my contract only one month after going into full lock-down and thus started my position already on a hybrid home-office arrangement. The position was in another city to where I lived so I personally enjoyed the opportunity to reduce traveling and be at home with my partner and dog. I was no stranger to home-office, so I applied the same strategy of strictly defining work and free time hours. We have a time logging system at the Institute and this enables to easily define when you work and when you stop.

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What circumstances made this possible?

My direct work with COVID was by accident. Our proposal had envisioned to develop a report describing the potential implications of ABS on the exchange of pathogens during epidemics/pandemics. Luckily, the COVID pandemic was a “real life” case study which showed us how we benefited from having unrestricted access to pathogens to quickly develop countermeasures.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

Global collaboration is key to address global challenges.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

No alarm to wake up to. Brunch on the balcony. A long walk in nature with the dog. Nap in the afternoon. Pizza and a movie for dinner.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Scarlett Sett for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Scarlett Sett and her work:

Blog series #10: The intricacies of anthropological field work during a pandemic

Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa is a postdoc at ZMT – Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research. As an anthropologist and geographer, she investigates how coastal cities in Southeast Asia adapt for the future in a warming world. During the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Siriwardane-de Zoysa reflects on changing transregional partnerships, while moving between her field-site countries, third spaces, and physical workplace in Bremen. In the tenth interview of our blog series, she tells us about this unique experience.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa
ZMT – Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research, Bremen
Leibniz Section E

Research topic:
Infrastructural futures of urbanizing shorelines

Main featured instrument or technique:
Virtual multimodal ethnography (online qualitative interviews and transect walking through participatory film and other modes of visualizing).   

“I aim to rethink transregional research partnerships to foster new practices of engagement during times of immobility.”

  • What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

Since 2017, I’ve been tracing how the coastal cities of Jakarta, Manila, and Singapore – in their own diverse ways – have been infrastructurally shaping their densely-built shoreline edges in the face of relative sea level change, erosion and land subsidence.  

As an environmental anthropologist, I am particularly interested in the speculative futures and ‘afterlives’ of engineered coastal adaptation interventions. These include seawalls and artificial islands, and the ways in which they pattern social inequalities and transform urban practices of land use and placemaking.

  • What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

We found ourselves in the midst of fieldwork in Jakarta, as the pandemic was unravelling in March 2020. At the time Indonesia was not internationally red-listed and much of our interviewing was done among urban informal fisher-settlers living around the Java Sea.

Moments such as these gave us a glimpse into how impoverished and socially marginalised coastal zones are also imagined as spaces of communal retreat and solidarity far distanced from the contagion of urban centers, despite being heavily policed as illicit sites of sea-based mobility.

We were also prompted to rethink modes of fieldwork praxis (and meanings of the „field“) as collaborative researchers atomised from one another across continents, and the opto-haptics of doing fieldwork in early pandemic settings which we’ve collectively published in the Fieldsights series of the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

  • How has COVID affected your life?

At first, the novelty of professional life in-lockdown was intriguing as it meant more time for immersive deep work, as I live on my own. All at once, access to institution-based events around the world that were often closed to non-members became possible in ways that were once unimaginable. Yet, the uncanny melding of work and home environments finally caught up as months rolled by. I even found myself renting a co-working space for a month or two, simply to shake off the monotony and stagnation.

As a positive spin-off, being grounded in place also opened up expansive spaces for project partners to take on more initiative in practice, given if co-creation and joint ownership is often built into the design of projects.

We’ve also been relying more on remote digital modes of research that have also enabled participants to ‘tell their own stories’ (without the presence of researchers) through walk-abouts and in ways that can be directly archived, while being cognizant our own ethics of inquiry.

  • Does the COVID situation in your host country influence your research?

It was uncanny to say the least, because during the first global lockdown in spring 2020 I flew from Jakarta to Colombo were I’d planned on visiting my parents during a short Easter break.

Sri Lanka, despite the low infection rates at the time, had iron-clad national quarantine policy spanning several months, and of course all flights were grounded. It felt like being in double or triple exile – remotely writing about and theorising on a part of the world (the Indo-Malay archipelago) that you’d have no access to, while inhabiting another city a continent away from your professional base, and all the while having to explain to bewildered audiences at online events why you inhabited different time zones.

