January 11, 2022

From colleague to student representative: my first year experience in INsTRuCT

Author: Ioana Nicorescu


I am currently sat at my desk, writing this blog and evading my boyfriend’s requests to help with dinner. After returning to Newcastle from Italy, I’ve realised it has been three years since I was last home for Christmas. I had high hopes there would be some snow to build a snowman with, instead we were blessed with sun, 15 degrees and a nice mountain spa. Anyhow, having a well earned holiday was what I needed to take a break and reflect on my time as a PhD researcher.

I started my INSTRuCT journey in September 2020, just weeks before the second lockdown was announced in the UK. Before the closure I did manage to try a nice Italian restaurant with my flatmate, but after that it was all takeaways! Like many of my other INsTRuCT colleagues I experienced an unusual first year, with remote working and virtual meetings. During that summer I remember we were all just getting to know each other, having informal video chats, even creating our own WhatsApp group. In every consortium, one student acts as a spokesperson for the whole group and communicates their needs and thoughts to the supervisory board. This person can either be a volunteer or is chosen through voting by all the students. I wasn’t initially a student representative, however circumstances led me to become one.

I was excited to start this journey, but first I needed to understand what it would entail and how much time I would need to dedicate to it. What motivated me the most was the wish to develop communication and social skills, and I thought this role would be ideal for that. In time I became aware that being a representative meant much more: along with administrative duties, like writing reports and organising training workshops, I spent time being in contact with the students, and getting to know them better. As the covid restrictions did not allow us to meet in person yet, most of our interactions had to happen online. Our first meetings involved discussing work within the consortium, although we would spend some time getting up to speed with the newest beer one of us had tried or what TV shows we were into. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that one of our colleagues suggested a virtual games night, leading us to discover Gartic phone and other fun online multiplayer games. I think this is what made our sessions less awkward and brought us closer together. We were not only colleagues collaborating on major European research projects, but also friends asking about each other’s past weekend or their latest adventure in the country they were hosted in. Furthermore, I realised how precious the contribution of the other students was in organising activities, as my duties as a representative were taking over. I can say with confidence delegating some of these tasks has taught both me and the other fellows the importance of developing organisation skills and of planning ahead of time. This brought everyone to brainstorm for social outreach activities, resulting in the current blog (I hope mine hasn’t bored you so far…), a series of lab experiments videos, and student participation to scientific outreach programs.

night games

Along with the mentioned experiences, I am also the students’ point of contact for administrative matters within INsTRuCT. I sometimes don’t have the answer to a specific query (maybe more like all the time…), but I try to spend time ensuring there are no losses in translation between the supervisory board and the students, myself included! Although sometimes challenging, it is rewarding to represent my colleagues’ voices and thoughts, to the best of my capabilities. Taking this commitment brought me through a series of experiences that made me grow as a person and as a scientist.

After a while spent as a representative, I wanted to understand what areas I could personally improve upon, to help the wider INsTRuCT community. Therefore, I developed an optional and anonymous survey my colleagues could complete, to give feedback on my performance as a representative. Taking into account the responses, I recognise the need to show a more personal side of my character. I am aware in person encounters would make this easier, so I look forward to that! Luckily some of the fellows have recently managed to meet in person, either for holidays or during a conference. I can attest to this myself having had the pleasure to meet Ayesha, our colleague also based in Newcastle, many times. I feel we managed to break the formal boundaries of video calls and online meetings, as a result of seeing each other face to face 😊.

As we are entering 2022, I look positively at the future and hope that the planned in person workshops and symposia will unite us even more as colleagues and friends.

Pe curând!