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Ma Nishtana? Research Mobility in the times of COVID-19

By april 14, 2020 No Comments


Ma Nishtana?
Research Mobility in the times of COVID-19

Ma Nishtana (Heb.: מה נשתנה‎) are the first two words of the question What makes this night different from all [other] nights? It is a phrase, which is one of the four questions traditionally asked by the youngest child who is attending a Pesach (Passover) Seder. When I was asked to write this article about my research visit at Södertörn University, I had no idea that I would be asking myself this question outside the Seder.

Pesach means “transition” or “passing over.” In the Jewish tradition, it refers to the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and the “passing over” of the forces of destruction. I believe the term – and the holiday in general – gained a whole different meaning for me, and many of us in these times.

The rhythm of Södertörn

In my case, this has been a time of transition indeed – in many unusual ways. My research mobility period is not only connected to the Minhag Finland project that I am a member of, but also to ReNEW (Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World) – a project through which I received a grant for my stay in Sweden. My stay at Södertörn University started as expected: I became familiar with the environment, I got greeted by Prof. Lena Roos – my mentor in Södertörn –, and by Prof. Nobert Götz from the ReNEW steering group. I was warmly welcomed by my colleagues from the Study of Religions, and the Center for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES).

Despite my major in Comparative Religion, my office was placed within the premises of CBEES where I was exposed to a variety of new impulses from people who operate on fields and disciplines that seemingly are very different from mine. I was pleasantly surprised about being able to take part in seminars of several fields of research and also being able to attend a course in university pedagogy, which serves as a great basis of comparison to its Finnish equivalent(s). I became familiar with how things work in Stockholm and changed my rhythm to Södertörn’s rhythm, not only being inspired and efficient in my own research but also being able to have great both work and non-work-related discussions with my new colleagues at the university.

An unconventional mobility experience

Around the time of the Passover preparations, however, the ongoing transition from university to university changed into a different kind of transition. I refer, of course, to the transition caused by the COVID-19 epidemic that did not only affect me but the whole institution and everyone else in the world. Universities gradually switched to remote work in many countries. Sweden was no exception: right now, all the work in Södertörn University is encouraged to be done remotely, no teaching is done on university premises, and there is a chance that the situation will not change during the rest of the three months I am supposed to spend in Stockholm. Due to the pandemic, in addition to the “regular research mobility experience,” I gained insight into something that I was not expecting to see at all: I got to see how a Swedish university deals with the times of crisis.

Our daily lives changed, we are not in regular contact with each other, but the work did not stop. We have regular formal and informal Zoom meetings, our private discussions continue online, in the hope of being able to go back to “normal” when the crisis is over. This may not be the exchange experience that one wishes to have, yet, I am still very grateful for it, and trying to make the best out of it in the current circumstances. Doing research mobility in the time of COVID-19 taught me to appreciate my position even more. As opposed to millions of people around the globe, I can proceed with my plans and be a part of the research environment in Södertörn even if not in the “traditional way.”

Halfway through my research visit, despite the circumstances, I can already conclude that I have learned something completely unexpected. This would not have been possible if I had not supported and encouraged to do this research mobility period in Sweden. Three months to go, I am open and eager to learn more – even if that learning is done in an unconventional way.

When this pandemic passes, I believe we will all be able to say that we learned something useful that we did not expect at all.

Mercédesz Czimbalmos


“Akademisk Högtid” on February 7th, with the inauguration and doctoral degree conferment, where Prof. Lena Roos (my mentor in SH) became “Teacher of the Year.”