  • You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic? 

At the height of the first lockdown, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) launched a funding call for projects that fostered collaboratories in the Indian Ocean region. It was here that we first seeded our idea for a ‚Southern Collective‘ (led by my colleague Annu Jalais) on democratising the production of marine knowledge through south-south partnerships, connecting across 8 countries.

Creating a knowledge network in these times of geographic fixity (particularly among institutional strangers) seemed an odd idea. Yet, the initiative itself was woven around experimenting with multimodal forms of storytelling and narrative research among pandemic-impacted coastal communities in precisely moments of disconnection, and we’re still picking up lessons on transoceanic partnership – building along the way!   

  • What would be the one take-home message of your research? 

While the pandemic – as well as the climate emergency – seemingly rupture old ways of doing business-as-usual, the underlying structures that enabled seem more durable and reticent to progressive change. Therefore, debates around paradigm shifts and systemic transformation will gain even more ground particularly in the wake of COP26, begging the question how far a “crisis” needs to be devastatingly so, for whom, and in which ways, for real actionable change to be felt across scales and regions.  

  • How does your perfect day off work look like? 

A technological detox (sans Netflix!). A weekend away somewhere in the Niedersachsen countryside. Or evenings spent running in the parklands, pottering around with plants, or meeting friends.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa for supporting our blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa and her work:

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Blog series #9: Stress resilience during the pandemic

Dr. Sarah Ayash is a postdoc at Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research – LIR and investigates stress resilience. In part nine of our blog interview series, she explains how we can positively influence our own resilience.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Sarah Ayash
LIR – Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research, Mainz
Area: Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Resilience
Leibniz Section C

Research topic:
Stress Resilience

Main featured instrument or technique (for this specific COVID study):
Cross-sectional online survey conducted in 24 languages during the most intense phase of the lockdown in Europe (March 22nd to April 19th 2020) in a convenience sample of N=15,970 adults

I investigate stress resilience promoting factors during the pandemic and ways to positively employ the stress induced by the crisis to increase one’s resilience, a phenomenon known as “stress inoculation”.

With a biology background, what was your biggest motivation to get involved with psychology and eventually resilience research?

My curiosity about the brain drove me into neuroscience. Given my admiration of Avicenna from an early age, I personally consider a biological approach to questions in psychology a necessity for a better understanding. Here, the approach has been largely disease-oriented. What attracts me in resilience research is that it is a health-oriented approach. The health state is the fascinating observation. If we understand this state, there is a huge potential not only to be able treat the disease one but also develop prevention approaches.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

Establishing ecologically valid and translationally relevant mouse models to study stress resilience mechanisms.

What are the main findings of your work; and did the results surprise you?

During COVID, I was involved in a large study that aimed to gain mechanistic insights about the relationship between specific psycho-social resilience factors and resilience specifically in the crisis. In comparison with other resilience factors, good stress response recovery and positive appraisal specifically of the consequences of the crisis were the strongest factors. Results were in line with our expectations*.

How has COVID affected your life?

It created me an opportunity to communicate, and thus bridge my research, to the public. Specifically, I felt there was a huge interest from the side of the public in stress resilience research as a result of the lockdown measures. I was invited at an unprecedented rate to interviews to talk about mental health during the lockdown. Overall, the experience made me appreciate the importance of communicating science and engaging in conversations related to my research with the public.

Does the COVID situation in your home country influence your research?

Yes it did but in an indirect way. Specifically, I became engaged in translating findings and research material related to mental health as well as online surveys of my institute – specifically intended to study resilience during the crisis- to the language of my region to gain insights and provide information on mental health to that part of the world as well.

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic?

Observe what is happening around you and think of ways you can bridge your work to it. Sometimes including or changing few elements is sufficient to achieve this. As a scientist I believe you should not work in a bubble detached from your surrounding.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

Stress resilience is the norm. We have the needed capacity to adapt to adversity and endure it even when we think otherwise.

