Back to in-person conferences 101

If you told the home-quarantined vitamin-D-deprived Julia of 6 months ago that in less than a year she would not only have finally been able to move abroad for her PhD, but also to attend in-person conferences again, she would have rolled her eyes obnoxiously. Nonetheless, here we are: in a plane heading back to the Netherlands after spending a week in the Elysian island of Capri for the 2020 European Conference on Laboratory Astrophysics.  And it doesn’t end here! Just over two weeks ago there was the first annual InterCat retreat at the blissfully bucolic Sandbjerg Gods in Sønderborg, Denmark. But as we begin to finally grasp some resemblance of what the academic life used to be before the pandemic, so starts the ever-lasting human struggle to adapt to any new circumstances. After an intense period of extended scientific and social stimuli, there are a couple of thoughts I’d like to share about how to deal with the “new normal” of academic rendezvous—or rather, how to actually be able to enjoy them as they come.

Group photo of the 1st annual retreat of InterCat, where you can see how high cake is in my list of priorities as I'm the only one who decided to hold it for the picture.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Clicking on a button that says “raise hand” while sitting in your room wearing the quintessential virtual-conference attire of a nice top combined with the designated pair of joggers of the week is definitely not the same thing as actually putting a hand up after a talk in a room filled with more experienced and established colleagues. And while that has always been a struggle even before Covid, the transition from the former scenario to the latter can sometimes be fairly turbulent. So remember that you have as much right to be present in the conference as anyone else, and that your thoughts matter. Believe me, after you break the spell and ask a question for the first time,  the next ones will get easier and easier.


  • Enjoy your venue!

Although this tip is definitely more of a no-brainer, it may serve as an important reminder to some busy bees out there. Cherish this opportunity uniquely offered by in-person meetings and get to know new places. After the conference at Capri, I took the weekend to visit the archeological ruins of Pompeii, one of the most enriching and memorable places I’ve ever seen. Even if you don’t have the weekend off, just exploring the surroundings of your hotel for an hour or two can already help assuage some of the pronounced wanderlust I’m sure most of you have been feeling for the past year and a half.  

A breathtaking sight of one of the petrified bodies found in the ruins of Pompeii

  • Talking about science is a great way to network, but doing otherwise can also be

One of the main challenges of on-line meetings is to provide the interchange of ideas and networking that play an important part in any conference. In person, we have the opportunity again to chat during coffee breaks and meals, and properly get to know each other. Even so, those conversations can sometimes become a daunting task, especially for my fellow introverts out there. If discussing a particular scientific topic is too outside your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to approach people by talking about something else.


  • The pandemic will be over – if you want it

The incredibly fast development of the vaccines for Covid-19 has completely changed the course of the disease worldwide. Now, many highly-vaccinated countries have been able to ease social-distancing guidelines and allow in-person meetings again. However, the pandemic is still ongoing, and we cannot afford to act as if otherwise. Simple measures such as properly wearing a face-mask when in crowded spaces and getting tested after the trip can save a life. Read that again.

On a lighter note, here's Alfie making a new friend

Posted by Julia Santos in Alfie&Julia, 0 comments

Settling in

The first two months of being in Denmark have been very busy with administrative things such as getting new IDs and fishing licenses. Its also involved a lot of working in my new office and within the lab as I detailed in my last blog post. But like Julia I have started to settle into my new life in Denmark.

I have gone to grab a drink after work with colleagues at something called a Fredagsbar (Friday bar). This is an extremely Danish idea where after work in the same building you should be able to go and grab a cheap beer with your friends. It is very much like a pub at work and I have to admit I think is a tradition that should be adopted in other countries. Although I will say that in Denmark they often seem to not use cash or cards and utilize mobile pay which requires a Danish bank card so, if you are thinking of coming be sure you have a few friends to buy you a beer (sorry guys I will pay you back eventually). Other than socializing, I have gone to try my hand fishing a few times as Aarhus is a perfect place to easily get to the sea and cast out a line. I still have a lot to learn as I regularly catch less than the Danes fishing around me, but I have started getting better. To answer your question Julia, its very common in Denmark to ride a bike and they are plentiful around the university and the city as a whole. I have not yet joined this group as I am still getting to grips with the traffic moving on the other side of the road and realized I should learn to walk before I run (cycle). I will keep you updated on my cycling progress if you do with yours?

