By Rachel Douglas-Jones and Luísa Reis Castro
Going abroad during a PhD….
In Denmark, PhD students are required during their studies to complete a period of study abroad. Depending on their caring responsibilities and networks, this might be in commuting distance from Copenhagen – say over the bridge in Sweden, or – as for many Technologies in Practice students – much further afield in another thriving STS / HCI environment. Over the years, ITU has built strong relationships of exchange, but this has been through its faculty members and research groups. PhD students and faculty alike meet new colleagues at symposia, colloquiums, conferences and shape future connections between research environments.
During a pandemic…
Throughout 2020, visitors to ETHOS were on hold. Our planned autumn visitor, Luísa Reis Castro, was going to be working on her dissertation during her stay, an ethnographic analysis of the different vector control projects being researched, tested, and implemented in Brazil. We had been looking forward to some fantastic interdisciplinary discussions across anthropology, STS, history, and environmental humanities on all she’s been learning about control over the Aedes aegypti mosquito as a means of controlling the pathogens it is known to transmit[i]. Nobody was traveling, however, as borders closed and lockdown regimes fluctuated between waves. Within the Lab, we asked ourselves how can one “study abroad” take place under pandemic conditions?[ii]
With this question in mind, we invented a “Remote Residency” program. This was only partly in response to COVID-19, as we sought to ensure that we could continue to enrich our own PhD students’ academic environment during global restrictions on travel. The other part was that with the remote residency we were also building on thinking we have been doing as a research environment around being “hosts”. When Dr. Hannah Knox visited us in 2018, she was part of #flyingless academia and traveled from Manchester to Copenhagen by land. At the time, we reflected on what structures hosting institutions could put in place to make flying less in academia easier, something under-discussed in the emphasis on individual choices and responsibilities. But we were also very aware that under the pandemic, PhD students in other universities would also be missing opportunities to meet new research groups, get feedback from other environments, have their work known about internationally.
So, we imagined the remote residency as bringing a community to both the remote resident and the hosting Lab, opening for the possibility of present or future collaborative relationships, and providing a framework of support for junior scholars during a very challenging period in global academia. Might there be digital ways to share field experiences, research findings, work in progress? Could shared research interests be found?
Fortunately, Luísa agreed to be our inaugural “remote resident”, and proposed that she work on Chapter 4 of her thesis during her “stay”. This fit right in with shared interests in sensors, indicators, and sentinels in the Lab, as she has been working on how public health officials transform the virus vector Aedes aegypti into indicators—or environmental sensors and sentinels—by collecting and testing these insects for viruses to identify where an outbreak could start [iii]. As a way of structuring the stay, this was the range of things we proposed, as a kind of menu of ways of engaging:
- 1 x Be part of a methods-oriented conversation about your work in the ETHOSLab Research Group meeting
- 1 x ETHOS Instagram “takeover” with posts about the technologies in your ethnography and research project
- 1 x Interview in the ETHOS Newsletter, e.g. a tour of your “remote workspace”, be based on images, be a reflection of finishing a PhD under COVID, up to you.
- 1x Present work in progress to our wider research group, Technologies in Practice
- 1x Meet our PhD students (and recent PhDs) at a zoom coffee hour – they will provide a link and list of things they’d like to speak with you about
- 4 x Join “Shut up and Write” sessions with the group, on Wednesday afternoons.
- 1 x application materials workshopping with Rachel Douglas-Jones and Marisa Cohn, co-Directors of the Lab
- 1 x blogpost for the Lab reflecting on “remote residency”
The remote residency took place during the month of February 2021. In Copenhagen, days were still short, night coming early. As we hit the afternoon, and began to lose our light, Luisa was getting up in Boston and starting her day. Without access to the ITU’s physical buildings, we could not do some of the slightly whackier things we’d imagined, like streaming her in to the Lab’s physical space, or loading a Zoom call on the Lab’s iPad and attaching it to the one (1) Segway the university owns, so she could explore the building in the company of a Lab member. So we were left with scheduled meetings, partially overlapping timezones, and presentations. Here are Luísa’s reflections on the overall experience:
How did you experience being a remote resident at the ETHOS Lab?