What measures can one take to increase his/her stress resilience during adversity (including that of the pandemic)?

Perceive the situation as challenging rather than threatening. Facilitate a positive perception of the consequences and seek social support.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

It starts with a slow breakfast at a lively cafe while enjoying the week’s print of “The Economist” followed by a long stroll around the city, a visit to a museum or a gallery, and finally it ends with watching a good movie with friends and family.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Sarah Ayash for supporting our blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Sarah Ayash and her work:

Blog series #8: How does a pandemic lockdown affect light pollution?

Dr. Andreas Jechow is a postdoc at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB). With a background in optical physics he is investigating the environmental impacts of artificial light at night in a young and highly interdisciplinary research field.

Name / Institute:

  • Andreas Jechow
  • IGB – Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Berlin
  • Leibniz Section E

Research topic:

  • How artificial light affects ecosystems.

Main featured instrument or technique:

  • light at night measurements
  • ground-based cameras
  • satellite imagery

“I looked into how the COVID lockdown affected light pollution, which is too much artificial light at night disturbing the natural environment.“

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

I had two main topics. Most relevant for this interview, I worked on how a special form of light pollution “skyglow” impacts ecosystems. This research brought me to the darkest places in Germany, Europe and Asia and I did field work in remote areas like Northern Scandinavia or Kazakhstan. Furthermore, I worked on observing water quality with remote sensing techniques from space, airplanes, and buoys.

What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you or did they basically confirm what you had thought before you started this study?

We were expecting that less artificial light was emitted during the COVID lockdown because of reduced human activities. However, we observed that the light detected by satellites was the same or more than pre-COVID lockdown. The lights actually stayed on after the curfews and left lit ghost towns – not very sustainable. Surprisingly, we found that skyglow, which is artificial light scattered within the atmosphere, was reduced – contradictory to the other observations. We conclude that reduced air pollution, particularly because of less air traffic is the cause for this reduction. 

How has COVID affected your life?

I have 2 small kids, and my wife is a “system-relevant” medical doctor. Therefore, I am the stay-home parent and must take care for the kids including homeschooling. Admittedly, I have spent much more time with my kids than pre-COVID, which is very good. Work-wise things were disastrous in the beginning but have improved over the months, and I could do field trips (not abroad and only if get the childcare organized) and can work family friendly from home (although much less efficient than before of course).

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic?

I had this one night off from family duties in March 2020 and used the opportunity to do field work. If you see such a chance, don’t hesitate – just do it, but don’t wear yourself off too much of course.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

Reduce unnecessary emission of artificial light as much as possible for the environment and sustainability. Also, air pollution should move more on the agenda of researchers and conservationists that deal with light pollution.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

Normally this would be the day with the family out in nature with the campervan starting with a dip in a lake and a coffee, going on with a little hike and finishing with a beer for sunset. Now, 15 months into the pandemic, I am more eager for spending that day at a dusty rock festival with loud music and all that stuff.

Has COVID changed your view on society and science?

Firstly, we often take system-relevant jobs for granted and should be more grateful to all those that are essential for the functioning of our society. Secondly, science communication and scientific integrity is particularly important when scientific results become pivotal for government decisions with huge implications and when preprints become more popular also in the media.  

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Andreas Jechow for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Andreas Jechow and his work:

Photo credits: Andreas with camera – Andreas Hänel; Andreas on the lake – Volker Crone

Blog series #7: Investigating the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on higher education across borders

Dr. Jana Kleibert is a postdoc and junior group leader at the Leibniz-Institute for Research on Society and Space – IRS and does research on transnational higher education. In the seventh part of our blog interview series, she explains how offshore campuses of European universities have fared during the pandemic.

Name / Institute:

  • Jana Kleibert
  • IRS – Leibniz-Institute for Research on Society and Space, Erkner
  • Leibniz Section B

Research topic:

  • Economic Geographies of Globalization

Main featured instrument or technique:

  • Online surveys

“My research aims to map the consequences of the COVID pandemic on transnational education.”

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020? 