With regard to my research and work, I have been trying my best to learn as much as I can before the semester starts. I have been finishing courses I had started when in the UK, such as my visualize your science course that I mentioned in this previous post. I had to make an example poster you can see here!

The poster I made for my visualize your science course

Julia mentioned we have an InterCat retreat coming up in the middle of September, which will enable us all to meet in person for the first time (hopefully). It will be a great chance for me to learn some more about what the Leiden group does and finally meet Julia in person. We have to create a poster for this event and I wondered how making it was going for you Julia? We will be sure to make a post detailing how the retreat went and the types of things we did while there shortly after it happens!

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Summertime plans!

In his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wilde encapsulated the burgeoning cynical movement of the late Victorian Era in the blatantly hedonistic character of Lord Henry. Throughout the entire book, we are faced with many of his dire ideas disguised as alleged ugly truths. However, since moving to Europe, I’ve found one sentence in particular to be surprisingly accurate. Days in the summer, indeed, are apt to linger—although I mean that in a much more literal sense than the character originally did. For someone who has only ever lived in tropical cities, the Dutch sunsets at 10:30 in the evening come with a very whimsical feeling of prolonged leisure. So, to reply to Alfie’s question in his last post, for the rest of the summer I plan on seizing the long canicular days and their serotonin-inducing capabilities.

A prepossessing picture of a canal in the center of Leiden

This summer is also a very good opportunity for me to properly learn how to ride a bicycle, which I have been intentionally avoiding since my childhood. I have recently acquired a second-hand bike that will be my faithful squire on my commuting endeavors to the lab, and I plan on mastering its ways before summer ends. Or, at least, to be able to cycle straight while signaling a turn. Given the notorious cycling statistics of the Netherlands, I still have a long way to go before I can feel on the same level as the regular Dutch cyclist—but I have four years to practice, after all. Alfie, is it common to ride bikes to work in Denmark too?

My faithful squire and I starting our journey to the cycling podium of the 2024 Olympic Games

Lastly, of course, I will be spending as much time as I can on my first research project as a PhD candidate. Hopefully by the time we go to the InterCat retreat in September I will have some cool (yes, pun intended… again) results to show!

Posted by Julia Santos in Alfie&Julia, 1 comment

Getting to grips with my ‘new normal’

I don’t know about you Julia, but Denmark is a very different world to the one I have left in the UK. Here they have done much better in their fight against Covid and there are a lot more things you can safely do. I have even been able to get a negative test and go into the university to see the members of InterCat who are yet to go on vacation! This isn’t the only difference, the weather has been sunny and hot (which I am told isn’t typical of Denmark, but I am enjoying it regardless) and I am getting to experience Danish food.

During the first week and a half I have been allowed out of my room, I have been trying to settle in and get used to my new surroundings. I am currently in student accommodation, which is vastly different to British halls of residence. These dormitories have pleasant living room kitchens where people play games, party or make a big group meal. It is a good way to meet people and build a community spirit and I as an incomer have really appreciated it. I will say I was surprised at the quality of the food, the things people make are much nicer than many of the meals I have seen in British student accommodation…

July was an odd time to arrive as many people have just gone on vacation and so my accommodation was quite quiet but I have still met a few housemates who have been very welcoming. Although I will freely admit to being jealous of them being able to enjoy the nice weather by going to the beach or taking a boat trip while I was at the university. They have helped me with a variety of different issues and have been teaching me some more Danish. I can now say jeg spiser æbler og drikker øl eller vand. (It isn’t that versatile but has its uses)

Julia asked me if I had seen any interesting facilities in her last post and the answer is yes. I have really made an effort to go into the university and spend time in the laboratory for astrochemistry and reactions on surfaces. This is where we have some of the ultra-high vacuum chambers (UHV) and has provided me with many opportunities to look at some interesting physics. I have been helping Frederik with his work before he goes on vacation which has required me to learn how to do a temperature programmed desorption (you can see what this is here) on a  UHV chamber (specifically the big chamber).