- Life as a doctoral student and, in particular, writing a thesis can often be such a lonely endeavor, and the pandemic only exacerbated this isolation. But the remote residency allowed me to make connections and meet new people—even while confined at home. It was also a fantastic opportunity to share my work and receive feedback! I’m very grateful to those who generously engaged with my research.
In a world of #flyingless academia, what were the ways of being co-present at a distance that worked?
- The ShutUpandWrite Group, which meets every week on Microsoft Teams to write together, was a great way to get to know people and learn snippets of their projects, as they shared what they were working on that day. Unfortunately, the significant time difference between us was not very forgiving, and I didn’t manage to join as much as I wanted. I also had the chance to have a candid conversation with fellow PhD students, where we discussed transnational dilemmas of PhD life and academic solidarities, sharing strategies to push academic spaces to be more caring, thoughtful, and accessible.
What will you take away for your work from conversations amongst ETHOS colleagues?
First, I received a lot of insightful comments about the chapter I worked on during my residency, where I analyze public health officials developing an “entomo-virologic surveillance” system by trapping and testing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (the vector for viruses such as dengue, Zika, and chikungunya). I also had the opportunity to talk about academic careers and the job market in Europe, and more specifically in Denmark. Finally, just learning more about other people’s projects and sharing our anxieties and hopes for the future, gave me a sense of community, something I truly miss during these times of physical isolation.
Research environments vary enormously, and being part of an intellectual world not your own can be really important as a PhD student. The remote residency prompted reflections on the futures that were thrust into our present: digital technologies are relentlessly promoted as the site of advance. What does one do in the aftermath of an experience that was vaguely imagined as a future?
A few thoughts from the ‘host’ side. First, planned informality is hard, and informal is something we as a Lab do really well. When everything needs to be in the calendar, there is a rigidity so different from stopping by a shared Lab space.
Second, as we cannot fix time-zones we can perhaps attend to both seasonality and peoples’ own bodily rhythms. The “data objects” we have previously gifted visitors with are materialisations of environmental and academic data, reflecting visits as seasonal and weather-ful experiences. Could we use this to work on other forms of synchronizing? Our Teams channel was a place to see some of the asynchronous discussions, but we are perhaps not the most active users of it: other research groups and/or slack channels might produce a greater sense of shared presence.
Finally, as Luísa noted, having others engage with your ideas and work, ask questions, take your interests seriously, is a gift in scholarly communities. As remote work continues, we will continue to think about and act on ways to bring about moments of “remote residency” community, for PhD students near and far.
Rachel Douglas-Jones co-directs the ETHOS Lab, and has previously written about the Lab’s role in #flyingless academia. For recent publications see http://itu.dk/people/rdoj/
Luísa Reis Castro is a PhD student at MIT HASTS program, and her dissertation is focused on new technologies for controlling mosquito-borne diseases, as a window into the politics of science, health, and the environment. http://web.mit.edu/hasts/graduate/reiscastro.html
[i] For a summary, see the CASTAC blog, The Vector, the Viruses, and the “Healthy World”: Placing Aedes aegypti in Brazil: http://blog.castac.org/2020/09/the-vector-the-viruses-and-the-healthy-world-placing-aedes-aegypti-in-brazil/ [ii] This is a different question from who can do fieldwork (and where) during the pandemic. There are serious questions of method and justice to be addressed by the scholarly societies of those who conduct ethnographic fieldwork, as many newly vaccinated imagine they can now travel. Due to patent laws, vaccine rollout will be unevenly distributed, necessitating firm commitments to research that does no harm on the part of professional organisations. [iii] Another part of the thesis, on transgenic mosquitoes is here, the full piece forthcoming in Environmental Humanities https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2021/02/23/becoming-without-rearing-and-releasing-transgenic-mosquitoes-in-brazil/