Since 2018 I have been investigating the changing global geographies of transnational education. Specifically, I wanted to understand the boom in universities’ foreign investments and the motivation for European universities to construct offshore campuses and the rationale for host governments in Southeast Asia and the Arab Gulf states to attract these investments. In particular, I have focused on their role in urban and economic development strategies.

What are the main findings of your work on COVID? Did the results surprise you? 

Following the outbreak of the pandemic, I applied for funding by the Regional Studies Association to investigate how the pandemic affects and changes the global geographies of offshore campuses. A key question has been how different ‘international education hubs’ are affected by the pandemic and how offshore campus managers have switched their strategies as a result. While the overwhelming share of respondents have been affected very strongly or strongly by the pandemic, I was surprised by the high level of optimism for the future of transnational education across the board. Several offshore campus managers see their campuses as fostering the resilience of their home institutions through geographic diversification. By teaching students, who otherwise would have out-migrated instead at offshore campuses in their home country, these students can receive international degrees despite travel restrictions. 

How has COVID affected your work life?

My research practice usually involves a lot of face-to-face engagement and travel. My main methodology is qualitative fieldwork. A key method I use are elite interviews, which require the co-presence of researcher and respondent to build trust and enable the sharing of more sensitive information. During the pandemic, I have not been able to conduct fieldwork but have had to switch to other techniques, including developing and conducting an online survey of campus managers globally.

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic? 

Generally, I find researching unfolding events fascinating and it is something economic geographers actually quite often engage in. The key issue for me is to always keep a distance from too sweeping explanations and hypes, but rather carefully analyze the emerging data with respect to how they relate to broader and longer-term (socio-economic) trends.

What would be the one take-home message of your research? 

Globalization of higher education is not over yet and digitization is not going to fully replace the need for physical university campuses. Instead, offshore campuses will most likely shift strategies and take on new roles.

How does your perfect day off work look like? 

Spent with family and friends, filled with good conversations and laughter. Preferably outdoors: hiking, biking and generally being offline.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Jana Kleibert for supporting our blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Jana Kleibert and her work:

Dr. Jana Kleibert’s research project on the website of the Regional Studies Association

Panel Discussion “Sustainable Research” held by the Working Group Sustainability

One of the major guiding goals of the Working Group Sustainability of the Leibniz PhD and PostDoc Networks is to create a sustainable community within and outside of the Leibniz Association.

In order to start a discussion, the WG held a panel discussion entitled

Sustainable Research – What can WE do and where do WE start?

on the 2nd of June, 2021

in which we discussed what role sustainability should play in research in general and in the Leibniz Association in particular. We invited four experts from different fields:

Diana Born, Business Development Manager at atmosfair gGmbH

Andreas Otto, Deputy Director of the Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development (IÖR) and Speaker of the Leibniz Arbeitskreis Sustainability Management

Falk Schmidt, Head of Office German Science Platform Sustainability 2030

​​​Juliane Schumacher, Researcher at the Leibniz Institute Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO)

In the following, we have summarized our major take home messages from our discussion topics:

What impact do individuals have on sustainability?

Greta Thunberg demonstrated very clearly what an individual can do. She became the face of a movement that motivated a whole generation. Her example shows that the main responsibility of an individual is to raise awareness and integrate the topic of global warming into our everyday life. Making conscious decisions about sustainable consumerism on a collective level can steer the money flow away from big corporate emitters. However, it cannot be denied that in a complex system like our society, structural changes like international regulations to enforce sustainable procedures in corporations would have the largest impact. Therefore, political actions are needed, meaning that the main responsibility of individuals is not to change their personal lifestyle but rather to advocate for political and structural changes.

How to do research sustainably?

In order to make research sustainable, fundamental restructuring in institutes and research culture (currently fast paced and economically limited) is necessary. Researchers should not be left alone with the big task of sustainability management in addition to their already high workload. Instead, institutes should allocate capacities for sustainability management and get experts to help researchers work more sustainably. Researchers should look for a connection to sustainability in their respective field of research rather than limiting it to research on sustainability.