Working on the big chamber with Frederik and Georgios

I have now almost learnt how to do this and over the next week have the opportunity to do it on my own and put my newfound knowledge to the test! For the rest of the summer I will aim to do a wide mix of different activities such as making a poster for the InterCat retreat and discussing with John about how to incorporate a Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometer (FTIR) into my research. The plan is to try to learn as much as I can during these summer months so in September I can hit the ground running and make up for lost time! Do you have any aims for the summer Julia other than getting ready for the cold winters of Europe?

Posted by Alfred Hopkinson in Alfie&Julia, 0 comments

First weeks as a doctoral candidate

Since my last blog post, I’ve been dedicating my time to learn all the ins and outs of SURFRESIDE3. As I jokingly said to my daily supervisor at the end of the first week in the lab, “I feel like my brain is now twice the size it was five days ago”and I mean that in the most positive, Seuss-esque possible way. I have also been seizing opportunities to explore the different facilities at the University, which are filled with historical value.

The laboratory astrochemistry field is dedicated to studying the chemistry of space by recreating its conditions in the lab. This usually involves achieving very low pressures (around 10-9 mbar or 1012 times below atmospheric pressure), and temperatures. Interstellar dark clouds are typically at around 10 K, or approximately -260 °C, so low that we need cryogenic techniques to reach them. At SURFRESIDE3, we achieve that with a closed-cycle Helium cryocooler, which only rarely requires refilling with He gas. However, some experiments involve additional apparatus that also need to be routinely cooled down.

Coincidently this week, we ran out of liquid N2 in the lab, which resulted in the coolest (pun absolutely intended) visit to the Cryogenics Department at Leiden to refill our tank. On the way there, we made a stop at the display of the first system that succeeded in liquefying He, developed by Dr. Heike Onnes in his lab at Leiden University in the beginning of the 20th century. I wonder if Alfie has visited some interesting facilities too!

Replica of the apparatus Onnes used to liquify Helium for the first time. It yielded a sardonic final amount of about one tea cup of liquid He.

It feels good to be back in a lab, conducting experiments and exploring the idiosyncratic ways chemistry works at such extreme conditions as one finds in interstellar clouds. 

Posted by Julia Santos in Alfie&Julia, 1 comment

Arriving in Denmark

Moving to another country is a big task and Julia talked about how much she had to prepare and how Covid made this even harder. I read what Julia did and so did much the same. Following her advice, I have now safely made it to Denmark and I am in my new accommodation!

It was exciting getting on the airplane, explaining why I should be allowed into the country while showing my admission forms and negative Covid test. I then took a bus journey to Aarhus, where Gabi helped me take my things to my accommodation and provided me with some food to last me a few days. I now have to isolate and wait for another negative Covid test, which will let me leave my room and explore my new home, Aarhus. Isolating is hard enough at the best of times but is especially difficult in a new country when you know very few people. Therefore, I thought I would give some tips and advice on how to get through it based on my experience.


The most important factor in keeping sane while stuck in one room is to try to develop a routine. This does not have to be a rigorous routine that you stick to with rigid discipline and instead should be a loose routine with lots of flexibility. It should keep you in a rhythm that gives you a sense of time and purpose. It sounds corny and something a life coach would say but it really does help in staying optimistic and productive. For example, I have organized my day around my working routine I had at my home before I moved. This consists of making sure I am up and have eaten breakfast in a reasonable time and then checking my emails, which leads me into the day. Then once I have finished working I will have some food before watching a programme or speaking to a friend and finally standing outside on my balcony to get some fresh air. This keeps me sane and focused as otherwise I would lie in bed and barely notice the difference between night and day!


Keeping focused on the reason I have moved is a good distraction from being trapped inside four walls. I am in the lucky position of enjoying my work and so have found it calming to do a bit of research, make a presentation for a course or even write a blog post. I am trying to make the most of this isolation period to catch up on some of the work and progress I have missed while I was doing the research from my home in the UK.

