Researcher – PhD Student – Mum: Can it be a practicable combination? Of course, yes!

Written by Mariangela Vespa (IZES gGmbH)

My name is Mariangela Vespa, and I am an Early Stage Researcher in the MISTRAL project. I am a PhD Student, but above all, I am a mum. My day alternates between work/kindergarten/baby food/diapers/university.
When I participated in the MISTRAL application process, my baby was just a few months old. It all went very fast, the first email inviting me to an online interview, the second one for an in-person interview in Saarbrücken (Germany), and a final email for an online interview in which they told me that I had got the position. WOW! And now?
After a few months, we moved from Finland (where we lived for 4 years) to Germany. In a next step, we had to find a house and daycare, while in parallel trying to understand where we were, the new language, culture, places, and so on. Everything changed so fast that I could not keep up with it! Yet it went on, flowed, and somehow worked out.
Unfortunately, just as everything seemed in order, the pandemic caused by Covid19 has changed all the balances, again. The kindergartens closed and I started working from home. That period was hard (for many people, I guess) and it was in that moment that we had to readjust all our family and work habits. The wisest decision seemed for us to leave Germany and return for a period to our homeland, Italy. We were sure we could find the comfort there and receive help from our parents. May grandparents be blessed! Therefore, a new phase began, made up of “Wait, I’ll turn off the webcam because my daughter has an urgency”; “Dear colleagues, my daughter wants to say hello to you” etc. Let us say that for a while the limits were not clear: am I working or am I a mother? A little of both, together, from the morning until the evening.
It has been more than one year since I started to work in the MISTRAL project and I feel that everything is settling down. My research on the cumulative impact of the different renewable energies in the people-place relationship is taking shape. My first article from the title “Mental associations between renewable energies, place, cognitions and emotions. A social media analysis on Instagram” is about to be submitted. All the prerequisites to get a PhD at the end of these years at Saarland University have been respected.
All of this was possible thanks to the research team at the Institute for Future Energy and Material Flow Systems (IZES gGmbH) where there is always a great propensity to understand the needs of the others. I am also grateful to our MISTRAL family, who organizes events trying to feel more in contact and taking care of us.
Concluding, the PhD student- researcher- mum combination is scary; it scares me too. However, it can be done. In my opinion, the important things are to have the right people next to you, a lot of willpower, and learn to slow down when the rest of the world goes too rapidly.

Collaborating & Researching During a Pandemic: A Different Kind of MISTRAL-ITN Summer School

By Nina Schneider and Elizabeth Côté

The pandemic is affecting everyone, including the MISTRAL Network. More so since our project is rooted in principles of mobility and trans-institutional collaborations and exchanges. Innovative Training Networks (ITN) within the context of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions typically include many on-site events such as Summer Schools designed to strengthen the bonds between Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) and facilitate the initiation and blossoming of collaboration. MISTRAL includes three Summer Schools. The first took place in September 2019 in Belfast (see first picture). It provided the opportunity for ESRs and the wider network to meet and exchange for the first time. This event marked the start of a great adventure for most of us.

Photo: First MISTRAL-ITN Summer School in Belfast, September 2019

Given the resurgence of new COVID-19 cases in Switzerland last October and the resulting mitigation measures, the ESRs were not able to reconvene for the second one-week Summer School which was planned to take place in St. Gallen, a PhD dreamland strategically located near the Swiss Alps.
Like everybody else, we moved online in hope that, despite the virtuality of our interactions, the Summer School would still provide us with plenty of opportunities to present our progress to each other, get useful feedback, learn, and identify potential opportunities for further collaborations. Overall, we were all happily surprised how well the new format worked out. Although most of us reported screen-fatigue at the end of the intense week, we learned a lot from the different interactive sessions and trainings, but most importantly from each other.

Photo: Second MISTRAL-ITN Summer School online, October 2020

The week started with a session on conflict management and mediation in contested wind energy projects. This input provided us with important insights about our role as researchers and highlighted possible ways to deal with emotional situations during data collection. Then, all ESRs were provided with the opportunity to present progress on their research projects and collect valuable feedback from peers and supervisors. It was inspiring to see how we all progressed during this first year. In preparation to the event, ESRs also prepared executive summaries which were shared broadly throughout the network. ESRs could also submit a piece of work in progress in order to obtain more thorough feedback from designated reviewers.
Progress reports were useful in twofold. First, presentations always help to break down work to its essential parts, facilitating thus the streamlining of ideas. Second, this format provided us with the chance to obtain valuable feedback and identify potential synergies. The 15 ESRs part of the MISTRAL-ITN project are highly trans-disciplinary. We are all addressing questions related to the social acceptance of renewable energy infrastructure. The heterogeneity of our group always brings fruitful discussions since it forces us to look at the same issue through different lenses. The diversity of our respective background makes our strength as a group.
Further, we also attended creative trainings such as “how to write our own book”. This interactive workshop used the ‘Design your Life’ method developed by researchers at Stanford to guide us through identifying our strengths, interests and motivations in life. This was a good way to prompt us to reflect on why we are doing what we are doing, and what we would like to achieve with it. It was again a great opportunity to grow individually through a collaborative process.
Academic writing is a science in itself, even an art, and it is often underestimated. The Summer School provided us with different sessions during which we discovered helpful tools to successfully complete our PhD journeys. This ranged from improving our reading and writing habits and skills, to strategically disseminating our work through different channels to maximize impact. These sessions ultimately provided us with tools to make the writing process more enjoyable and efficient.
One afternoon was dedicated to the development of a common communication and dissemination strategy. Many creative ideas on how to disseminate our work and research insights emerged from this brainstorming session. Stay tuned, more to follow soon! The Summer School was concluded by a methodology workshop. This session provided us with a broad range of ideas of how to conduct research and collect data during a pandemic.
Overall, the Summer School was a success despite not being able to meet physically because it provided us with an opportunity to stay connected and exchange. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to further researching this interesting topic and hopefully meeting in person soon. Our understanding of social acceptance was challenged and further developed during this week. We are all little pieces of a puzzle, and it is only when we work together that we form a whole. In the end, we hope that we will be able to get a more comprehensive understanding of social acceptance. Until then, we can only keep on researching.