This is part of a series of posts from ecologists across the globe on how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting them and their research. In this post, Jesús López Angulo discusses how COVID-19 is affecting research and researchers in Spain.

My name is Jesús López Angulo and I am a Spanish postdoctoral researcher at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC), Spain. My main line of research is focusses on plant community ecology and the effect of global change drivers in alpine and gypsum ecosystems. More recently, I also aim to explore the links between soil microbial and plant diversity in these ecosystems.

Jesús López-Angulo working during the COVID-19 pandemic
Jesús López-Angulo working during the COVID-19 pandemic

In my country, Spain, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely confined the population to their homes through the declaration of a state of alarm (a specific degree of a state of emergency) almost two months ago (since March 15th). This situation began to slowly change when the Spanish Government started the de-escalation plan in May 2nd, despite the fact that the number of infected and fatal cases remains significant. Since then, we are allowed to walk and play individual outdoor sports one hour a day, and stores have reopened to customers with appointments. One of the confinement measures that will be with us until the de-escalation is over is the limitation of free movement of citizens across the country, meaning that people will not be able to visit friends and relatives if they are in another region.

Since the implementation of the state of alarm, universities have been operating remotely through online teaching, and most lab activities and field campaigns were paused or cancelled, allowing only essential tasks. A great effort is being made by my institution, URJC, to continue providing the services of a public university. For example, they have launched a computer loan program  to allow students in social risk to have technological resources, and masters and doctoral theses are being defended online. Solidarity actions by URJC researchers and students are also being carried out, such as the production of face shields with 3D printers to distribute to hospitals. Furthermore, eight research projects have been launched to combat COVID19, including a new detection method using near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRs) technology by the department I work in.

I teach the class “Biodiversity and human impacts” at the University for Seniors (a special program aimed at people aged 55 and older who wish to return to study). Since some seniors have difficulties using technology, they prefer me to record the lesson and embed the audio in the slides instead of using videoconferences. This involves twice as much time as it used to take to prepare my classes. Apart from teaching, most of my research has not been significantly altered with the current situation, since I have already collected the data of my current project. Thus, I am currently working on statistical analysis, manuscript writing and revision, which I can do just as well from home (or even better, see picture 1). However, field work in my research group (led by Adrian Escudero) has been canceled, with the important repercussion that it entails for research grants. In the spring months, plants are at their peak of flowering, the optimum time to measure, collect and identify them. When we may go back to the field, many of the plants will not meet collecting requirements, so this year’s field campaign is likely lost. Inevitably, the extraordinary circumstances derived from the COVID19 pandemic force researchers to sharpen our adaptive management and work skills. For example, some colleagues such as the lichenologists Pilar Hurtado and Clara Rodríguez-Arribas have turned their bathroom into an improvised laboratory (see picture).

Pilar Hurtado's improvised laboratory in the bathroom
Pilar Hurtado’s improvised laboratory in the bathroom

Beyond the purely scientific point of view, the current circumstances affected my contractual situation, both negatively and positively. On the one hand, my current contract ended on May 6th and I should have taken another postdoctoral position in some time. However, since the onset of the state of alarm, all calls associated with research grants were put on hold, and it is unknown when it will be resolved. On the positive side, in April, both the central government and the regional Madrid Administration decided to extend the validity of the contracts for research staff. In my case, the contract was extended for three months, which will allow me to continue working until the situation is regularized and we can apply for new positions and calls for funding.

Without a doubt, the situation we are going through is not easy for anyone, both professionally and personally. At home, distractions can be even more abundant than at the workplace. Now, I have more flexibility and less structure, but this in turn has led me to spend more hours in front of the computer (sometimes until the wee hours of the morning). The use of an automatic time tracking software has helped me to track the time spent working, cutting down on wasted time and increase productivity, and I will definitely continue to use it even when I will go back to the university. The most difficult part of the working week is not being able to see coworkers, colleagues with whom to exchange feedback, friends with whom to share more than a coffee. The hardest part of the weekend is not being able to see family and friends, grandparents who are ageing, lonely, and nephews who are growing too fast. While the situation stays like this, I keep strong and think “The kisses and hugs will return”.

Also of interest: