Postdoc Michal Shemesh had just moved from the Netherlands to Israel last year when the corona crisis broke out. How is she doing now?
From left to right: PhD student Bowen Fan, postdoc Michal Shemesh and PhD student Vibhas Mishra. (Photo: Private collection edits)

Postdoc Michal Shemesh had just moved from the Netherlands to Israel last year when the corona crisis broke out. How is she doing now?

Lees in het Nederlands 

PhD students and postdocs have had - just like other TU staff - a hard time during the corona crisis. Travel restrictions meant that some researchers were stuck abroad while others combined home schooling of their children with deep thinking. For better or worse. And then there were the countless research labs that were temporarily closed. Delta looks back on the past year with three PhD students and postdocs.

When we met a year ago, you were mainly concerned with combining your research with teaching at home. How is it going now?
“Yes, that was the biggest issue at the time, but now a much bigger worry has arisen. My family were infected with the coronavirus in the last two weeks of March. My children picked it up at school. The disease has taken all our worries to a whole new level. Although we are lucky that we did not have to be hospitalised, it has not been easy. And it still isn't, because I am suffering from long term effects of covid-19.

How do the long-term effects of covid manifest themselves in you?
“In exhaustion. Physically and mentally. I have rapid heartbeat, am quickly out of breath, it‘s hard to concentrate and I'm exhausted. It’s as if my brain is no longer my brain. Instead of my thoughts being ordered, they fall apart in incoherent clusters. The virus does something to you at many levels. At first I thought that it would be over in a week or so. Then I thought it will probably be better at the end of the month. But now I have been struggling with it for months. I never thought that the recovery process months later would still be the hardest part of my corona infection.”

How do you combine this with work? Are you still working?
“I just talked to the company doctor and in consultation with her I am now working 50%.”

You're doing a postdoc. Is that even possible, working half days?
“Yes and no. No one can take over my research so the work just piles up. That is stressful, because I can feel the clock ticking for my contract, of the academic expectations and for my own planning. At first, I tried to pretend that nothing was wrong. I pushed on when I was actually too tired. I kept pushing my limits. And then my body slowly collapsed. Now I try to stick to half days. After all, it's impossible to recover if you keep asking too much of your body.”

That seems enormously frustrating
“It is. I am ambitious so I want to live up to my own expectations and those of the academic world. I want to conduct experiments, get research results and publish. I also came here with my family from Israel. They left their familiar surroundings for my career. And now I cannot get as much work done as I would like. I keep running into my limitations. I struggle terribly with this. Although I know that it is not my fault that I am ill, it feels like failure. I want to move on. I want to publish so that I can gain a foothold in the academic world after my postdoc. The other side of the coin is that I have also learned a lot lately, especially at a personal level. I now try to draw my satisfaction and energy from this.”

What have you learned?
“I try to accept that not everything always goes the way I want and that I cannot fulfil all my goals during my postdoc. I am also now trying to shift my focus from the academic to the personal level. I am meeting new people and am learning from them. I am trying to teach. And I have started asking myself questions: why is it so important for me to get the approval of others? Why is it so important for me to meet the expectations of the academic world? Expectations that - let's be honest - are sky-high. And why do I find it difficult to ask for help? I try to take this as a precious opportunity to learn something about myself.”

What help have you received from TU Delft last year?
“For me personally, TU Delft has responded very well. Because of my illness, I first had a conversation with HR and then with the company doctor. My supervisor is also great. She is under a lot of pressure herself and she works her ass off, but she still manages to make time for me.”

Despite all the setbacks, are you happy with your choice to come to the Netherlands for your postdoc?
“Yes, definitely. We had a bumpy start because of the corona crisis, but now we have all found our place here. My children speak a fair bit of Dutch, have friends and sports clubs. My husband has found a job that he really enjoys. Israel has never been a stable place, but now it‘s completely crashing. In that respect it’s safe to be in the Netherlands, although I worry a lot about my friends and family members who still live in my motherland. And me? I am happy here, despite the setbacks. I have made good friends and I have a group of female academics. They give me a lot of support. I enjoy the nature here. I try to keep in mind that we are in the middle of a pandemic. And to be grateful that it is not even worse.”

This interview is part of a series about doing research during the corona crisis.
Also read: 
‘I am more positive about my job prospects than a year ago’
‘I couldn’t go to my father’s cremation’