The Leibniz Association has already initiated the first steps towards more sustainable research: Leibniz worked together with Fraunhofer and Helmholtz on the LeNa project, which serves as an orientation framework for sustainability management in the non-university field containing 8 criteria in doing research sustainably. Additionally, a Sustainability Management working group and the Leibniz research network Knowledge for Sustainable Development have been implemented. 

What can early-stage scientists do to create a culture of sustainability?

Early-stage researchers should push for change, get involved in political work inside and outside of research and most importantly communicate. Their qualities as early-stage researchers like critical thinking, looking for different solutions and open mindedness can help to create the necessary innovation to make society and research sustainable. In their individual research projects, every early-stage researcher can look for their personal link to sustainability and reflect on their work with the LeNa criteria in mind.

Take home message: 

The most efficient way to improve sustainable measures is by advocating for political and structural changes. Researchers should communicate their wishes for a sustainable research culture openly inside, with their institutes or research associations, and outside of academia.

To integrate sustainability in our “research life”, the WG Sustainability plans to organize further seminars on this topic as well as a science communication workshop for Leibniz members. 

If you are interested in the full discussion, you can listen to the audio here:

Kind wishes,

Your WG Sustainability

Fit for Teaching – first didactics workshop for Leibniz Postdocs successfully completed

If you ask a postdoc: “Have you ever been thrown into cold water – and if so: when?” They would probably answer: “Yes, I was asked to teach.” Teaching is a key element of an academic’s job, yet training opportunities are comparatively rare. In an effort to address this need within the postdoc community, the Leibniz PostDoc Network decided to organize a two-day course on didactics in higher education called “Fit for Teaching” together with Dr. Sandra Linke from the ‘International Centre for Innovation in Education.’ The training aimed to provide our 18 postdoc attendees, who were allocated a spot, with a toolbox of methods and strategies when it comes to design a course, align aims and methods or create a stimulating and engaging atmosphere in lectures and seminars.

After two exhausting days, a few participants, unfortunately, had already left us. Nonetheless, we were still in a good mood.

After two intense days that contained a well-balanced mix of theoretical input and practical sessions, the participants concluded rather enthusiastically that this was “One of the best courses I’ve ever had!” and mentioned “This was a great experience, and I learned a lot! I met great colleagues and enjoyed the format and content of the course very much. Sandra is just great and responds to all individual needs during the course and in personal communications in the email. Thanks a lot for everything!“. One of the benefits mentioned in particular was the diverse group: “I really enjoyed the course and have learned a lot of things about teaching. The instructor is very passionate and helpful. The diverse group of participants and lively discussions are great!”. The course also seemed to be a good role model itself: “This was a great course, as Sandra taught by example. Many best practices and techniques that were covered she also implemented in the course itself (e.g., creating a welcoming atmosphere, connecting personally with students, practicing good communication, repeating content, offering breaks, I could go on). From small tips to the broader approach, I will try to put as much into practice as possible when teaching.”

We are happy the course was taken up so well and hit our postdocs’ needs. A big ‘Thank you!’ goes to the Leibniz Association, which has kindly funded the workshop. Surely, this was not the last course of such kind, and we look forward to further supporting the professional development of our postdocs. Watch out for our emails in the future!

(Sina Fackler | LIfBi)

P.S. If you want to get involved in the Leibniz PostDoc Network and maybe even help organize such courses in the future, please drop us a message!

Blog series #6: Health and wellbeing of university students during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Heide Busse is a postdoc at Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiologie – BIPS and does research on complex public health interventions for health promotion. In a recent study, she looked at changes in health risk behaviors among university students. In the sixth part of our blog interview series, she explains what universities should consider now.

Foto: Sebastian Budde

Name / Institute:
Dr. Heide Busse
BIPS – Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology, Bremen
Head of Unit Applied Intervention Research
Leibniz Section C

Research topic:
Public health, interventions, evaluation, prevention

Main featured instrument or technique:
Online-questionnaire

“I investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on the health and wellbeing of university students to inform health promotion activities.”

Why did you decide to stay in academia after your PhD?

