Physics in the pandemic: ‘I miss my group’s vibrant office discussions that propelled my research’ – Physics World


 Shi En Kim and her fellow graduate students have been thrust into a reality bigger than their ivory tower bubble

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 

Shi En Kim
Forward looking: Shi En Kim is planning future experiments while working at home. (Courtesy: Shi En Kim)

As a graduate student who was on the verge of performing the last experiment for a paper, I lament the timing of COVID-19 – it could not have been more inconvenient.

My lab’s research at the University of Chicago centres on 2D semiconducting nanomaterials that are merely three atoms thick — or thin. We study their optical, electrical, and thermal properties and devise scalable processing techniques to integrate them with other materials. As our nanomaterials are fragile and easily contaminated, our experiments necessitate us donning full-body “bunny suits” (which are stuffy and constraining) and working in a cleanroom, a special facility where the very air is filtered to remove dust and air-borne particulates. Our research is labour intensive, to the extent that we sometimes jokingly call ourselves “blue-collar workers.”

Naturally, my research group was rather frustrated with the coronavirus, as lab shutdowns caused all our experiments to screech to a halt. We scrambled to recover a semblance of normalcy by working from home. But given the heavy experimental nature of our research, we would never be able to replicate the same productivity level as the pre-COVID era. But we would try our very best.

Ever since the lab closed, my group has conducted all interactions, including the weekly group meetings, through online platforms. In the group meetings before the coronavirus, each person would present a research update on their latest experiment. But after our exile from the lab, the old group meeting format no longer made sense.

Focus on the future

Now, we propose future experiments to be done once we return to the lab. Furthermore, our professor organizes online paper-writing clinics for students, especially for those who were more than halfway into their projects. Even if we don’t feel that our projects are near publication-ready, our professor encourages us to start writing a draft.

During the group’s inaugural online group meeting, we ran into a universal hiccup: a presenter was cut-off midsentence due to unstable Internet connection at home. An awkward silence ensued as the rest of the group waited for him to reappear online. During another presentation, I forgot to unmute myself, so I was talking to deaf speakers for several uncomfortable seconds.

Displaced from lab bench to laptop, my lab mates and I are still struggling to adapt to a sedentary lifestyle and working from home. I constantly remind myself of what my advisor has told us, “Consider this an opportunity”.

Combing through the latest research

My working days now consist of doing as much reading as I can. I allocate more time now to comb through the latest research. I take the time to learn new subjects, such as the basics of computer simulations and theoretical studies, a far cry from my experimental work. My lab mate and I have buddied up to check in on each other every day. We begin each day by listing our goals and hold each other accountable. I try to think deeper and more carefully about my project and its implications than ever before, planning future experiments so that I can hit the ground running once the lab reopens. I have no choice but to finally work on that draft of my paper despite the incomplete data (I may have to modify the story though).

Sealed away in my home, I appreciate the time to ruminate, to learn, to chart out the future. How incredibly fortunate I am: I still receive my monthly graduate school stipend, so I can afford my rent. My research is based on lifeless, inorganic materials, so I did not need to throw out any of our samples in preparation for the lab shutdowns, unlike many biology researchers. My experiments are relatively easy to pick up again once the lab doors reopen. I have two years left before I graduate—more than enough research time to make up for the coronavirus setback. Several universities have frozen their hiring of new faculty candidates; and many students graduating this year are struggling to find jobs amidst the economic downturn. In contrast, the impact of the coronavirus on my graduate career is temporary and salvageable—not detrimental, as far as I can tell.

Nevertheless, I miss my group’s vibrant office discussions that propelled my research. Online chatrooms are not able to replace the intimate, collaborative spirit in-person interactions engender. I miss being able to learn through experimentation, not just via reading.

I am also starting to miss my clean room bunny suit. Absence truly makes the heart grow fonder.

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