Physicists and COVID

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant radical changes for scientists as they adjust to laboratory shutdowns, online teaching, and travel restrictions. APS News and Physics want to hear about your experiences at letters@aps.org. More letters are available at the Physics website.

Keeping Research Going, and Contributing in Other Ways

Fortunately, my research is theoretical and computational, so it has not been difficult for my group to continue working and to stay in touch as we all hunker down at home. But graduate students in campus housing have been particularly affected. Many of them have had to vacate their housing and find new lodging on extremely short notice. [My group] also volunteered for the Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) initiative in the UK, which brings together researchers with many kinds of computational skills. We hope that our expertise will be valuable there. – Andrea Liu is a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania and Speaker of the Council of the American Physical Society.

I guess my story is pretty standard: healthy so far, quarantined for two and a half weeks, bathtub office. I help my students on Slack and Skype frequently and attend seminars and meetings on Zoom, which turns out to work really well. Running calculations is not a problem for now. But running things from home with my 4-year-old son is challenging. – Juan Carrasquilla is a physicist at the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Canada.

I’ve been asked to participate in a group of epidemiologists, virologists, and modelers who are trying to estimate, in different scenarios, how this pandemic will strike Buenos Aires and its surroundings. I closed the lab, maintaining minimal guards for the animals, and I do simulations at home. – Gabriel Midlin is a physicist at the University of Buenos Aires.

A Silver Lining

I enjoyed writing short stories in my high school and college years. But after getting my doctorate in physics and then teaching large undergraduate classes, I had no time to indulge in this pastime. The coronavirus outbreak forced me to join the ranks of college faculty around the world who communicate with their students online. How could I continue to make physics exciting to my students when I could no longer interact with them personally? Then the inspiration came to me: I would write short stories centered round the topic to be covered in class. One of them is a detective story about the charging and discharging of capacitors. – Basil S. Davis is a physicist at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

Completing a Thesis

Following the government’s call for social distancing, I have not left my apartment in over a week. As a PhD student in my final year, I am very busy. I split my time between writing my thesis and working on three research projects with my collaborators. Being a theorist, all I really need is my laptop, pen, and paper, so my work has not really been affected that much. I continue to talk to my advisor regularly, and I have Skype meetings with my collaborators almost every day. Unfortunately, two conferences I was planning on attending have been canceled. A few more scheduled for June and July are currently in limbo. Apart from that, I am grateful to be one of the lucky few whose life has not been completely scrambled. – Alexander Yosifov is a PhD student at the Space Research and Technology Institute, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Donating Supplies

On the morning of March 20th, we were closing our labs at the School of Physics and Astronomy when a call came, asking whether we had personal protection equipment (PPE) that could be donated to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). We have a lot of this equipment because we are active in biophysics, nanotechnology, and device fabrication. Within an hour, three colleagues and I had packed up all of the PPE we could find, and it was on a truck to the NHS, along with supplies from the Electrical Engineering Department’s clean room. I heard later that some institutions across the world were hitting administrative barriers when trying to do the same thing. But our dean was very happy to hear what we’d done.

We’ve since been able to offer other equipment from our biophysics lab, and colleagues are contributing by modeling and developing sensitive and specific sensors for diagnostics and screening. This of course goes alongside the huge effort of working with our students remotely and shifting to online teaching. It’s a terribly difficult time for everyone. But I’m proud to be part of the team at Leeds. – Helen Gleeson heads the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds, UK.

An Unexpected Collaboration

I am a second-year graduate student, mainly working on computational and theoretical aspects of complex nonlinear and quantum dynamics. My university closed and the state where I live, Maryland, is in lockdown. However, I am exceptionally lucky to have colleagues and an alumnus from my department as my housemates, and I thought it would be a good idea to start some collaborations with them. As of now, apart from continuing my previous work, I have started two new projects with my housemates. These projects are now running at full speed, and we have been able to uncover connections between concepts in vastly different areas of physics. When we are not busy collaborating, we share in the housekeeping and eat free-delivery or buy-one-get-one-free pizzas. It also helps to have a Netflix subscription, a good stock of red wine, and someone who can bake cheesecakes. – Amitava Banerjee is a graduate student in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Research in Electronics & Applied Physics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Rethinking the Markers of Progress

I'm an experimental physicist close to the end of a research project and about to make my first few independent steps on an upcoming fellowship. When it’s due to start in a few months, I hope this crisis will have passed or moved into a much more manageable phase for everyone.

