Earth’s heart attack’ moment

The natural world is fading, the evidence is all around… But if we act now, we can yet put it right.

Sir David Attenborough

Growing up we are constantly reminded by our parents to eat our fruits and vegetables, drink water, and go to bed early. These habits are soon forgotten. Many individuals throughout the world lead extremely unhealthy lifestyles, consuming excessive amounts of sugary foods, alcoholic and fizzy drinks, and developing bad habits including a lack of exercise and smoking. Many of these people end up having serious health problems, including diseases, heart attacks, and other complications. For lucky individuals this is just a scare, and one which shocks them into changing their habits. My great grandfather did exactly that.

My great grandfather, Joao Infante, who I never got the chance to meet, was an ice-cream salesman. He was an incredibly kind and positive person, and his title of ‘salesman’ was used loosely. If a child were short of money or had no money at all, he would make sure that they still got an ice-cream. Because of this, he was loved throughout his community. Joao enjoyed 1920 Aguardente which is a strong alcoholic drink. The name Aguadente translates to “firewater” in English. At the age of 59, he was told by his doctor that he had cirrhosis of the liver. The doctor said he had only a few months to live, and so there would be no point for him to stop drinking.  

Devastated by the news, Joao went to see a specialist. My great aunt Delores Infante tells me of that interaction. She sat with Joao and the specialist told him that every drink he had was equivalent to him putting another nail in his coffin. Stunned by the statement, Joao decided that from that day he would never drink alcohol again and that he would lead a healthy lifestyle. To pass his craving he would put a few drops of 1920 on his hands and just smell it. He went on to live another 11 years. In the end, Joao did not pass away from liver problems as his liver had recovered. 

Humans are not only responsible for their own personal wellbeing and health. We are also increasingly influencing the earth’s climate and biosphere by burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforests, draining wetlands and polluting oceans and rivers. Scientists have continually warned against these poor habits that promote climate change and biodiversity loss, which may hinder a sustainable future for life on the planet. We can relate that to a doctor telling their patient: ‘You ARE going to have a heart attack’. We would assume that, naturally, the individual would make some serious changes to their lifestyle to avoid this.

So, why is it that scientists are warning us constantly about the imminent demise of ecosystems, yet we see little collective change? Perhaps we do not believe our scientists as much as we do our doctors. Are we the patient that has been warned and continues to live with bad habits? Or do we need the global equivalent of a heart attack to change our behaviour?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to the earth’s heart attack moment/scare. Ironically, a study suggests that global warming may have indirectly contributed to the coronavirus itself. More people working from home due to the pandemic may mean less air pollution, but this is projected not to make a significant long-term improvement. Climate scientists state that the global pandemic has actually placed less importance on climate change mitigation and more importance on the public health crisis and economic losses. 

The climate crisis is not just about global warming, in recent weeks large areas across Europe and North America have had record-setting snowstorms. The US state of Texas experienced record low temperatures, the states water and power supply were not ready for the freezing conditions leaving communities without power and water for days. Reports of at least 58 people had died in storm areas due to hypothermia, house fires, car accidents on snow-covered roads or poisoned by carbon monoxide emitted by vehicles or generators in closed spaces.

Texas in February 2021. Click here to see images of the record snowstorms in major cities across the world.

Such devastating disasters call for global change. It is up to each and every individual to come together to live a more sustainable and less impactful life. As Michael Jackson’s famous song says: ‘I’m starting with the man/woman in the mirror’. It is too easy to look to others, look to government or big organisations for positive change, it starts with you. You might be saying: ‘climate change will not affect me, why should I care?’ Maybe not right now, maybe not in five years, but your children will definitely experience climate change in its full force, and they will not be happy about it.

Behind the scenes of a typical life of a PhD candidate

I have always understood the concept of multitasking, but holding an umbrella in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other hand, filming a video and looking out for traffic while rushing to an early meeting was not an activity that I had never dreamt of. This is how my day started on the day that I filmed a vlog, capturing a day in my life as a PhD student.

From my experience, PhD students within various fields are not the most open individuals. It might be quite a challenge to figure out what we get up to daily. With this in mind, the SAYAS 2021 blogging team decided to film vlogs to show you what a typical day as a PhD student looks like.

As I alluded to in the vlog, typical student, PhD candidates doing research degrees do not have to attend classes (a privilege I really appreciate), However, the day is typically packed with various activities. These differ amongst candidates in different fields of research.

Additional to the activities shown in the vlog, I have a few extra things that I get up to on and off campus. As the year proceeds, activities in the lab get busier. Mainly, I embark on collecting data for my own PhD studies, and this entails conducting experiments in a sterile cell culturing environment. On such days, I occasionally spend very long hours in the lab, as some of these experiments run for a long time. After collecting this data, I prefer to analyze and compile it immediately on campus. However, with the advent of lockdowns introduced us by the novel coronavirus, working from home has become a norm, and I therefore, conduct data analysis and other activities from home.

Although teaching junior students is in integral part of many PhD students, conducting these lessons from home is an activity we quickly had to adapt to as Universities transitioned to online teaching platforms due to the restrictions associated with the pandemic. Thus, in addition to continuing with research activity at home, a substantial portion of my “working from home” time is spent preparing and conducting online lectures and tutorials.

It is very fulfilling and interesting to share your research findings with peers within your field, and this typically happens in conferences, both within the country and internationally (look out for a blog later in the year, where I will share my experiences from these conferences). Part of my time is usually spent preparing for such conferences, but with current restrictions this is unfortunately currently halted.

You may be wondering, what about the social life? Well… although I do have social activities here and there, spending long hours doing what you have a passion for (scientific research in my case) feels like social activity, and I hence, do not feel deprived of the ‘normal’ social activities. Certainly, our experiences as various PhD candidates differ amongst each other, as we are individuals with different personalities and life experiences, but I hope the vlog gives a glimpse into the human element of our often closed off lives.