Two foreign PhD students about their experience with the lockdown in Ghent

19 May 2021 |

Doctoral students Elaheh Niazi from Iran and David Gleerup from Denmark arrived in Ghent around the beginning of the second lockdown. Although they have already been here for several months, they have actually hardly seen the city, or even colleagues.

It must be very strange to embark on one of the biggest adventures in your young life – your first foreign work placement – and encounter such extreme circumstances. Furthermore, to do so in a country that was facing some of Europe’s worst corona figures at the time. However, they were not frightened off, the desire to do their doctorate was too great.

A wonderful opportunity

Elaheh: “I’m really looking forward to finishing my research at one of the world’s most important reference centres for aquaculture. The corona crisis has now been going on for so long, I don’t want it to delay my work any further. Before coming to Ghent, there was a lockdown in Iran. When I arrived here, I ended up back in a lockdown. Fortunately, after my quarantine, I was immediately able to set to work in the lab, as everything is organised in a coronaproof manner.”

David was not scared off either. “When I set off in October together with my girlfriend, the corona figures were very low in Denmark, while they were at their peak over here. If I’m honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to them. And my family knows me too well than to try and stop me (laughs). I didn’t want to miss out on such a wonderful opportunity. In fact, I am quite puzzled why Corona has hit Belgium so hard. Most people are taking it seriously and respecting the rules, just as they are in Denmark.”


Not at all homesick

Work is organised quite differently these days, and it’s not easy to develop a social network. Elaheh is staying in a student residence, where she has the chance to chat to other residents, although they are not allowed to cook together. However, at least she has been able to make a few friends. “Actually, I’m fine. I’m naturally optimistic. I also have a lot of contact with friends and family in Iran. We speak or send messages three times a week. I’m not at all homesick. Fortunately, my doctorate and the search for my next academic placement are keeping me busy, so I have no time to think about being lonely (laughs).”

The incredible motivation for her doctorate is fuelled by her country’s geopolitical situation. “Professionally, there is a tremendous difference between working in Iran and working in Belgium. In Iran, our work in the laboratory encounters ongoing problems due to the sanctions against Iran. When you order materials, it either takes a very long time or they simply don’t arrive. Everything is so much easier in Ghent. You order what you need without any problems.”


A drink with colleagues

Actually, the greatest difference probably lies in the way you work with colleagues: “Everything is much more informal here. People are on first-name terms and my promotor is really easily accessible. I can always call if I have a question.”

David is also putting all of his energy into his doctorate, although for different reasons: “At the moment it’s all work, work, work. Not so much because of the situation, but because I feel so privileged to be allowed to do my doctorate. My university results weren’t bad, but they weren’t great either. I am so delighted to be able to do my own research, so I really don’t mind the long days at work. I really want to prove myself. Of course, I would also like to go for a beer with my colleagues. I certainly miss that.”


Off to the chip shop together

So he does have something to look forward to, once the situation improves. Just like Elaheh: “As soon as it’s allowed and it fits in with my research, I am keen to visit a friend in the Netherlands.” And she also has her sights set on the future: “I want to complete my experiments as well as I can, so that I can go on to work somewhere else in Europe.”

Besides going for a drink with colleagues, David has many other things on his bucket list. “I’m a bit of a history fanatic and I’m keen to go the Ardennes to find traces of the Second World War. We’ve put that trip on hold for a while due to Corona, as it’s not much fun if you can’t go to a restaurant or café. I’m also planning to go to the chip shop together with fellow doctorate students some time. I haven’t done that yet, and they tell me that’s outrageous (laughs).”

Elaheh is doctoral student at the department of Animal Sciences and Aquatic Ecology of th Faculty of Bioscience engineering. The music of Céline Dion gives her comfort and energy in difficult times.

David is doctoral student at the department of Morphology of the faculty of Veterinary Medicine. What strikes him about Ghent: the grandeur of historic buildings, like the cathedrals. Things are far more modest back home in Denmark.

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