Here we go, my first blogpost, ever. The idea of creating this website started a long time ago. I had big plans to get this thing running before my move to Sydney and then write about my experiences from the start. Of course, that didn’t happen. The move, COVID, Sydney lockdown and several other factors took up more time and mental space than I thought. But now that I finally seem to enter calmer waters, I managed to write this post!
So many things have happened over the past months that I barely know where to begin. But let’s go back to how this journey to Sydney started… Right after my masters I started working as a research assistant at The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). It was here that I first learned how to do science during one of my master theses, and the NIOO quickly sort of became my second family. Working here was definitely high on my “jobs-I-want” list. How I ended up getting this position is a quite a funny story.
During my masters I worked part-time at Lidl to scrape together some money to pay the bills. In the week that I handed in my final master thesis, right before Christmas, I was sitting at the check-out counter and a familiar face popped by to buy some cat threats. It was Femke! One of the research assistants from NIOO. She came to Lidl just to tell me that she heard that Martijn Bezemer was looking for a research assistant for his VICI project. She knew how much I love the NIOO and she felt like I would be a great fit for the job. The position wasn’t exactly in my field. I studied Behavioural Ecology and knew nothing about plants, let alone the soil or the interactions between them. The project sounded interesting though, so I decided to send Martijn an email. I was invited for an interview; we had a great talk and a few days later I got an email saying that I got the position! I was super excited! Later I heard that a lot of people vouched for me, for which I’m eternally grateful (if you’re reading this: THANK YOU!).
Then there I was, freshly graduated, working on a topic I knew nothing about. But there wasn’t much time to think about that, because I was immediately put to work. Jon needed a lot of help weighing plant litter samples and cutting them into tiny pieces for analyses and later use in the second phase of his experiment. I spent hours and hours weighing and cutting, but I loved it. I remember my mom asking me whether I really needed a master’s degree for this type of work. Jon also made me feel at ease straight away. We had long talks and got to know each other pretty fast. The rest of the group was amazing as well. All super nice and clever scientists. The best thing was that they always treated me as a fellow scientist, not ‘just’ the assistant.
I expanded my theoretical knowledge about the concept of plant-soil interactions, and also expanded my practical skill set (I was a research assistant after all). I barely held a pipette before I started this job, and here I was, doing DNA extractions, preparing libraries, doing chemical extractions in the lab and analysing the extracts on very expensive, fancy machines. The group also became closer and closer and I made friends that I’m sure I’ll stay in contact with. Unfortunately, as always in academia, there’s a time of coming and going and slowly people were finishing their contracts and moving for positions elsewhere. Martijn even moved to Leiden University, which left only me and Emilia at the NIOO.
Luckily my contract got extended and I stayed at NIOO, but this time I worked for the whole Terrestrial Department. This was quite a change again, and I have to admit, I missed that great vibe and flow we had with the VICI team. Nevertheless, I was involved in some really cool projects and had a lot of fun along the way. But then the time came that my contract was about to end, again. But this time it was different. In The Netherlands it’s a rule that after three consecutive temporary contracts you need to receive a permanent contract or leave and come back after 6 months to start another temporary contract. These permanent positions are really hard to get as there are only so many ‘spots’ available. So, unless someone leaves, you basically have no chance. Eventually I ended up getting this permanent contract, but it was not the way I had hoped. In that same period that my contract was about to end, one of my dear colleagues got terminally ill. He had already been sick for over a year, but of course we were all hoping he would get better. But he didn’t… After battling his sickness for months, he passed away. This eventually led to me getting his position. It was a bittersweet feeling. Feelings of guilt somehow washed over me even though I had nothing to do with his passing. In these moments I tried to remember something he told me a few months before he passed away.
On one of his good days, he joined for the annual harvest of our long-term field experiment. It was right after the height of the pandemic and it was the first activity that we did with the whole department. For those couple of hours, everything seemed normal. As if there was no COVID, no sick colleagues. I remember how great it felt. Then he and I got to talk and he told me how he loved the projects I was working on. In other circumstances he would’ve worked on those projects himself, but with him being sick, I took over some of his work. He said: “It hurts not being able to do this myself, but I’m really happy that out of all people you are the one doing my job. This makes me feel a lot better”. So every time I felt bad about working on HIS contract, it were these words that I remembered. Obviously, the fact that I got this permanent position also made me really happy. This constant job insecurity can be really stressful at times. Life was good now. “But why on Earth did you give up this position then?”, you may ask. Well, that’s a different story which I will leave for another post.