Learning Danish

Anyone who knows me knows that I am dyslexic and have been known to on occasion struggle with the English luggage language. The thought of learning a foreign language has always daunted me and before now, I have ashamedly refused to try to learn anything and just rely on other people’s grasp of English. I do not want this to be the case and I am learning some Danish so I can have a basic grasp of it in the hope that once I finish my PhD I may be able to speak with a Dane in their native tongue and surprise my Danish aunt with a fully Danish conversation. However, the learning is hard and I am using a mixture of the Duolingo app and a pocket English to Danish book, which are useful tools to learn a little Danish before I am able to explore Aarhus.

I hope this will be helpful for people who also have to isolate or are interested in what my experience moving to a different country during a global pandemic has been like. As for me, I can’t wait to be allowed out of my room to meet my colleagues in person and dip my toes into the Danish way of life. Wish me luck!

Posted by Alfred Hopkinson in Alfie&Julia, 1 comment

How to prepare a move to another continent in less than one week— pandemic edition

A conspicuous part of being an early stage academic is the itinerant lifestyle often associated with it. Besides its fun and adventurous aspects, moving countries is also invariably a demanding task. For perfectionistic overthinkers like myself, the mere act of preparing the luggage can spiral into an excruciatingly elaborate reverie of highly improbable scenarios that make you second-guess your every choice of clothing. If you add a global pandemic on top of that, things can get particularly gruelling. Of course, those small hurdles are quickly forgotten the minute you finish settling into your new home. Nonetheless, the stress-inducing capabilities of a moving ordeal amidst a global health crisis should not be underestimated. If you find yourself having to go through something similar, fear not! I happen to have successfully (although not-so-seamlessly) experienced this same process, and am now on the other side. Since experience is the best teacher, I though it would be useful to list a couple of tips that I’ve learned while trying to organize my move in about one week.

1 – Diligently check the COVID-19 regulations to enter your destiny country.

Each country has developed its own set of regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Many places now require negative tests and/or mandatory quarantine periods upon arrival, even if you’re fully vaccinated. So, it is very important to keep yourself up to date with the travel requirements of your destiny country, and make sure to cover all necessary arrangements prior to your self-isolation period. Also check if the immigration requires any specific form or declaration, and make sure to bring extra copies.

2 – Make a painstakingly detailed list of everything you plan to take with you.

Arranging the luggage in this kind of situation can be fairly overwhelming, especially if you are required to self-isolate for a handful of days after you arrive. To ease the fear of forgetting that one plug adapter into which your laptop’s power cord fits, or that particularly comfortable pair of socks that are currently in the laundry basket, I advise you to do what every organisation-enthusiast like myself love to do: make lists. But take it to the next level. You should list every single thing you want to take with you, in as much detail as you can. Although it can feel like you’re being too precious at first, trust me: this will make the actual arranging of the luggage much more straightforward.

3 – Look for bureaus de change outside the airport

Admittedly, exchange offices at airports are fairly convenient: they are usually open 24h and can be easily found nearby international boarding gates. However, these amenities do not come without a (literal) cost. More often than not, the exchange fees in airport bureaus de change are heavily overpriced. If you don’t mind the extra trip, it may be worthwhile to look for alternative locations.

4 – Ask other compatriot expats what they think is essential to bring

Cultural differences are expected, and even desired, when moving to another country. It is part of the expat experience and makes the everyday life more exciting. However, sometimes there is no need to deprive yourself of that specific item that you grew accustomed to and that you can’t easily access in your new home. Before leaving Brazil, I asked people on Twitter what they wish they brought with them overseas and was very surprised with the volume of responses I got. Apparently, our much-appreciated “Havaianas” flip flops can be something of a luxury item abroad, based on the over 50 replies I received adamantly advising me to bring an extra pair.

After a long wait, I finally managed to travel all the way across the Atlantic and safely arrive in my new home in Leiden, where I will soon start my PhD. I must say I am beyond happy to be here and can hardly wait to share more of my life as a doctoral candidate.

