I am at the University of Sussex doing a PhD in chemistry, where I design laser microscopy techniques in chemical synthesis, specifically looking at fluorescent nanocrystals. I love my research and talking about it. But I would like to discuss about how the Covid-19 pandemic made me think about my desk instead.
I’ll set the scene. On Friday 20th March 2020, I had left university with this distinctly hollow feeling. I knew that the country was going into a lockdown of an unknown length of time, because of a pandemic that could threaten the health of my friends and family. But I did not know at all what that meant. I suppose it was a bit like feeling really hungry and simultaneous repulsed by your food.
In a panic that Friday, I took all my movable work belongings, including my work computer screen, mouse and keypad, put them in a big orange Sainsbury’s bag for life and headed to my new workspace/home. All university equipment has now been returned as good as new and hopefully enjoyed visiting two pubs on its journey home with me. When I got home it dawned on me, I had the best parts of a desktop computer but no desk.
Over the next month, I developed interesting methods of working sitting on my bed. I would raise my laptop on novels for zoom meetings, hiding that I was literally working from bed. I mastered weird and fabulous ways of sitting which will probably lead to future chiropractor visits. One day I balanced on a swiss ball using the bed as a pseudo-desk. I needed to buy a desk.
All the furniture in my life was provided by my landlady. I like the aloof feeling that if I ever wanted to leave, all I needed to do was pack up my suitcase and go. This is despite never actually abandoning a tenancy or job without giving 4 weeks notice, in writing. But the principle mattered to me. People with furniture could not run away. The furniture is their responsibility. It was not provided with the room therefore must be removed when you leave. You cannot abandon furniture. Safe to say at this point lockdown was getting to me a bit mentally.
Buying that desk was me accepting I was doing a PhD. Its going to be hard but I’d give it my best shot. At the time, I was just over 1 year into my studies. Anyone else doing a PhD might understand the underlying fear of failure, the thought you cannot do enough and you possibly don’t belong here. Despite research being a creative, brilliant source of energy for you, actually you are underpaid and overworked. The prospect of 4 years of a PhD is a bit overwhelming to me. I put myself in a Catch-22 of sorts. The desk was to do the PhD and if I didn’t do the PhD I had no need to live in my rented room in Brighton, or way to pay for my rented room, so I would have to leave and when I left I needed to remove the desk. I decided I would just do my PhD instead. Maybe not as good as Catch-22 but that book is too long.
Once I had got through my furniture complex, I did it. I bought and constructed a desk. I ordered off Amazon. It cost me about £30 (next day delivery). It took me around 4 hours to build. My landlady offered to help but I was determined to do it myself. When you think about a desk this much you have to persevere alone. Everything was ready. I was going to make great progress over lockdown and feel proud of myself when I turned up at work with half my thesis finished.
I hate the desk. Its not level. It wobbles. Its not deep enough for a laptop to sit on it. It gets in the way of where I do yoga. I think since the first two weeks of breaking science with desk inspiration, I have sat at it twice. It is now where I put my houseplants for better sunlight.
Luckily, this whole ‘situation’ gave me an unshakable belief in my own ability to get through difficult times and I now know I am going to finish my PhD. Finally, my houseplants are doing wonderfully.
— Lorna Brigham
Author bio: Lorna is a second-year chemistry PhD student working in the Osborne Lab, where they research fluorescent nanocrystal growth for use in solar cells. The Osborne Lab develops ultra-sensitive optical techniques. Lorna completed undergraduate and master’s courses at the University of Sussex. Their master’s research project was modelling the surface science of interstellar ices with the Brown Lab group, and they are interested in green chemistry and research for sustainable development. Outside of work, Lorna has been learning to cook and ride a bike.