In another article, we told you about the research of Ali Hassan Khan, who managed to travel between Germany and Estonia to conduct the necessary experiments and stay on track with his initial plan despite the pandemic situation. The situation of Cecilia Monoli, a second-year PhD student in the Centre for Biorobotics, was even more challenging.
Her research required the involvement of a number of volunteers as well as carrying out testing in the environments that remained closed for outside visitors throughout the pandemic, such as swimming pools and hospitals. Keep reading to learn about Cecilia's research, struggles, accomplishments, and plans A, B, C, D, and beyond.
Investigating motion in its complexity
The work of our research group is overall concerned with environmental sensing technologies. I work more specifically in the field of biomechanics and motion analysis. It is also reflected in the title of my thesis – “Underwater biomechanical motion analysis through mixed perception”. But the scope of my research exceeds that. Thus, I take part in different projects, which aim to use sensors developed by TalTech engineers in the investigation of motion and its complexity. I am directly involved in two of those. Within the first one, we apply inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors to the monitoring and efficacy investigation of underwater rehabilitation, with clinical trials in two groups – healthy volunteers and children affected by cerebral palsy. While in the second – the same devices are used on dogs to investigate canine kinematics and question the efficacy of customized orthoses. The projects may seem rather different and assorted, but they both investigate motion, biomechanics, healthy and pathological kinematics.
Because my PhD is a logical extension of my master's thesis, it has always been a plan to continue collaboration with my former university in Italy. Since my first PhD year, before the pandemic hit in December 2019, my Italian supervisor had been suggesting to carry out the experimental trials for my thesis in Italy. This way, I could take advantage of their gold standard method for validation of our IMU devices, as well as make use of their long-lasting contact with hospitals and sports facilities for the trials in water and clinical trial on pathological subjects. Therefore, the initial plan was to leave Tallinn for one semester (from September 2020 to January 2021).
Given that I'm currently still in Italy, something clearly went wrong. We realized that COVID would be an issue sometime in October 2020, when the Italian government closed both sports facilities and hospitals to external visitors out of precaution.
In the beginning, I wanted to drop everything
If I have to be sincere… in the beginning, I wanted to drop everything and go back to Tallinn. In Italy, we were facing lockdown with no guarantees of how and when things were going to go back to normal, or at least start to normalize. While in Estonia, everything somehow still seemed to be “normal” back then, at least the university and research part.
I had some tough weeks. Thankfully, I have an awesome PhD supervisor who helped me to get myself together and look at the whole situation with different eyes. We developed a possible plan B and C and decided not to be passive and fall victim to the COVID deadlock.
Our plan B was to move my field research plan to a method-based one, basically analyzing the data already collected for my master's thesis, but with some more advanced methods. We set a deadline, and if the situation was not going to improve or if it was still impossible to carry out practical research by then, we would have followed that plan B.
Thankfully, my Italian university allowed me to carry out experimental activities, given that all precautions would be taken into consideration. And so we could somehow go back to the initial plan even if we had to find a new swimming pool for the trials in water since the hospital rehabilitation pool was unavailable due to COVID restrictions.
There have been many. First of all, the absence of a timeline or a guarantee saying “from this day on, you can do your job”. Since the beginning of the autumn semester, everything was closed, and no one knew what and when would reopen. We faced the impossibility of physically going to the hospital for the clinical trial with patients, and we had to find a new sports facility with a rehabilitation pool that would be suitable for us.
But there is no bad without the good. In our case, since all the sports and classical rehabilitation activities were prohibited, we could use the rehabilitation pool in a sports center close to Milan.
Also, the MSc Student I was supervising, whose thesis concerned the case study on CP, got COVID, so we all had to freeze the study for a month and quarantine.
In the end, we had to extend the initial timeline since we had to organize our work extra cautiously so that the subjects wouldn't overlap in time.
In the end, I managed to organize and carry out a clinical trial with 25 volunteers with indoor examination and pool trials in the midst of a pandemic. I am quite proud of it, despite the plan change, all the struggles, and limitations.
Some advice I could give…
Be prepared to change everything at the last minute. Stay open-minded and positive, and yet, have a life-saving plan B, C, D, and so on, ready. Also, don't go “all in” to something you are unsure about. What more can I say? Sometimes finding a solution means taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, and asking for help and support. And maybe all of that seasoned with a glass of wine (laughing).
The research work presented in this article has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No  and ETAg Grant PRG 1243. Experimental work in this paper has been funded in part by the MeMo project, DBU Az. 33867/01–32a.