The homeworker revisited: assistant professor Roy

Work from home if you can; this was Prime Minister Rutte's urgent appeal, made first to the people of North Brabant on the evening of Monday March 9th. Would it last two weeks? Four? Longer? More than eight months of corona news, discussion, measures, changes and adjusted expectations later, we know how things turned out - as do the members of the TU/e community who participated in our series on homeworkers this past spring. How are they doing now? Every day this week we are catching up with one of them and looking back at what was said at the time.

photo Privécollectie Roy van der Meel
“Fathers-to-be are allowed to be present during the ultrasound again" (May 2020)

‘Thank you for your email. I am currently on leave to manage the in vivo experiment (n=2) my wife and I have started.’ Nevertheless Roy van der Meel, assistant professor at the Precision Medicine group (Biomedical Engineering) responds enthusiastically within two days to Cursor's email. Exactly one week earlier he became a father to daughter Billie and son Leo, brought into the world by means of a C-section after it was discovered weeks earlier that the first baby was in a breech presentation, “and lying sideways across it was the second baby”.

While pregnancies and the postnatal weeks are always memorable periods, corona is giving the experience its own distinctive flavor this year. Thus, the first visitors to see mum and the newborns in the Van der Meel home are limited to a tiny handful of immediate family members, like the brand new grandpas and grandmas, uncle and aunt. Roy's wife Anna is Austrian; her mom and youngest sister still live in the Tirol region and so as yet they have been able to admire the newborn twins only via a computer screen.

“For the time being, of course, no one is supposed to be travelling abroad, but admittedly we are making cautious moves to start looking at the possibilities.” They take it as red that they would adhere to the mandatory quarantines, both there and once they are back home in the Netherlands, and would do so happily, says Van der Meel. “The four of us are already in a bubble of sorts; it is easier for us to go there than vice versa.”

And to be honest, the bubble they have been in for months and are still inhabiting suits them very well. “Of course I'd like nothing better than to shout from the rooftops that I've become a proud dad and to show off our babies to everyone, just like the Lion King.” Van der Meel reaches out his arms, an imaginary Simba in his hands. “That this isn't possible right now, is hard. But we are healthy, our family is healthy and in spite of corona we are in the middle of experiencing the very best thing that can ever happen to us.”

Having the stream of well wishers lasting weeks if not months fall away also has its advantages. “It is nice that Anna's recovery and the babies can be our sole focus now.” With two babies to feed, Anna is currently giving it her all, round the clock; as Van der Meel sees it, she is "like an elite athlete" at the moment. Alongside her, the brand new father is trying to take on as much of the other care and domestic chores as he can. “It really is teamwork.”

In view of this, he counts himself lucky with the extra weeks of leave that - thanks to a stockpile of saved hours and in consultation with his manager and colleagues - he has been able to take. “Willem (Mulder) and Ewelina (Kluza) are taking on the task of managing all our PhD candidates and master's students for the coming period, and that's great to know. On Mondays and Fridays they hold online group meetings; I hope to rejoin these meetings as we get closer to the Christmas holiday.”

“It wasn’t always that easy for our group members over the recent period" (May 2020)

Despite his leave, he is trying to keep a channel of communication open with the young researchers in his group. An age group, according to Van der Meel, that finds itself in a particularly difficult situation, in which they themselves run little risk, yet are constrained by all kinds of restrictions. “Everyone is trying to make the best of it in a fantastic way. But I do hear noises that people are finding it tough going and that, like everywhere else, tempers can sometimes become frayed a little more easily.”

Since early May the group has been able to return to its familiar labs on the third floor of Helix, where members are currently allowed to work six hours a day. “As far I'm concerned, they could be allowed to work their normal hours; some experiments simply can't be completed in a morning or afternoon shift.” Fortunately, as the assistant professor tells us, good cooperation between staff members of the departments Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering and the building manager at Helix have led to weekend opening hours, so that researchers who want to can now also work on their experiments on Saturdays and Sundays. “In a well-organized and safe manner, of course, within the framework set by RIVM and TU/e.”

Above all, he is full of praise for how quickly TU/e - “and Helix in particular” - reopened its laboratories after two months of closure “as one of the first in the Netherlands”, whereas elsewhere labs typically remained closed until June or even July. “In addition, there was a very strong need within the group to come together physically once a week, in a large hall, for, say, a group writing session or to hold a meeting. Important for the social aspect, but also simply very necessary for everyone's personal development. Besides, people go nuts if they have to do everything online.”

Read on below the photo.

The day before the interview Van der Meel spent a couple of minutes out front of his house talking with PhD candidates David Schrijver, Anne de Dreu and Stijn Hoftstraat, who paid him a visit on behalf of the Precision Medicine group to bring some suitable new baby gifts (see photo). “Everyone in the group knows that during my leave they can send me updates but they can't keep phoning me all the time. But research and the group are my 'science babies'; I feel I need to know how they are doing.”

“I don’t think we’ll all be together in the same room for a meeting any time this year" (May 2020)

Van der Meel's expectations of how the pandemic will play out are realistic. “Our current situation is going to continue for some while yet, you can be sure of that. So we'd be wise to adapt to it. The most favorable predictions have the first vaccine available at the end of the year. People working in healthcare will be the first in line to receive it, along with teachers and other specific groups. But to gain group immunity the vaccination rate really does need to be above ninety percent.”

He is excited by recent news about the efficacy of two COVID-19 vaccines, based on mRNA nanoparticles - technology that he too is working on. But until a vaccine is widely available, he is pinning his hopes on alternatives such as rapid testing or vaccinating the elderly with BCG shots. “Then perhaps our working hours or the maximum number of people in a building could be increased again,” suggests Van der Meel hopefully.

Society returning to the 'old normal' is not something he sees happening anytime soon. Until then, people will test the limits, as he too has observed; he sees how much students are missing their old social life and how, despite all the measures, they are still throwing and attending parties, for example. “Not what you're supposed to be doing, of course, but I can't blame them. I just hope that if a student decides to go to a party on Friday, he or she doesn't visit grandma on Sunday.” Playing the moralist? Not Van der Meel. “Some people feel compelled to always play the police officer. That's not an attitude I like at all.”

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