How I defended my Ph.D. from a remote location in India amidst COVID-19 lockdown?


Suvimal Kumar Sindhu, Graduate Student @ Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, 208016, India Email:


Having joined my Ph.D. programme at India Institute of Technology Kanpur in India, I always witnessed my senior colleagues defending their Ph.D. thesis with panache and grace; for juniors like me such visuals were highly captivating and motivating. During my Ph.D. I trained to manipulate gene expression and analyze its effect on the developing avian brain. Using these skill-set I created additional hippocampus-like regions (a center of learning and memory) in the chick brain, to understand its development in the brain (Sindhu et al., 2019). I proposed a mechanism for correct positioning of hippocampus in the avian brain. After years of arduous and passionate research work, my defense day was scheduled in the evening of April 17th and I was thrilled, for I was ready to experience the joy and accomplishment, a vicarious pleasure experienced through my senior colleagues, and sincerely hoping to match the high standards set by them. 

While I was getting prepared for my D-day, the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in India. Staying in an autonomous and highly secure residential campus, everybody — I know — thought that our work won’t be affected. However, things escalated quickly and in an unprecedented manner, merely two weeks prior to my defense most of the organizations, including my institute, got shut down. COVID-19 took away everybody “reasons for struggle” in life. Now the only possible thing was to “stay at home” and “work from home”. With a broken heart, I came back to my home located in a remote village in the Indian state of Bihar. Amidst all this, I was becoming anxious and restless, my dream to become a Doctor of Philosophy getting delayed till uncertainty. After more than one month of nationwide lockdown, institutions started to conduct virtual academic seminars and meetings. And I got the opportunity to defend my thesis on the last day of the same month – April. I was disheartened as it would not be the same as a traditional thesis defense, which I had always dreamt of, but this was the only option available under these situations.


Defending from my village

[Image on request designed by]

Suddenly I realized that there would be logistical hurdles, and preparation in the absence of supervisor and lab-mates would be challenging. But, I was determined to do this and decided to troubleshoot every aspect of it. Considering the location of my home two major hurdles were there -1) frequent power failure of home supply and 2) unstable cellular-network. Arranging an alternative power source and a Wi-Fi device was not a problem; I was not sure whether the network – which is mostly congested under current situation – would stably transmit data needed to sustain a group video conference with around 50 participants.  More importantly, how much data will it consume? – 2GB, 20GB or, 200GB, any number was just a blind guess. To test these conditions a priori, arranging such huge participants that too with a free version of any video conferencing app was just not feasible. I thought of doing a couple of trial presentations to check if my slides are in order and the quality of audio and video are fine. My first mock presentation with my supervisor was quite upsetting; the connection lasted only for 10 minutes as the network was highly unstable. In the second trial, I changed my location within the limited possibilities and that improved the data speed to ~65MBPS. This time my mock presentation lasted for 50 minutes and it consumed ~270MB of data. This was my first experience to deliver a formal presentation online, and hence sometimes I became oblivious of my virtual audience. I had minimized the video thumbnail of participants to avoid cluttering my screen, which was shared with others for the slide show. However, as a trade-off, I lost touch with my audience, and at times felt speaking to myself. This was also due to the fact that to see the entire shared screen running my slide show.

Finally, the D-day arrived, 10 minutes prior to the scheduled time, I signed-in to the Zoom platform and shared my screen; there were ~10 people waiting for my presentation, which eventually rose to 45 people. The connection became unstable; with stuck video and breaking voice, it was a total chaos. I thought my device would not be able to handle the load, and my presentation will have to be postponed. Meanwhile, it was suggested to temporarily turn off only video transmission for the audience except for the oral board members. This idea was quite helpful and I was able to go through my defense presentation as well as discussion, which took around 90 minutes of time. At the end of the session around 1.8GB of data was consumed. Without the slide transition device and laser pointer, it was inconvenient initially, but I adapted to the keyboard and mouse pointer for managing the presentation. To remain in touch with my audience, this time I did not minimize the video of my participants; rather, I kept a few video thumbnails at the corner of my screen. This helped me in remaining aware of their presence and generated a sense of their physical presence.

I had never thought I would defend my thesis this way, but when the whole world is learning a new way to live, I learned a new way to defend and become a doctor under lock down.


(Edited by Sahil Batra, Graduate Student @ Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India)


Sindhu S.K., Udaykumar N., Zaidi M.A.A., Soni A., Sen J. MicroRNA-19b restricts Wnt7b to the hem, which regulates aspects of hippocampus development in the avian forebrain. doi:10.1242/dev.175729, Development, 146, (20):1-7

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