Universiteit Leiden

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‘My mother couldn’t attend my wedding due to corona measures’

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? Biologist Astri Kusumawardhani is the second in this series to tell her story.

Astri counts the number of Petri dishes available on her lab bench while waiting for the master’s student that she will train today. The phone in the pocket of her lab coat vibrates non-stop. There is a lively discussion going on in one of her Indonesian WhatsApp groups. ‘It is important to look out for each other.’

Major events

Astri Kusumawardhani plans to defend her approved thesis next March, while she works as a lecturer in the meantime. Since she moved from West-Java in 2015 she has built a career and life for herself in the Netherlands. The corona measures did not stop her from continuing several major events in her life this year. And a bigger change is still to come.

Industrial biotechnology

‘I wanted to move to the field of industrial biotechnology after my pharmaceutical training in Indonesia. So I inquired about a PhD position at the Institute of Biology Leiden (IBL) and I was very interested in the topic of solvent tolerant bacteria that professor Han de Winde offered me. That position and the availability of facilities here drew me to the Netherlands. Besides that, I had little idea of what to expect.’


Astri arrived in Leiden on 1 October 2015 in the middle of 3 October festivities. ‘I remember feeling like I had come to Disneyland; the pretty old houses and the decoration everywhere.’ Besides the weather, there is little from her old life that she cannot compensate for. ‘Indonesian products and food are easy to find here and Leiden has a large and active Indonesian community. I met my Dutch husband at the institute and through him, I have gained a whole new family and new friends.’

15 minutes

‘I particularly appreciate the Dutch working culture. People and processes are quick and efficient. You start at 8:30, breaks are social but limited to 15 minutes and – besides from during specific experiments – you leave at 17:00. So a healthy work-life balance is more easily maintained here. The Dutch are friendly and their straightforwardness makes things easier I feel. You can simply ask for what you need.’ And doing so has helped Astri over the years.

Astri in the lab

Evening meetings

Spending around seventy per cent of her time on lab work, the lockdown in March 2020 meant a big change. But Astri put the lockdown to good use and finished writing multiple chapters of her thesis. ‘My supervisor being willing to discuss my manuscript in the evenings enabled me to manage our family life and work in those months. When the lab reopened partially in May, I got priority to work on my final experiments and turned in my PhD thesis on schedule in October.’ And what about the downsides of this new situation?

Wedding via Zoom

‘Usually, I would visit my family in Indonesia this time of year but that's not possible. More importantly, the pandemic meant that my mother couldn't attend my wedding last month. Nor will she be at my defence ceremony next spring. That I regret very much of course. But I like the flexibility the growing online possibilities have presented. Now, my entire family witnessed the wedding via Zoom and will be able to see my defence. And I have asked four scientists from abroad on the committee. Attending will only take them an hour.’ 

Checking in

In these past years, Astri has acquired warm social contacts that she cherishes. ‘I miss the dinners with my family in law the most. We are still looking for a way to accommodate Christmas celebrations for my husband’s opa, to make sure he’s not lonely but the situation is as safe as possible. I am a member of several Whatsapp groups within the Indonesian community in Leiden. Since the lockdown we initiated various discussions to encourage participation and keeping in touch. If we do not hear from someone for a while, we check in to see if they are okay. This could work in a working environment too I suppose.’ 


To her fellow PhDs and others she would like to stress: ‘If you have a problem – which can be anything – please speak up! To some, this will come more natural than to others but simply contact your supervisor or colleagues. It enabled me to get the assistance, support and also room for some personal matters that I needed in the past five years.’ 
Astri looks to the future with excitement and a little reserve. ‘In May 2021 I will start a postdoc position that is perfect for me. It’s in Lausanne, Switzerland, so my husband, daughter and I will start a new adventure together, far from the life we built here.’ 

Text: Gerdine Kuggeleijn
Images: Pim Rusch

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