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Flavia Messina, WIT

Flavia Messina, WIT

Flavia Messina, Researcher, ORBITAL ITN, MSCAction, WIT

Flavia is an early stage researcher for ORBITAL ITN, MSCAction working on retinal diseases, with the aim of finding novel drugs to slow retinal degeneration using preclinical models of blindnessand is currently on secondment from UCD Conway Institute

I come from Rome, precisely from the very city centre.

I am an only child, part of a family in which “being together” is the most important thing in life.

I’ve never been away from home before. My whole life is there: friends, family, pet, love and part of me. 

When I decided to make an experience abroad, I thought Europe would have been a right choice for me: easy connections, easy way to go home and visit my loved ones whenever I wanted. And for the first few months of my experience in Ireland, I actually had this opportunity.

My life was going great: I won one the top science fellowship, started working at a great college with lovely colleagues and, sometimes, over the weekend, I used to go back home to visit my family, enjoy a bit of sunshine, stroll along the sea or have an ice-cream in front of Saint Peter. Everything was just perfect. But perfection doesn’t exist in life, does it?

Indeed, COVID-19 started.

It is kind of funny to think about what it was like a year ago: in February we were almost laughing at what was going on, as if people were going crazy in Italy overreacting to something that could be a silly type of flu. But it wasn’t.

It isn’t.

We have lost a lot during this year: lives, happiness, freedom, self-control. We have lost the spontaneity of hugging people. We just got colder and more wary.

I want to be completely honest: I have been struggling this year and this is TOTALLY fine. I have accepted all the moments that I am living, because recognizing that we are human in a time when we have lost the flame of our humanity is the greatest act of kindness we can give ourselves.

I accepted that focusing on work isn't always easy. I accepted that it is not easy to live under constant isolation in a country where I have so few points of reference. And I'm accepting the idea of ​​not seeing my family for a long time and not knowing exactly for how long. I know many other people are facing the same situation. We are all in this together. We sang songs off the balconies, showing rainbows to soothe hearts, but now we're just tired of a normality which no longer exists.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I stop to think and wonder if I would ever have accepted this opportunity knowing everything I would have to go through and the answer is often “no, I wouldn’t”.

Don’t take it as something negative, this is just the reality. You must then be wondering if I regret it. But it will surprise you again, the answer is still “no, I don’t”.

This is because the PhD has become not only a great job opportunity for me, but also a great opportunity for my personal growth. I am finding myself strong, capable of overcoming obstacles that I never thought I could face before and I am sure this will have a positive effect on my life in the future, even though I cannot really see it at the minute.

I am also lucky enough to be part of a Marie Curie project, which allows me to travel (at least in part) at a time when travel is impossible. I had the opportunity to come to Waterford, where I found an enchanting and stimulating environment and where I learned some drug delivery skills, finding out that even a biologist can turn into a kind of chemist so nothing is completely impossible in life.

During this year, what I regret most was the impossibility of participating in real conferences, of creating a real and concrete network of people around me. A PhD, especially a MSCA PhD comes only once in the life and I know I won’t be able to recover these experiences ever again.

Nevertheless, virtual conferences represented a good way to challenge myself anyways.

Every year, in October, the institute I work for, UCD Conway Institute, organizes a full day of poster sessions. This year, of all the entrants, only 4 were selected to compete for the Allergan Innovation Award. And I was among the 4 of them. Actually, I was the most junior figure to have been selected and that made me really proud. It is not a huge spoiler but I didn’t win the competition. However, it was a big push in finding self-confidence again, and it was something I really needed after all of this.

I never had the opportunity to speak during a scientific event (except for my bachelor and master’s degree) and certainly I didn’t expect to do that virtually. I was surprised to find the same feelings you usually have in front of a public even in front of my computer screen. I have been more than happy, and more than scare too, to present my project in front of Enterprise Ireland and Allergan. And, even if I didn’t win the bursary, I think I performed quite well and for me representing well my supervisors and ORBITAL was the most important part.

We still have so much more to figure out with COVID-19 (unfortunately, it is here to stay), so I don’t know where the future of my own research will go, but I am hopeful there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, I’ll get to travel again, meet the other researchers and keep researching ways to fight ocular degeneration.

#IWDResilience #ChooseToChallenge

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