The leader of our group of around 12 physicists has been proactive, moving our meetings online and ensuring that all members can contribute. Each of us received help to switch our thinking to planning, analysis, and writing. Personally, with only a few months left before a very productive lab project comes to a close, the temporary inability to collect data is not a major concern. However, I am among the exceptions. For those undertaking PhDs or newer projects, where the requirement for new experimental data is often a prerequisite for progress, the pressure is greater. I do my bit to reassure them that "normal" markers of progress can’t possibly apply at the moment. I expect a silver lining though. In our last meeting, several people showed that with extra time, they had improved their analysis of a problem. Realizing the value of “time to think” is something we can hopefully retain when we are back to normal. – Mike Weir is a researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Sheffield University, UK.

Earthquake Follows Pandemic

The coronavirus epidemic is still under good control in Croatia, but our quarantine continues. Unfortunately, on March 22nd, we had an additional disaster: a strong earthquake in Zagreb, where I live. About 26,000 buildings in the city were damaged, some 2,000 beyond repair. The good thing is that, because the pandemic had forced most people to be at home, there were almost no casualties, which for a city of close to one million inhabitants is close to a miracle. The experience was very frightening and stressful to all of us, and while the rebuilding has already started, a complete recovery will take several years. – Maja Planinić is a professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Zagreb and an editorial board member for the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research.

New Tools for Teaching

The COVID-19 pandemic has been slowing my productivity as a professor, as I shift from partial lectures and lab interactions with students to totally online teaching and evaluation. Fortunately, I had already experimented with online artificial intelligence tools for providing one-on-one interactions, assignments, teaching, and testing of my students in general chemistry. (I use the ALEKS system from McGraw Hill.) During this time, I am also using my chemistry knowledge to theorize methods of treating COVID-19. – Reginald B. Little is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Stillman College in Alabama.

Going Home

After a month of constantly worrying about my parents in Italy, I decided to go there to be with them. I am now in Ravenna, in quarantine. My lab is going to be in lockdown at least until the end of May, so my physical presence in Baltimore is quite unnecessary. And at least in Italy, I can be of help to my parents if something happens.

Given the circumstances, my work has continued at a rather good pace so far. Some students were already writing up results, so the next couple of months may even turn out to be quite productive. For other students it’s harder because they were in the middle of experiments, and I need to rethink their projects. I try to catch up with them for ten minutes almost every day, to make sure that they are ok and that they have a “meeting point.” After a while, I leave and let them enjoy the conversation without me, if they like. – Francesca Serra is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland.

Time to Think

For me, as a PhD student in theoretical physics, this pandemic is the closest I’ve come to an experiment on the effects of exponential growth. You might think that for a theorist, life continues after the shutdown of labs and universities, with some of us having a romantic story like that of Newton and his revelations during the London pandemic. But science progresses by discussions and collaborations, and most of my insights started with small gatherings and chitchats with researchers. However, with lemons you can always make lemonade. I’m now spending much more time on learning, reading, and thinking about questions in physics. Such time is precious for graduate students. So, even if one paper comes from it, I would end up acknowledging COVID-19. – Noam Chai is a graduate student in the High Energy Department at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

May 2020 (Volume 29, Number 5)

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Physicists Rise to the Challenge
The April Meeting Must Go On..line
Philip Anderson 1923–2020
The Topical Group on Precision Measurements and Fundamental Constants
PhysicsQuest Expands Online with Help from the Eucalyptus Foundation
Understanding the Dynamic Climate System
Wikipedia Editing Course Gives a Voice to Women and Minorities in Physics
Sparking the Joy of Physics at Home
This Month in Physics History
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