Unlocking the universe during the lockdown


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So how do we accomplish our research goals? There was no point pining for a lab that you could not visit. The only solution to this was to redefine our goals.

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2020 was off to a good start for our “STAR Lab” – the Space Technology and Astrophysics Research lab at IIT Bombay. Briefly put, we develop instruments for astrophysical research. Our “GROWTH-India” telescope in Ladakh had just obtained its camera back after long repairs, and we were ready to start hunting for explosive events in the cosmos again. Daksha – a highly ambitious project to build the world’s most sensitive high energy transients telescopes – had been well-received by the international community. Funding to heavily upgrade the lab was on the verge of getting approved. And being in a teaching institute, we were counting on summer as the time when we would power ahead with maximum momentum to get all this work done.


Then in mid-March, COVID-19 hit the country. At first, the institute decided to suspend instructions for two weeks and encouraged students to go home. The nationwide lockdown started during this period.


There was no doubt in our minds that these actions were necessary for the health and safety of all the STARs – the students and postdocs in the lab. As they returned home, we took a couple of weeks for people to settle into a new, albeit uneasy, equilibrium. Our group has a wide range of members from undergrads to postdocs, each having a different set of personal concerns and social responsibilities. But all of them are united by an intense passion for their work. And they wanted to be back in action – some because they had time and wanted to complete their duties, their work gave them a focus and purpose, helping them take their minds off the uncertainties surrounding them.


When I reconvened everyone for our first virtual meeting, we discussed their individual situations and found that most of them had their laptops, a good enough internet connection, and the luxury of time to continue research. A few, unfortunately, had more responsibilities and could not continue working from home. We all decided that we will continue research as we wait for things to renormalize. But this research thrust would have to be balanced against the newly imposed work conditions and uncertainties. We would have to keep everyone interested and excited, without adding any pressure in these already trying times.


So how do we accomplish our research goals? There was no point pining for a lab that you could not visit. The only solution to this was to redefine our goals. Building hardware on project timelines often involves a lot of “we need this right NOW” – a series of quick responses to problems that keep cropping up. That can mean important long-term projects get put on the back burner. As the lockdown put the brakes on our normal activities, we opted to shift the focus to the long-term: wrapping up “almost complete” papers, reading review articles that had been bookmarked to read “someday”, teaching undergraduate students the theoretical underpinnings for data analysis, and so on.


We shifted the focus of every group member from their primary project to a closely aligned data analysis project. These projects had tangible short-term goals, so that students can see progress through summer and not have the frustration of stagnation added into their list of pandemic-induced problems. Background reading was recommended, and details were left to them. Everyone was paired up with one or more group members, so they always had someone to discuss things with. At the same time, each person had a well-defined piece of the pie, which was theirs to cherish and relish. The sporting challenge to each person was to see if they could publish a paper before the start of the fall semester.


To make up for the physical interactions in a lab setting, we set up regular group meetings multiple times a week. Everyone presented their work updates, followed by either a journal club or a presentation about someone’s ongoing research. Even the junior-most undergraduates took part in these activities. All students also had one-on-one meetings with me each week, to resolve doubts and eliminate obstacles in their work to the extent possible. The group meetings and individual calls also were the venues of a diverse set of discussions including presentation and writing skills, science leadership, mentoring, career paths, the role of science in society, and so on.


It was important that we didn’t create an all work and no play situation. Our group has always been well-connected, we had to find a way to continue this. The formal group meetings were interspersed with “unstructured” meetings, where students would just get together and do whatever they wanted – chatting, playing games, and enjoying each other’s company. Continuing our group’s tradition of having parties to celebrate each achievement, we have racked up a long list of “deferred” parties, which will be celebrated after everyone returns to campus.


The pandemic shock left many feeling powerless: what could a bunch of astrophysicists do to help? We made sure people could open up to and support each other on this front. Some started volunteering with the “Indian Scientists Response to COVID”, helping spread awareness about the disease. There was even comfort to be found in just talking about it to friends. It has also been very important to talk to everyone about their well-being, and to ensure them that they can always catch up on work later.


The approach has worked well. We have a happy, healthy and motivated group, that has accomplished a lot in summer. We have published two papers, and have a few more submitted and in preparation. The impact on group members varied by career stages. Postdocs were quite comfortable working remotely. Graduate students were happy with the opportunity of continuing work while being able to focus more on the long-term learning aspects. A graduate student stated that regular group interactions gave a sense of solidarity, and work provided a sense of purpose in an otherwise chaotic period. Another graduate student found a new meaning to work-life balance. An undergrad who had joined the group just as the lockdown started thoroughly enjoyed the introduction to research. People learnt to give and receive frank feedback during presentations, and everyone’s presentation skills improved. An undergrad preparing a research presentation for the first time understood the effort that went into making a good one. Several members commented that they were more content in the lockdown than their friends who were not doing projects or were not connected to their groups. As for the few group members who could not work remotely – they seem to be doing okay too. For instance, one found new activities to focus on, and used the summer for personal growth. Another effectively shouldered family responsibilities. But, we missed them, and are eager to have them join in when they can. Overall, I think we did fine – I am happy with the growth seen in group members, as well as what they have managed to accomplish during the most chaotic period they have experienced in their lives.


IIT Bombay has decided to move the coming semester online, and our group will continue the same mode of operation. We are comfortable with this new way of working to the extent that this month, we welcomed seven new undergraduates to start working with us on various projects. This is new ground for us: when we entered the lockdown, our group members already had a strong rapport with each other, but most group members have never met the new entrants. We will have to come up with new methods get the whole machine running smoothly. But we handled the previous challenge successfully, and are confident of doing well here too. COVID-19 has undoubtedly hampered our hardware work, but the institutional and national precautions have kept our STARs safe, and they continue to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Isn’t that what matters most?


Varun Bhalerao is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Physics, IIT Bombay. Views expressed are personal. 


This article is part of a series called “Academics Post COVID-19”. The other articles in the series can be found here.

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