Not your average student?

Shayma Alatharia was born in Baghdad/Iraq 14/11/1981. Completed my BSc. in Microbiology at Baghdad University, 2003. Joined an MSc program in Medical & Molecular Microbiology at Manchester Medical School, 2005. Later on in Jordan, she became a High school teacher and taught Biology for four years. Between getting married and having two children, in 2017 she decided to resume my research, and joined the University of Exeter to complete an MbyRes in Biosciences and won a full scholarship-2019 to complete a PhD: Developing genomic tools for identifying/monitoring fish pathogens. She is currently a second-year PhD student.

This is harder than I thought..listing challenges faced as a parent during the pandemic. Do I list the difficulties I was facing before this all started??

Well let’s just assume I’m a typical parent doing a PhD, but actually, there is nothing typical about it. I’m an international student, English is my second language (you might have picked this up by now), I’ve been away from science for 13 yrs. Won a scholarship at Exeter Uni while doing my Masters in Biosciences, and adjusting to live in a new country, with two children away from my husband, who works abroad most of the year. I do consider my self very lucky, and grateful to have had the opportunity to get a scholarship and to be treated as a UK/EU citizen, having a salary while doing really cool science and researching about the things I love the most..Microorganisms.

6 months into my studies, and the pandemic hits hard. I was already struggling, trying to find my way as a PhD student. My husband was in Jordan at the time, and borders were closed for almost 7 months. He was already caring for his father with terminal cancer. I was expected to work, attend meetings as usual while home-schooling and no support from schools or childcare.

Everyone around me was struggling, but I was trying to keep it together for the sake of my children. After a bedtime story “Harry Potter” of course, I’d make dance routines at bedtime, just so they don’t cry themselves to sleep, remembering how much they miss their dad and family. My supervisors supported me the most, and tried to lift any pressure by letting me know they will fight to extend my studies. I’d breakdown just after the sentence “How are you?”.  It was tough, but the feeling of guilt never washed off. I couldn’t study or take a break. It was just a continuous struggle of not being able to work, several interruptions in an hour.. the line of thought was always broken. I sent a message to my supervisor saying “I’m not working as hard as a PhD student should”. He replied with the kindest message and said ”I’ll expect you to be a student when you can be one, now your priorities are your family and wellbeing” I just cried for the rest of that day.

I try my best to find my feet as soon as I hear that labs are about to reopen. I contact Cefas (in Weymouth) to collect my cell lines in person, as they were closed at the time.

I start up the cell culture lab that was out of use for a few years, but it worked. I manage to run a few other projects alongside. With the support of a few lovely people, it was possible.

I struggle to keep this going during the summer, but September comes and schools start, still nothing in sight when to meet my husband again, but some hope for normality. My two start school, and my son comes down with a fever on the 3rd day. I try to book for a test, the nearest test was in Cardiff. I put them in the car, drive from Taunton, get tested in Whales. By night-time my second child shows symptoms. We isolate and I start learning live stream home-schooling. If you are a parent, you will understand what a nightmare it is. 3 days later they test negative, and life resumes once more. My husband manages to get a flight and see us mid-September, and it finally felt I can let go and be “me” again.

Looking back, I have done pretty cool stuff during those seven months.. I won 2nd place for the “Three Minute Thesis” competition, I helped with ramping up tests for Covid screening in the SPS labs in Somerset, and now I have an amazing support circle that I wouldn’t replace for the world.

I have just submitted my Upgrade to my PI, so for now.. Come what may!