What works, for whom and under which circumstances in improving health and wellbeing? How can we build health-promoting settings and environments for children and young people? How can we best enable families to move more and eat healthier? And what methods are best suited to test if a “health initiative” has been successful or not? These and more questions fascinate me and are the type of questions that I would like to conduct research on and contribute to find answers to.

My PhD – investigating the potential of mentoring programs for young people’s health, wellbeing and educational outcomes – showed me once more that there are still a lot of unanswered questions in public health, thus still a lot that we do not yet know.  Researching public health topics can be quite complex at times, which is why teamwork and collaborative working is required to tackle these challenges and find solutions. Working together with the public, with stakeholders and also with other researchers on these challenges and learning from one another is something I personally really enjoy about being a researcher in public health and this was yet another aspect that  made me want to stay in academia after my PhD.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

My research concerns the development, evaluation and implementation of complex health public interventions for health promotion in the areas of physical activity, nutrition and mental health. I use a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research methods to investigate which health interventions work, for whom, under which circumstances, and why. Most of my work focusses on children and young people and the settings in which they spend much of their time (schools/ communities/ etc.).

What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

In our study, we investigated how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on the health and wellbeing of university students by conducting an online survey at five higher education institutions in Germany in May 2020. A total of 5,021 students participated in the survey and looking at students’ engagement in health risk behaviours, we found that most changes were reported on levels of physical activity, with 30% of students reporting an increase and 19% a decrease in their physical activity levels. Unsurprisingly, 24% reported a decrease in binge drinking and hardly any changes were reported in student’s tobacco or cannabis consumption. A majority of students reported the presence of depressive symptoms and this was related to changes in their health behaviours and their feeling about their academic life and progress. Our study was part of the larger COVID-19 International Student Well-Being Study (C19 ISWS), led by researchers at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Can you derive recommendations for universities or for university students from your study?

In short: I believe that a variety of approaches and initiatives – at the structural as well as the community and individual level are necessary to promote health and wellbeing amongst university students – also during (and after) the COVID-19 pandemic. For universities, one way to promote health and wellbeing among the student population is by making health and wellbeing a priority in the academic life. One way to do so is by providing and setting up appropriate structures for health promotion and facilitating a health-promoting culture and ethos in the university setting (e.g. establishing health promotion policies, offering easy access to services and facilities for all students, etc.).

How has COVID affected your life?

Since the start of the pandemic I have been predominantly working from home, with all meetings and exchanges currently taking place solely online. This has been quite a change compared to before the pandemic, where I would spend most of my work time at the institute, taking place in face-to-face meetings and sitting together with colleagues at lunchtime (which I do miss a lot!). Working in an epidemiological research institute, the COVID-19 pandemic has of course also led to a variety of new research projects and activities in our institute. Some of my colleagues remain closely involved in contributing their epidemiological expertise to counter the pandemic, such as through the Competence Network Public Health COVID-19 (https://www.public-health-covid19.de/en/) that has been set up at the start of the pandemic.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

Effective efforts to promote student health and wellbeing continue to be required, also in times of the pandemic and beyond.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

My perfect day off involves getting up early to be active, followed by a leisurely breakfast or brunch (including a lot of good coffee!). For the remainder of the day I would choose to go spend as much time as possible outside, in nature, discovering new places, ideally with the sun being out and with family and friends around.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Heide Busse for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Heide Busse and her work:

Blog series #5: How COVID-19 affects sustainable transformation

Dr. Prajal Pradhan is a postdoc at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). He is working on food systems and urban transformation in response to climate change.

Name / Institute:

  • Dr. Prajal Pradhan
  • PIK – Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • Leibniz Section E

Research topics:

  • Food systems & Sustainability
  • Bioeconomy & Cities
  • Climate change

Main featured instrument or technique:

  • Online surveys and online workshops

“To fight COVID, I generate knowledge on its challenges and opportunities for sustainable transformation.”

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

Since the beginning of 2020, my main research topic is to understand the impacts of climate change on the bioeconomy sector in Europe, considering its interlinkages with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). My research also focuses on sustainable cities, mainly from the food systems perspective. Before this research topic, I was investigating various aspects of sustainable food systems and interactions among SDGs.

