Rebuilding bridges - Once upon a time… in a world of virus, resilience and broadband connection


We used to live a real life. Then we lived in a virtual one. Now, we are going back to real life, but some changes will stay, like my online yoga lessons.

The pandemic affected our lives in many ways, we all know it, and we all know how we survived. I’m a biologist, so I won’t even try to throw myself into sociological, economic or psychological analyses. I live in the academic world, with one foot in science and one in the humanities, and I witnessed great challenges and great changes in both of these domains.

Only two years ago congresses and scientific meetings were held solely in-person, training and lessons occurred in a classroom or in the field, and networking meant actually gathering with people in a place often far from home. Our state of mind was clear: we were at the meeting or we were at home. At least our bodies were.

We used to have Skype meetings, that’s true, yet nearly felt discomfort when it happened, since it was an exception to the rule.

Then, a small bit of RNA enclosed in a few proteins came to change everything. As resilient creatures as we are, we adapted our social rules and routines to the new pandemic style- welcome to a world where almost everything was online.

It was time to equip ourselves with the essentials - masks, hand sanitiser gel, and a broadband internet connection. Living in the countryside didn’t help me in these aspects. I had my first meetings inside the car with my computer, to take advantage of the wi-fi of the local rotisserie. Then I upgraded my 3 giga/month contract, and I could stay at home if I turned off the video to save some bytes. But it was only some months later, when the broadband arrived at my house, that I felt a real improvement in my existence. I was finally able to attend not only work meetings, but also online yoga classes with my sister who lives 2 400 km away.

So, even without social dinners and field trips, we managed to keep in contact with our colleagues. Actually, the development of platforms for online communication facilitated networking and dissemination activities, making them easier to organise, cheaper, environmentally friendly, and inclusive. Seminars or national events that would normally gather a few dozen “locals” could instead be attended by hundreds of people from all over the world, even from countries usually underrepresented at international events because of financial, political or administrative constraints. I organised two advanced training courses in 2020 and almost all the international experts I invited to teach there accepted the invitations: no travel, no costs, no waste of time involved. We just had to adjust the timetable to the time zone and choose the online platform. How great is this?

Admittedly, other aspects of the work required more inventiveness and sacrifice. Like a superhero, I have a double life: project manager of the ERC project RUTTER, in the field of History of Science, and researcher in the field of Lichenology and Environmental Science, where I also supervise the work of Lourdes Morillas, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow. As expected, the problems that arose in the two research fields had the same origin but were quite different.

The RUTTER project mainly aims at studying original manuscripts from the 15–17th centuries, which are in libraries and archives. With the lockdown and the closure of these structures, we had a long period of forced rest ahead of us. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that since the beginning of the project in 2019, one of our activities has been buying books to build a library with hundreds of the most relevant and updated volumes about any aspect related to the project. From the point of view of our reading material, we were ready to face a pandemic, a zombie invasion or even an atomic war. However, we needed the manuscripts. Once again, technology came to help in the form of high-resolution digitisation processes. While asking for digitising new documents was hard, because libraries were closed or overwhelmed with requests, the good practice of digitising documents before the lockdown allowed us to work not at a full speed, but at least at a reasonable working pace. It is the right moment to highlight the importance of digitising and sharing historical documents and, moreover, to publicly thank all the libraries that invest their resources in making available the treasures they curate for the public benefit. The virtual RUTTER library is an example of what we have achieved in probably (and hopefully) the hardest time ever.

So, while managing a project in History of Science was possible and the team was on the right path, what was happening on the lichen side? The laboratories were closed and lacking clear rules to access the facilities – any request to do anything in the faculty was simply rejected. We either had to abandon Lourdes’ samples to their fate or move them. In the first case, we would have lost months of work without a chance to repeat the longterm manipulation experiments due to their duration. This time, living in the countryside was helpful since I could bring home tens of soil cores with different types of biocrust and place them in the open air but sheltered from direct sun irradiation and rain, as we needed. Not a greenhouse, but a good compromise. Meanwhile, Lourdes’ house in Lisbon became a sort of laboratory, where she managed to accommodate and treat hundreds of lichen samples. Finally, when she moved to Spain for planned analyses, some samples moved with her. Of course, all this was possible because we work with lichens: when dehydrated they can tolerate the extreme conditions of outer space, so travelling from Portugal to Spain was like a stroll. The experiments continued, but the conditions changed and the new location on a balcony introduced new environmental variables. Once again, we adapted to the situation and the initial experimental design was modified: nitrogen was not the only driver of the lichen response anymore, but the synergistic effect of nitrogen and solar radiation was considered. A paper that was not planned was thus born (Morillas et al., 2021).

I must admit that other papers produced during the pandemic wouldn’t exist otherwise. For example, stimulated by the proliferation of online events, I decided to compare the effectiveness of in presence vs. online events in the dissemination of lichenological knowledge. My case study was the Italian Lichen Society and the results showed that the online courses and seminars organised during the pandemic caused the largest increment in the number of members of the Society in the last 10 years (Munzi & Giovanetti, 2021).

Can we conclude that the pandemic has been good for us? No, definitely not!! Did we learn something from the experience? Sure, we did: buy a lot of books, live only where a good broadband connection is available and work with lichens.

Silvana Munzi
Interuniversity Centre on History of Sciences
and Technology & Centre for Ecology,
Evolution and Environmental Changes,
University of Lisbon

Morillas, L., Roales, J., Cruz, C., & Munzi, S. (2021). Resilience of Epiphytic Lichens to Combined Effects of Increasing Nitrogen and Solar Radiation. Journal of Fungi, 7(5), 333.

Munzi, S., & Giovanetti, M. (2021). Wanted: virtual or live! How lichens are becoming part of mass internet culture. Symbiosis, 84(3), 285–293.

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