Ensembl under lockdown – Part 4

Whilst the UK has started to lift some of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, Ensembl staff are still working from home. We are fortunate that we can continue to do this and that there are flexible working arrangements in place to support us.

In this blog, Nishadi and Guy reflect on the last three months. They discuss opportunities the pandemic brought – from working on the Ensembl’s COVID-19 resource and creative writing to spending more time with family and re-connecting with friends. They also share the challenges they face personally and Guy, who is a Staff Association representative, talks about their work under lockdown, including during the recent Mental Health Awareness week. 

We hope that you like the ‘Ensembl under lockdown’ series and that you stay healthy in these difficult times!

Nishadi De Silva

What is your job in Ensembl and how has it changed under lockdown?

I am the micro-organisms project leader in Ensembl, which means that the datasets I work with are small, but many and diverse. I divide my time between producing the content for Ensembl Fungi, Protists and Bacteria, participating in conferences and training and working on joint projects with our collaborators. Since March, I have also been involved in Ensembl’s COVID-19 resource which has, for me, been an energetic focal point and an opportunity to work with people across many teams. The switch to virtual meetings happened seamlessly. Not everything withstood that quick change though and we had to postpone some much-awaited events and visits. My workload has largely remained unchanged, although I have had to prioritise more honestly. I also rely more on email and Slack messages to communicate around our different work hours.

What are the challenges for you?

The main challenge for me has been constantly shifting my focus, as my husband and I split our weekdays between work and parenting/homeschooling. It has sometimes been hard to stay motivated and to create noticeable differences between a weekday and a weekend. The sunnier days have really helped! We’ve tried to stay active by running, cycling and attempting new challenges. I feel frustrated that I’m not as productive as I would like to be and about many other things. Still, I realise I am fortunate in many ways during this pandemic, including having an empathetic employer.

What positive aspects do you see?

I have found this situation has rekindled many friendships in my life. There have been conversations and celebrations across six time zones with friends and family. There is also an increased sense of community in our neighbourhood; the friendly encouragement from passers-by, neighbourly Easter eggs outside our door and other runners making a point of waving and smiling as they pass by. It is a strange contradiction; we are distanced yet closer than before. I’ve also appreciated the extra family time and know it will be looked back on with fondness as the years go by.

Is there anything you will take away from this period in the long term?

I have been surprised at how well entire institutions can function working remotely and how major changes can be instigated in short spans of time. That has left me hopeful that more flexible lifestyles will be actively encouraged in the future to accommodate the many threads that weave our lives and our planet.

Guy Naamati

What is your job in Ensembl and how has it changed under lockdown?

I work as a bioinformatician in Ensembl Plants, mostly on wheat which has been at the forefront of plant genomics research in the past few years. The main change for me was, like for many others, the transition to working from home. 

What are the challenges for you?

First of all, working from home was a real challenge for me! I’m much more of an office person and only on rare occasions would I work from home for half a day if needed.

The first day I worked from home, I managed to drop my phone and break it, which was a shame because I needed my phone to connect to work. But in the end this was a good thing, as I drove to the office to work on an internet based connection (when EMBL-EBI was still open) and also took some much needed equipment from the office to my home, like a proper chair and my actual desktop computer. After three months working from home, I have got into the flow; my main challenge now is trying to homeschool my kids while also working on Ensembl. It’s not always easy but I am learning a lot from them and we have all become big fans of Horrible Histories.

Another challenge is that I am part of the EMBL-EBI staff association and we are trying to think of ways to stay active during lockdown. One thing I was involved in was the Mental Health Awareness week from 18 to 24 May. We put this together at fairly short notice but managed to get some great webinars and also some fun activities like ‘EMBL MasterChef’. It was well attended and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to help organise this.

What positive aspects do you see?

There are many positive aspects! A big one is that we don’t have to commute which makes life so much easier. A large number of things have been postponed or cancelled, but this also makes things less stressful in many ways. I am enjoying spending time with my family, doing a BBQ when the weather is nice and catching up on old favourite movies with my kids.

Is there anything you will take away from this period in the long term?I will take away the knowledge that life can suddenly change completely, but even though this is difficult and scary, we are very adaptable. We are stronger than we think in many ways and although these are challenging times for all of us, there are many good and positive things we can focus on. Oh, and my take on A Tale of Two Cities which I created alongside some of my work colleagues!

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