What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

We mainly found that COVID not only poses challenges to SDGs, but also opens opportunities for sustainable transformation. This finding is based on our Nepal case study. In Nepal, COVID has negatively impacted most SDGs, weakly promoting impacts on a few SDG targets in the short term. Many of these negative impacts may subside in the medium and long terms. Surprisingly, COVID has also opened a short-lived and narrow window of opportunity for sustainable transformation. These opportunities need to be utilized for achieving SDGs by 2030 before rebounds occur following past trajectories.

How has COVID affected your life?

COVID has both, negatively and positively affected my life. The negative effects are fewer physical contracts with colleagues, difficulties in balancing childcare and home office work, and no travel opportunities required for breaks and mental health. Among the positive effects were new opportunities to network and do remote cooperation with various colleagues across the world. Our study on COVID-19 and SDGs is one such example.

Does the COVID situation in your home country influence your research?

Somewhat it influences concentration at work thinking about parents and relatives exposed with COVID in the home country. However, this effect is not substantial.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

We should look at crisis not only as a challenge, but also identify hidden opportunities behind this challenge for sustainable transformation and further development at personal and professional levels.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

A perfect day at work or “home office” has a mixture of activities, including meetings with colleagues, working on papers and proposals, and analyzing data. I start with a reviewing paper during the day off; if any review request is pending. Afterward, it would be more family time.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Prajal Pradhan for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Prajal Pradhan and his work:

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Blog series #4: Coping strategies of families during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Friederike Blume, Dr. Andrea Schmidt and Dr. Andreas Neubauer are postdocs at DIPF – Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education. For a project on the psychological adjustment to the COVID-19 pandemic (PACO) of families, they are working closely together. In part four of our interview series, they show how a collaborative approach can successfully uncover psychological aspects of the pandemic.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Andrea Schmidt,
Dr. Andreas Neubauer and
Dr. Friederike Blume
DIPF – Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education Frankfurt/Main
Leibniz Section A

Research topic:
AS: social interactions, well-being, ambulatory assessment
AN: psychological needs, intensive longitudinal data
FB: self-regulation, instructional quality, ambulatory assessment, intensive longitudinal data

Main featured instrument or technique:
Daily diaries, online questionnaires

“We target what kind of everyday experiences help families and children cope with the pandemic.”

You have applied as a team for our interview series. How closely do you work together, and why?

Typically, we work on separate projects and collaborate on topics within the projects that benefit from each other’s expertise. The PACO project generated a very rich data set – so we joined forces to analyze these data from multiple perspectives.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

FB: I studied students’ self-regulation, also in the context of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and how both clinical and classroom-based interventions may help students in overcoming academic underachievement. To this end, I used several methodological approaches, including neurobiological ones like electroencephalography (EEG), as well as virtual reality (VR) classrooms.

AN: I studied fluctuations and changes in humans’ well-being on various temporal time scales – from within-day, moment-to-moment fluctuations to long-term changes across the human life span. I was particularly interested in the use of ambulatory assessments, a method that allows to capture thoughts and experiences in peoples’ everyday lives.

AS: I studied peer interactions at school and how they are related to children’s well-being, especially in the context of the transition from primary to secondary school. We also used ambulatory assessment in our studies, so children responded to self-report items on research smartphones four times daily across four weeks.

What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

AN: What we saw in the data was a large amount of inter-individual differences in how parents reported to respond to the pandemic in March / April 2020. On the one hand, some reported (as I would have expected) high stress level, uncertainty, and conflicts arising in the family. On the other hand, other parents reported the time in March / April 2020 as a quite positive experience with fewer obligations and more high-quality family time. Our findings also showed that everyday experiences made during this early phase of the pandemic (such as interaction between parents and their children) were related to how parents and family adjusted to the situation across the first couple of weeks of the pandemic.

Can you say a little bit more about what the factors are that are related to better adjustment to the situation? What do you think that families need in order to be better equipped against new global crises in the future?

