Optics Without Labs

Despite shutdowns, the optics and photonics community is far from idle
26 May 2020
By Emily Power
B-PHOT Brussels Photonics Team
On Fridays, the B-PHOT Brussels Photonics Team meets on Zoom for an after-work gathering. It helps keep the group united and spirits high! Credit: Tatevik Chalyan

We've been living in a COVID-19 world this year. Conferences have been cancelled, postponed, or moved online. Grandparents are learning to Zoom, and children are referred to as coworkers. We've all read articles like "Ten Steps to a Productive Home/Work Environment" — until the cat sits on the keyboard.

Scientists and researchers are adapting to working from home, and, while it's not easy, optics research can continue outside the lab, it just looks a bit different. After chatting with members of the SPIE community — virtually of course — it's clear that success hinges on digital coffee breaks and hours of data analysis.

"I am in a lucky position because I recently concluded all my experiments," says Pamina Winkler, a PhD student at Barcelona's Institute of Photonic Sciences. Winkler studies single-molecule biophotonics and develops new approaches to fundamental cell-biology questions, so hands-on experiments are crucial. "From home, I can do my data analysis and work on my thesis."

Research assistant Vira Besaga at Ruhr University echoes this sentiment: her digital holography team is preparing for summer semester to begin remotely. "There is no access to the university buildings at all, and experiments have been cancelled. The week before official lockdown, I had a feeling we would be closing, so I spent the entire week in the lab. I recorded as many holograms as I could and, luckily, got enough data to analyze from home. Now, using MATLAB®, I am reconstructing them and learning whether they are good or not. Some of the data is not good, but it's better than nothing."

Data analysis and thesis writing? Check! But what about groups that were not at that stage in their project? Joe Shaw, a professor at Montana State University, says his group won't be able to sustain constant data analysis for much longer. "A few members are working on a new project that is just ramping up, so that's a challenge. At the moment, they are documenting literature searches and preparing designs that we will build once we get back into the lab. This will keep us busy for a while, but after that we'll have to get creative."

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Iowa Fatima Toor is in a similar position. "The microfabrication facility at our university was shut down," she said. "So, we tested what we already had fabricated. Now we are analyzing the data collected to date and writing first drafts on the results."

Overcoming challenges 

Starting a new job amid a global pandemic is hardly ideal, but for newly appointed Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital Research Fellow Linhui Yu, thinking about what she will be able to accomplish once she returns to the lab is what keeps her going: "I have a list of ideas that I'd like to try out. I have weekly meetings with my teammates, and the list of ideas is getting longer and longer. It is somewhat frustrating because some feasibility questions can be easily solved if I could just try them out quickly in the lab. Right now, I can only rely on simulations and literature."

In addition to the frustration of being away from the lab, researchers expressed the ongoing pressure to be creative and innovative during this time, and the feeling of disappointment if they can't achieve extraordinary results. "We need to acknowledge that it's okay to take time to adjust to this situation, and it's more than okay to not be fully productive from the start," says Winkler. "I had to learn to accept that I am not progressing at the same rate each day."

Toor chimes in, adding the parent's perspective: "In the beginning, it was quite stressful to manage taking care of our one-year-old child at home as well as conducting virtual meetings, but so far no one has complained. Most people are very understanding of the responsibilities everyone is trying to manage without much help."

Innovate and adapt 

Clearly, the optics and photonics community is finding different ways to adapt to their work-from-home circumstances. For those without kids or additional responsibilities, the change of pace may even spark new opportunities. "I'm an experimental scientist, so quite a big part of my work has been postponed," notes postdoctoral researcher Tatevik Chalyan of B-PHOT, Vrije Universiteit Brussel. "Instead, I'm devoting much of my time to writing and reviewing, as well as organizing online outreach activities ahead of the International Day of Light. I'm hoping to plan a big optics event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the laser once life is back to a normal routine!"

And meanwhile, various labs around the world are open and have temporarily changed their research focus to assisting healthcare workers and building engineering tools that can be used to help COVID patients. "My PI, Dr. Guillermo Tearney, is co-leading the Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital Center for COVID Innovation," says Yu. Some of their projects include repairing respirators, creating prototype amplifiers to attach to ventilators, and validating low-cost emergency ventilator designs.

Looking past the current situation and imagining life post-COVID may seem overwhelming, but Jess Wade, a postdoctoral research associate at Imperial College London, thinks this will lead to greater understanding across the community — and beyond. "I hope that COVID-19 makes people more sensitive to how different our individual conditions are: not all students — or staff for that matter! — have high-speed internet access or a private space to work in when they get home. That impacts what we can expect of people outside lecture theatres and laboratories. "

And that level of empathy could benefit everyone, from optics lab rats to stay-at-home cats.

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