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Coronavirus Diaries: John Dudley

John Dudley portrait

[Image: Courtesy of John Dudley]

OPN has been talking with members of the optics and photonics community in a variety of areas to get their perspective on how the COVID-19 crisis has affected their lives and work, and what the pandemic means for photonics. On 27 March, we spoke with OSA Fellow John Dudley, a professor of physics at Université de Franche-Comté and a research team leader at CNRS Institut FEMTO-ST, France.

How has the situation evolved where you are?

Within France, as in many countries in Europe, they never took things seriously enough until things started getting very bad in Italy. Then things changed in early March with the universities formally recommending measures about health and hygiene, and very quickly afterwards everything shut down completely. There is a very strong top-down and centralized organization in France, so when the government decides to impose a directive, then things can happen instantly.

How has working from home been for you, and for others at the university?

In general, I think that the impact is much less for senior researchers than for students, postdocs and other early-career staff. After all, many senior researchers work very often from home, from hotels, from airports, from planes—and their physical presence in the laboratory is not necessary most of the time. Indeed, I think it’s likely even counterproductive—when the professor comes in to try to work on some experiments, you can see the wave of fear propagate among the Ph.D. students!

I am most concerned about the impact on researchers with young children, on students far from their families, and on international students that may be forced to stay confined in a small dormitory room. For these groups, I imagine that it has been extremely hard. And in some email exchanges I’ve had I can detect the stress, which is, of course, perfectly understandable. I think it’s important here to try and be supportive.

What did it mean, shutting the lab down?

The practical issue of shutting things down for us was relatively simple. Our institute building hosts around 250 people, so some top-down organization was needed to close things down in an orderly way. The Executive Committee did a survey of what essential facilities had to run and who needed to have access. For the physics labs, we don’t have that many critical experiments, but we do need to ensure that some key machines are kept chilled, gases are kept at the right level, some cryogenics are maintained etc.

What about the teaching aspect of the job?

The clear message from my university has been, “We realize that this is a difficult period for both staff and students, and we know it takes time to adapt. So don’t try to follow the same rhythm; don’t try to demand as much.” I have been very impressed with the supportive messages from the university president and senior management.

In terms of organizing teaching during the closure, although initially announced as a 15-day lockdown, I think everyone knew from the outset it would be much longer. There has been a lot of work done by the various course organizers to provide us with resources for online teaching, and to try to suggest adjustments and alternatives in the best interests of the students.

In my own Master’s course, I decided to conclude the formal content at the last lecture before the break, and I have since developed some problems into extended, independent homework assignments and projects. I send my students regular messages, and they are free to contact me at any time.

Concerning research students and postdocs, my message was “If you want me to give you things to do, I’m perfectly happy to do so. But I’m not really expecting you to meet any deadlines or to do anything substantial.” That said, they all came back to me and said, “Please give us things to do.” I think they were afraid of just going stir crazy. We are actually making some good progress on various topics.

Do you have any advice? Any lessons learned?

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I think remote teaching and working brings a number of challenges, and I think we’re all still learning. For example, concerning remote presentations and classes, some people seem to prefer that you actually see the person speaking during a video lesson, while others are happy with a simple screen sharing of slides as long as the speaker is sufficiently animated. Trying to adapt to different expectations can be difficult.

One very practical thing that we are learning, though, is that more than 10 people on a zoom call just does not work well. Although we’re all quite used to video calls, when you’re talking in an instruction environment, then it’s very different. The asynchronous nature of comments made on a multi-participant video call can make it hard to stay on track.

With the position that you’re in, of running a lab and having to be concerned about personnel and funding, how has that part of the job been affected?

One of the first things we did in our group was to check that everyone’s salary funding—including short-term staff and students— was covered. And we have also told all the students that the deadlines they had for finishing their Ph.D. write ups will be very flexible. I think that it’s important to reassure people that the basics are being taken care of.

In terms of research funding, in France, given that there was a national decree for the shutdown, all national funding timetables have been correspondingly shifted as well. So that particular element of stress has been removed.

How do you think this will impact research?

Speaking for my own group, even if we were shut out of our labs for three months, we have a lot of things to catch up on that we were struggling to find time to write up anyway. So overall I wouldn’t expect much negative impact.

Of course, we also had some experiments running and it’s frustrating we can’t complete them, but hopefully we’ll be able to restart them quickly and maybe having done some additional modeling, we may even be able to understand the results more easily. The precise impact will likely heavily depend on the particular discipline and specific projects underway.

Most of us have been around for long enough to realize that there are always ups and downs, and you just ride them out. It’s the younger people who are just starting, who come in with hope, with new ideas, with ambition, with impatience, who may be most negatively affected. When you come in with enthusiasm and energy, and then you’re suddenly just stopped … I think that’s potentially very detrimental, particularly for those in a very selective tenure-track situation.

Unless measures are put into place to really support younger researchers—such as maybe taking away their teaching duties for six months to let them regain momentum or giving them extra funding to hire a few more people—then I think that many early-career researchers may well see their careers suffer.

Do you have any thoughts on how Europe as a whole is reacting to this crisis?

I think that history has shown that the European Union is resilient. After all, it was born out of World War II, and succeeded in developing its identity despite multiple challenges—the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, the dot-com bust of 2000, the 2008 financial crisis. Of course, one has to be very careful making any predictions about how things will develop over the next months and years. We are still learning about the social and economic dynamics of this pandemic, and any predictions are best left to the real experts.

But I think that this pandemic has reminded us that problems on a global scale do not respect national borders and national politics, so hopefully this message will be taken on board and countries in Europe and elsewhere can focus on cooperation.

You’re heavily involved with the International Day of Light celebration. How is that project adapting to this?

Once the scale of the pandemic became apparent, we put out a message on the IDL website stating that we understood plans would need to be changed for 2020, and recommending first and foremost that everyone follow local and national guidelines with regard to containment measures.

We also mentioned that there is no problem with rescheduling if you want to do some outreach later in the year. A day of light can take place, even though it’s not the Day of Light, right? We are still receiving enquiries, and there is a lot of enthusiasm in the community. There are also many online initiatives being planned, so we expect that there will still be lot going on in May!

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