AS: Better adjustment was linked to having and maintaining a positive parent-child relationship and positive family climate despite the crisis. Supporting children in their autonomy (e.g., giving children as much freedom as possible to decide for themselves what they want to do) can be one way to create a more positive family climate.

FB: On the end of learning and school related tasks, focusing on fostering strategies for self-regulated learning could be beneficial to support children and families not only during distance learning but also for in-person classes.

How has COVID affected your life?

FB: I joined my current team in April last year. As I did not meet most of my colleagues in person yet, it feels like I am still settling in. I also miss conferences and in-person meetings as the amazing feeling of being creative and productive together does not really evolve in virtual formats. Switching jobs also implied moving to a new city, Frankfurt. Luckily, I joined a handball team a few weeks after I had moved.

AN: I have not set foot into my office in over a year now. Not being able to interact directly with our team has really made life difficult – not so much on the level of productivity (we could move much of our research and communication to a virtual setting), but more on a personal level. In combination with many canceled in-person conferences, I feel that one of the things I enjoyed most in academia – the exchange of ideas in person, to spontaneously brainstorm about new ideas – has been missing.

AS: As most of my colleagues at the DIPF, I am working from home since March 2020. However, I am also working part-time in a psychiatric clinic, as I am studying to become a psychotherapist for children and adolescents. Despite wearing masks and trying to keep physical distance whenever possible, daily routines in the clinic haven’t changed that much during the pandemic. Although I am lucky to not be as deprived of in-person interactions as lots of other people working from home for more than a year now, I still miss having in-person contact with my colleagues at the DIPF, with other researchers, and – of course – with family and friends.

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic?

AN: Research is evolving quickly, but it was my impression that this was tremendously accelerated for research connected to the pandemic. Also, public interest in my research before the pandemic was low, at best, but this changed when we launched our pandemic related projects. For me, this came with new challenges (communicating with media) that take up time and that you might need to get used to at first.

FB: Although I analysed data from the PACO project, I was not part of the team designing the study and collecting the data (I just joined the team in April 2020). Other than that, my research usually strongly relies on collecting data in schools (as I usually do not wish to draw conclusions on distance education settings only). As schools have been (partially) closed for a long time, my research projects have been on hold as well. I therefore have no brilliant advice of how to deal doing excellent research during pandemic.

AS: Nothing to add 🙂

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

AS: One of my key findings in examining how families experienced children’s distance learning (i.e., homeschooling) in Germany was substantial heterogeneity between families. Thus, distance learning did not appear as another daily stressor per se: In some families, distance learning was linked to more negative parent-child interactions and lower affective well-being of parents and children, while in other families, it was associated with less negative parent-child interactions and better affective well-being.

FB: My investigation was concerned with how task attributes of students’ daily learning tasks might support students’ daily self-regulation at home, while schools were closed. At its core, we showed that teachers should definitively consider how much fun students will have while working on the tasks and how difficult the tasks might be perceived to be. This will help students in learning more independently from their parents.

AN: The real interesting question is not so much “How has the pandemic affected people’s feelings and experience?” but rather “Who has been affected by the pandemic in which way – and why?”. People differ in how they were affected and we need to better understand how and why they differ, and understanding everyday experiences are key to address these questions.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

FB: My perfect day is definitively a day spent outdoors in the mountains with friends. Either with hiking, with alpine skiing, or cross-country skiing. Since I like good weather, I prefer the sun to shine. The day will end with a rustic dinner, a glass of good wine or a beer, and lots of laughter.

AN: I love traveling around “rough” landscapes (as in Scandinavia or Scotland) – on foot, by car, train or boat, just traveling around there is one of my favorite things. Top that off with a good dinner (something spicy like Mexican or Indian) and you have my perfect day.

AS: I totally agree with Andreas and Friederike in how their perfect day off work looks like: spending time outside and having a good dinner – just no spicy food for me 😉 Despite that, I love to do yoga as a counterbalance to the hectic daily life.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Andrea Schmidt, Dr. Friederike Blume and Dr. Andreas Neubauer for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about our interview partners and their work: