Physics in the pandemic: ‘connecting in a 3D virtual world’ – Physics World


Bonnie Tsim is a PhD student in theoretical physics at the Graphene NOWNANO Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Manchester, UK.

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at

Women in Graphene 2020 virtual meeting
Bonnie Tsim delivers a talk to a virtual audience at the Women in Graphene 2020 conference. (Courtesy: Bonnie Tsim)

This past week has been nothing but chaotic. My university closed at 5 p.m. on Tuesday 17 March giving everyone only a few hours’ notice. Researchers scrambled to shut down experiments and frantically transfer files so they could work from home.

With only 30 minutes before the 5 p.m. lock down, I was in the middle of my second-year PhD viva. It felt surreal being in an empty building stressing about my PhD progression when there was so much more to worry about with the ongoing pandemic.

The following two days felt like a whirlwind. In between packing up my life at university to work from home, I also attended and spoke at the Graphene Flagship’s first ever virtual conference — Women in Graphene 2020 from 18-19 March. The conference was originally planned to be in Bologna, Italy, but shifted in early March to an online platform hosted by Virtway Events.

Around 70 people from around the world attended the event and, despite being online (and free for attendees), it was fully immersive and, in many ways, mimicked a real conference. It was possible to have discussions with groups of people just as you would in real life as well as conduct audience Q&As, applaud and even wave. It felt like we were in The Sims!

Being virtual brought several advantages. It meant that those who may have otherwise struggled to make it to Italy were now able to attend. It allowed more people to ask in-depth questions or perhaps, more personal questions that would be more difficult to ask at an actual event. It also allowed individuals in the Women in Graphene network to connect in a way never done before such as continuing conversations and discussions after the event.

Finding a new normal

Once the conference was over, I switched my priority to ensuring my undergraduate students feel that they have the support they need. I know that many of them have things to worry about beyond their studies and right now, it is even more important to be an understanding tutor. 

I have not yet quite found my new “normal” but I am confident that I can keep my head above water for the foreseeable future. I am using the lockdown as downtime to prioritise and plan the remainder of my PhD. I am particularly thankful to those who are supporting me during these unpredictable times and I too am making an extra effort to stay connected with friends, family and loved ones. 

Indeed, it is more important than ever to keep connected to the physics community and to show each other kindness, support and care.

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