Noah Cheruiyot Mutai is re-energized after his online lunch meeting.

My name is Noah Mutai, a doctoral student at Freie Universität Berlin under the joint sponsorship of DAAD and the Government of Kenya through the Kenyan-German Postgraduate Programme. I am also a member of the academic staff at Taita Taveta University, Voi, Kenya.

On March 11, when W.H.O declared the corona virus threat a pandemic, I was scared to the bone. Being away from family, with a very uncertain future, with many “what if” questions, the world seemed to stop for once. Having watched videos and read articles about the 1918 Spanish flu and its devastating effects, I was not even sure if continuing with my research was possible.

What is my research about? I am a statistician. In the 21st century, life is driven by data. Nearly every human activity generates them: Data on government’s expenditure, the number of visits to the doctor, our use of social media, or how many times per year we buy new shoes. I am interested in observational data that provide information that go beyond numbers and statistics, and software tools to analyze them for various purposes. In most cases, we collect data by selecting a few people out of a big number. This is less costly and quick. However, sometimes after the data have been collected, the number of people selected is too small to generalize on the larger number. One solution is to combine the sampled data with data from other sources like administrative records and census. This improves the accuracy of results.

Since I arrived in Berlin in early October 2018, full of energy to finally embark on my doctoral journey, things have been running smoothly. Before the coronavirus pandemic, we used to have weekly meetings with my research team, have lunch together and participate in sporting activities. Now we do our meetings via video conferencing. In my perspective, this saves time since you do not have to rush to the train station to catch the next train. However, I miss my research team, especially the common lunch and coffee breaks. To keep up the team spirit, we resorted to having “online lunch" using a messaging app called slack. It is a computer application which enables teams to make video calls on a PC, send documents and messages. At first this idea sounded crazy to me, but it has worked.

I have tried to stick to my workplan and work online as much as possible. Through the university VPN I access online resources comfortably in my small student apartment. Several institutions all over the world offer free access for a limited period of time to books and other materials. With just a few mouse clicks, I can get what I need. Staying indoors limited outdoor activities like going to watch a movie at a Kino, the German word for “cinema.” So I have more time to learn a new skill: Being a data enthusiast, I have utilized this extra time to learn an additional data analysis software called Python.

Previously, my friends and I held in-house parties. With corona virus, this has been challenging. Nonetheless I keep in contact through WhatsApp video calls and messaging, hoping things will slowly come back to normal. I like exercising, especially running at the treadmill and doing squats. Since my gym closed, I have learned to do indoor aerobics and jog outdoor in the early morning hours.

On May 7, the Berlin senate issued new amendments to the ordinance on measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This allowed some university activities like library lending to resume with little physical contact. For me, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For now, my motto is to “keep calm and be significant”, do something important – or: be a statistically significant variable.

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