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Intern life, the pandemic and everything


I was asked to write about how I’m coping with intern life during lockdown. As I’m typing this, I realise I’m quite possibly the least representative person to write about this topic. For me, there is truly no place like home, to relax or work.

As a strong introvert who lives in her head most of the time, I’ve been perfecting social distancing for decades. I recharge my batteries by spending time in quiet reflection, while extroverts need stimulation and interaction with others. For me personally, self-isolating feels more comfortable than the usual pressure to go out. My idea of a good time includes working on a crochet project while letting my mind wander. In addition, I don’t have anyone I need to take responsibility for, except a very laid back dog. I’ve moved around a bit so I was already relying on phone and online meet ups to stay in touch with my family and friends.


(Picture above: A typical lockdown dog walk in the amazing ‘hidden’ woods just 500 metres from our house. It’s not just daily exercise, but also an opportunity for mindfulness, gratitude and creative thinking.)

Because of my personality and ‘quiet’ home, part-time remote working has always appealed to me. I’ve had plenty of time over six previous jobs to optimise both the physical aspects of my home office and my ‘working from home’ etiquette. For example, I like sticking to routine hours, to do lists and dressing for work. Gaining two hours each day from not commuting means more down-time and longer dog walks, during which my mind often comes up with work-related ideas. I’ve always preferred reading and online courses to face to face workshops, since I’m a non-linear learner who likes dipping into and out of multiple sources rather than follow one source ‘cover to cover’.

My first intern project was around creating a generic model to predict the cost and impact of retrofitting a given housing stock in order to meet a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target. This tool is currently being adapted for Leeds City Council, who will use it to guide their decisions on the new social housing retrofit strategy. Knowing that your work can have a genuine and direct impact ‘in the real world’ is very rewarding. The project has also fuelled my dream to build or renovate my own eco-house one day.

To enable easy and widespread use by non-experts, the model is an Excel spreadsheet including VBA code. The housing data I used was a mock-up based on open access data (such as EPC certificates), meaning I could keep it stored in the cloud. As a result, it took literally only minutes to switch to working from home. Moreover, most of the communication with my team and collaborators had already been happening online, via email, Skype, Slack and Trello. If anything, I became more efficient during the lockdown, because remote working suited not just my own preferences but also this particular project.

This may sound like I’m enjoying lockdown. Of course I’m not. I worry about my family and friends, who are in different cities and countries. I worry about the NHS and other essential workers. It feels weird to be stuck at home while others are fighting on the front line. And, as someone prone to long periods of (over)thinking, I worry about how this all can go horribly wrong for the entire world. But maybe I’m coping better than my more extroverted friends, who have to deal with such worries on top of being forced to act ‘out of character’.

Human beings have a deep need for a sense of control. Now, we’ve had to yield control to a tiny strand of RNA that can only be seen under an electron microscope and is killed by common household soap yet has suddenly managed to cripple the entire world for an uncertain period of time. It’s natural to feel worried at this lack of control. Much of life’s suffering comes from the gap between expectation and reality. While you can’t control what happens to you, you can (learn to) control how you respond to it. Viktor Emil Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, phrased it like this:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.“

There is a rapidly growing number of very specific tips and advice on how to cope with lock-down and Covid-19 anxiety. My main bit of advice is to ignore any advice that doesn’t work for you! We are all different. Part of this is relatively hardwired, such as our personality, so rather than trying to change yourself, pick methods that work for you and your situation. Below is some general evidence-based advice to keep in mind to try and slot into your week:

  • Be kind to yourself. Remember that this isn’t a normal situation. Stress and anxiety are a natural human response to uncertainty. People tend to underestimate their ability to cope in adverse conditions. Don’t put any additional pressure on yourself by trying to be ‘productive’ or ‘turn it into an advantage’. Try to focus on the positives, for example by writing down what you are grateful for every day. Don’t judge yourself by your success, but rather by how many times you got back up after falling down (to paraphrase Nelson Mandela).
  • Create more space between stimulus and response. Most of the time, we react on auto-pilot. The first step to regaining control is to become (more) aware of when and how you respond. Once you can ‘catch yourself’, you’ll be able to introduce a pause before responding. This will eventually allow you to start controlling your thoughts, feelings and actions. There are lots of flavours of ‘mindfulness’ beyond formal meditation practice, just like there are lots of different ways to do physical exercise. Find what works for you.
  • Take care of your body. It’s easier to keep your mind healthy if your body is healthy too. Research on exercise as a powerful antidepressant suggests it’s most important to start and sustain a routine, even something as simple as walking. Find something you like that gets your heart rate up a little (kickbox, dance, chase your kids…) and something that lets you wind down (yoga, stretch, bubble bath…). Try some healthy food choices without forgoing comfort food – for example (dark) chocolate has numerous health benefits.
  • Take care of your brain too. Engaging in creative activities boosts both your mental and physical health. Dust off a previous hobby or take up a new one. For a smaller commitment, pick a book, movie or conversation topic that is slightly outside your comfort zone. It should feel a bit uncomfortable, hard or unpredictable, otherwise your brain isn’t learning. Finally, make sure to get a good laugh (free endorphins), ideally as part of a shared experience with someone else for bonus social bonding (e.g. send your friend a funny animal video).
  • Do something nice for someone else (without expecting anything in return). Givers are scientifically proven to be happier than takers. Helping someone else can make us feel more grateful and content, and can provide a sense of control and social connection. Doing quick favours for a colleague or friend also helps strengthen your relationship. A lot of people are already helping out by volunteering or donating, but it doesn’t have to be something ‘big’. Put a rainbow in your window, give someone a compliment or send that funny animal video.


(Picture above: I’ve recently planted the first sunflower seeds in our garden. Sunflowers bring up many positive thoughts and memories for me, such as childhood holidays in the South of France, the importance of patience, the wonder of nature and one of my favourite quotes: ‘Bloom where you are planted’.)

When LIDA issued a call for volunteers to work on Covid-19 projects, I thought this was a great idea and joined, as did many others. I’m lucky that I don’t have any existing commitments at home or at work. We had only just been assigned our second internship project and it is possible to postpone mine. The LIDA COVID-19 Response Team is currently coordinating a range of different projects and collaborations with local, national and international organisations. For example, LIDA is a founding member of the EMER²GENT alliance, which is tasked with finding new, faster ways of supporting the response to COVID-19 and subsequent global recovery.

It takes time to set up such projects, so I’m not yet sure when and how I will be invited to join exactly. For now, like most of us, I try to be as patient and prepared as possible. In this case, I’m ‘stocking up’ on new programming languages and methods, and keeping an eye on the scientific literature on Covid-19. As per the online meme: our grandparents were called to go to war, we are asked to stay on our couch. You’ve got this. If you are a frontline worker, thank you so much for your hard work and being a source of inspiration and courage for us all. Be kind, especially to yourself, figure out what works for you and stay safe.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl


Find out more about LIDA Data Scientist Internship Programme here.