Posted by Julia Santos in Alfie&Julia, 2 comments

Starting a PhD in a pandemic

I have been turning my hand to video editing and voice overs recently, as you can see in my last blog post. I have now made another video talking about what it has been like starting my PhD at a distance during a pandemic. It features me and other people in InterCat and shows off some of the equipment we have at Aarhus that I can’t yet use!

I hope you liked the video. Normal written posts will resume next week!


Posted by Alfred Hopkinson in Alfie&Julia, 0 comments

Introduction Videos

Do you want to know more about the type of things Julia and I are researching about? Or do you want to know a little more about how we observe the interstellar medium and how it was first discovered?

If so, I have made three videos which you can watch here!

If you liked these, there are more videos and other details about what InterCat is up to on the website.

Posted by Alfred Hopkinson in Alfie&Julia, 0 comments

How to try to make the most of this experience

I do not have access to the stunning vistas of the beaches of Brazil but instead during this lockdown I have been in the green rolling hills of the UK, usually with my dog. However, my mind and work has all been focused in Denmark and so I, like Julia, have had to adjust to make the most of working at a distance.

My Dog Polly who often disturbs me while I try to work. Yet another odd thing to get used to working from home!

When it became clear I couldn’t get over to Denmark any time soon to start my PhD I was left with a choice. I could either delay starting and hope it gets better or start at a distance and try to make the best of it. I chose the latter and have been trying to get involved in my studies and with the group as much as possible. As a part of my PhD I have to take part in some masters and PhD courses to further my knowledge and I thought that since they were online this would be a productive thing for me to do. I was a little late starting in the semester but still had a good choice of courses and wanted to challenge myself by doing some courses I hadn’t really done much of before.

I chose to do a practical programming and numerical methods course as I had done some python coding before, a student colloquium, a Visualize your Science course and finally a star and planet formation course. I have at this point completed the student colloquium which required me to present a topic in the field of science that I found interesting for forty minutes (I showed a slide of this in the 2nd blog post!). These are all courses I have not had direct experience with as you can probably tell with my drawing of a drill I had to do for the visualize science course.

Drawing of a drill done by Alfred for his Visualize your Science course. Made using Inkscape.

I concluded that courses like this would be possible to do at a distance, are productive and would be no harder than doing it in person in Denmark. I was wrong about this as it does provide some challenges I had not considered before that point. The biggest challenge has been the feeling of isolation as in that moment you have a Sisyphean task ahead of you and no one to your right or left to ask for guidance. I want to stress for anyone reading this who is studying that although it can seem this way it is not the case. Try to speak to your colleagues about the work and always ask the course leader for some assistance as they also realize the difficulties of remote working. The course I have really enjoyed doing the star and planet formation course and I think a large part of that is down to it being run by Rijutha and Gabi who make feel like they are there to support your learning. There is only a small group of us doing the course which has also helped as we talk between each other to support our shared learning (which often involved Laura doing most of the explaining!).

Another challenge I have encountered has been organizing my time when at home and being in a different time zone. It is hard working at home and Julia has already given her tips for staying motivated and productive so I won’t talk too much about this but I will mention my own difficulties with the time difference. I am out from the time in Denmark by one hour which may not seem like a lot and it isn’t but it’s something that has almost tripped me up a few times already such as when I almost gave out the wrong time to everyone for my colloquium. If I hadn’t have noticed I would have presented to an empty zoom room! My advice for this is to stick entirely in one time zone. So for example I now add everything into my work calendar at the English times so I don’t have to think about the time difference every time we have a meeting.

The biggest piece of advice I have learnt from this experience has been to try not to worry too much and use this as an opportunity to try something new and a bit different. I have found my practical programming course very difficult due to lack of previous experience but it has been very interesting and I feel I have developed a new skill which I would never have thought to do before. I have enjoyed doing all my courses in different ways and would encourage people not to look at the disruptions of this pandemic to ‘normal work’ as a total waste of time but as an opportunity to try something new and to learn in different ways. As proof of me learning new skills and putting what I say into practice here is the graphical abstract I have made as part of my learning. It isn’t perfect or even finished but I am proud of what I have achieved so far!

A work in progress graphical abstract.

Posted by Alfred Hopkinson in Alfie&Julia, 0 comments