Physics in the pandemic: ‘Welcome to my new role as university professor, housekeeper, cafeteria lady, school teacher…’ – Physics World


Joanne O’Meara is a professor and second year coordinator at the University of Guelph in Canada

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 

Joanne O'Meara
Video shoot: Joanne O’Meara and her daughter have made a video about the speed of light. (Courtesy: Joanne O’Meara)

Brrrring! There goes the bell at the school across the street from our home, but it’s unusually quiet. No line of big yellow school buses dropping off little ones; no harried parents parking across the bottom of our driveway as their charges dash in the front door.

Normally, I would be sitting at my desk at the University of Guelph by now, scrolling through the morning’s emails and prioritizing my “to do” list for the day. Instead, I’m making sure that my 9-year-old is starting on her journal writing assignment and my 14-year-old is finding reliable sources for her project on the forestry industry. Welcome to my new role as university professor, housekeeper, cafeteria lady, elementary and high school teacher, principal, secretary, and schoolyard supervisor.

The university has been working hard to support instructors while we figure out how best to finish up the semester. Switching the final exam to a final assignment, moving to a take-home or online exam, or using the term grade achieved to this point are all possibilities. I wasn’t teaching this semester, so my main pivot to online has been to find creative ways to support my 4th year physics students trying to finish their honours thesis projects. This semester is research leave for me, which means finalizing the second edition of our textbook and exploring new ways to connect with the community and support science education at all levels. The writing part – that’s relatively easy to do at home, although I’m now in slightly more chaotic settings than I’m used to in my quiet little campus office.

For the community connection part, I’ve decided to embrace the chaos! Colleagues and I in the department are now working on a series of videos to answer great science questions from kids – we’re calling it Ask Me Anything, Science Edition, or “AMASE!” – and I’ve recruited my home crew to help. My older daughter is providing technical prowess, while my younger daughter will be my co-host. We’ve just finished our first video now, measuring the speed of light in our kitchen. You can watch it above.

Is this how I thought I would be spending my days as winter slowly gives way to spring? Not at all. And I’m worried. I’m worried for our students, especially those in their final semester and already anxious about what comes next. I’m worried for my kids as they struggle with this abrupt upending of their daily lives. I’m worried for our healthcare workers as they face this nightmare. But, regardless of the uncertainty swirling, the one thing I do know is that we need to stay home. So we’ll find creative ways to keep busy, if for no other reason than to try to keep the worries at bay.

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