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‘Looking back, this past year will be a very important period in my life’

At the Faculty of Science, forty per cent of the employees are of a non-Dutch nationality. Amongst PhDs that is even sixty per cent. How are they doing in a time of working at home in a different culture, when travelling is not possible? Clinical pharmacologist Lu Chen is the third in this series to tell her story.

As Lu Chen (27) opens the curtains in her apartment, the first sun rays enter the room. She kneels to tie the laces of her running shoes. On her way to the door, she glances briefly at the mirror and finds the face in it smiling back at her. It is time to meet up with her running companion. ‘When something like Covid-19 occurs again, I will not be as frustrated as I was this time.’

Locked down

Lu Chen moved from Xi’an, China to Leiden for a PhD in clinical pharmacology in September 2018. Living in a different country and culture taught her many new things. But only a year and a half into her research coronavirus measures caused her life to abruptly stand still. Like other young professionals she struggled to keep herself and her work on track within the confinement of the walls of her apartment. But now, Lu finds herself more confident than she ever expected. What happened?


‘After my master’s programme in China I wanted to work in a specialised academic group and I longed for the challenge that living abroad would offer me. I can safely say that I found both on coming to Leiden! In the first months I kept getting lost because I was unfamiliar with the directions in Google Maps. In the supermarket I could not match the price tags with the products. And in the evenings I felt lonely. Because of the time difference I could not contact my family and friends after coming home from work.’

‘The biggest cultural difference would be the famous Dutch directness’

September gardens

Lu is not afraid of a challenge and she is mostly positive about her move: ‘From the very moment that I got off the plane I was struck by the peacefulness and easiness here: the easy access of the train station, ducks roaming along the canal, the beautiful gardens and carefully decorated windows. I love it here, there’s a different attitude. People spent time on making their homes and lives nice. But I’ve also learned that not everybody lives in the villa’s with their blooming September gardens that I passed in my first weeks cycling to work,’ she laughs.

Lu Chen practicing on her guitar


There are of course cultural differences that can be difficult. What was the biggest difference for her? ‘That would be the famous Dutch directness,’ Lu replies instantly. ‘If I had questions or doubts about my research and turned to a colleague, they sometimes simply said: “Sorry, I don’t have time to help you.” Only in some cases complemented with an “I have a meeting to go to. Come and see me later.” I felt surprised and it felt awkward. In China someone would elaborately apologise with much feeling. The result is the same I suppose, but it is easier to accept. Later I realised that people here value their time very much and that they have a schedule for what they want to achieve every hour. I hope to have acquired a degree of directness to make my work more productive too. And my colleagues are very friendly by the way.’ 


But in March last year those friendly conversations in the workplace stopped. Of all things, that is what Lu misses most. Because she develops computer models to predict the concentration time curve of drugs, she works only from home. ‘From the start of the lockdown I could not focus on my work and was easily distracted by my phone. Life was so boring without any social meetings. I am a sportive person and could not exercise in the gym. I read all the tips of keeping to a schedule, implementing routines but those are all theoretical words. I kept feeling lonely and bad about not being able to manage myself better. I contacted my parents every day in that period because I needed to feel someone cared about me.’ 

Turning point

The turning point was around June, she says. ‘I was down feeling that I had wasted so much time. When I talked to my supervisor about it, I found that other colleagues shared this experience. Of course the regulations were lessened at the beginning of the summer and I even played the badminton competition at my club. In the fall we were able to occasionally meet face-to-face for a discussion with my supervisor.’ Although all very welcome, she feels these things were not the most important for the change in her feelings.

Lu running with PhD buddy

‘It started when I accepted that this was how my life was going to be. That we would have to stay at home for a long time. Then somehow managing myself became easier, step by step. I continue the hobbies I took up like knitting, cooking and most of all I started a daily run with a fellow PhD every morning at 8:30. By now – even with the new lockdown – I could enjoy the free time of the holidays and feel refreshed to put myself to serious work.’

Chinese New Year

If the coronavirus wouldn't exist, Lu would spend this time of year in China. ‘Last year I visited my family for the traditional Chinese New Year in the first week of February. For the Chinese this is an important holiday that is all about being together as a family. My family lives in the north of China and luckily the virus didn’t reach there, though during that week all sorts of regulations were introduced. This year I cannot go. The time of quarantine would take up the entire duration of my holiday and the costs for the hotel and flight tickets would be too much. My parents are disappointed, but they understand.’ 

Instead, Lu planned to spend this Christmas holiday in a bungalow park with friends. ‘The current lockdown meant that suddenly we had to cancel our plans. Of course that was disappointing again. But I feel good about how I was still able to relax and build up my energy for the serious work I have to do on my PhD. I have really changed.‘ 

Crucial asset

Lu feels this year has given her a crucial asset: confidence. ‘It also grew when I first came to live here of course, but in the middle of last year I seriously doubted myself. It was a frustrating process that made me explore my borders and I didn’t expect that I could handle it. However, I had to and I can. It also gives me the courage to stand up to new situations that I am not sure about, for instance finishing my PhD. I have now only a year and a half left. I am still somewhat behind, but am catching up and will simply do my best and try.’ 


When asked what her advice is for other colleagues and students, she realises that her answer is somewhat of a paradox. ‘With all the theoretical advice that is given out there, the most important thing is: just do it! These are words too of course but don’t think so much as I did, just experience. If I had not tasted the bitter of not managing myself well and regretting wasting my time, then I would not have found the strength to overcome my laziness.’  

Text: Gerdine Kuggeleijn
Pictures: Pim Rusch

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