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 15 April, we spoke with OSA Ambassador Manish Tiwari, a professor and head of the Department of Electronics and Communication Engineering at Manipal University Jaipur, India.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is the focus of your work?
I live in the central part of India, very close to the Indian capital of New Delhi. Presently, I'm working in photonic crystal fibers—specifically, the design and modeling of photonic crystal fibers for nonlinear applications—which I’ve been doing for more than 10 years now. Also, in my group, we’re doing a little bit of experimental work, but more often we do simulation and modeling.
Let’s talk a little bit about coronavirus. Do you remember when you personally first heard about it?
It was right at the end of January, when a student in Wuhan returned back to southern India and he was found positive. At that time, it was thought that coronavirus would be restricted to the southern part of India only, but of course it kept spreading.
If I remember correctly, on the first of March, there were only three cases in India, but by the second week of March, it rose to 100. By the fourth week it went up to 500. That was when the lockdown was actually imposed in India.
What is the lockdown like in India? As I understand it, it’s the largest in the world.
We were fortunate that when this was all happening, students were not on campus. We have holidays for a festival during the second week of March, and most of the students go back home. So when the university was closed, we were in a good position to just tell students that they should not return to campus, and I began working from home. One week later, the actual country-wide lockdown was imposed for 21 days. It has since been extended till the third of May.
I think India made an early decision to lock down, and that's the main reason why the cases are not increasing at such a fast pace here. India is also implementing a lot of initiatives; our government is providing essentials for people who are having a tough time.
Since your research is heavily based in modeling and simulation, are you in a pretty good position to get your work done from home?
That's right … usually. But this time, actually, we were in the process of setting up an experimental lab for our research work, which was a very ambitious project of our group. I think now that project will be delayed by at least 9 to 12 months.
The delay will be at least this long because our current round of funding was going to last until 31 March, and we were excited to finish the facility by June or July on that original timeline. Now, we'll have to go for a new round of funding, and then new ordering, and all those things that need to be done—none of that can be done until things get back to normal.
As a mentor and team leader to students, how are you handling that role?
[Image: Courtesy of Alessia Kirkland]
For the students who were in the middle of their work, they will not be affected much. Now, they actually have time to complete something!
Those who were just starting, I think they will be affected the most because they were in the early phase of finding out what they will be doing for the next three to four years. And now they don’t know what to do because there are no facilities available to them. So they are strongly affected by this, and they are telling me that they will probably be set back by at least one year.
Also, those students who were winding up, who were already planning to find a job or go for higher studies or may be a postdoc position—all those things will be delayed.
That must be very discouraging for them. Are they reaching out to you for advice or encouragement?
Yes, they are continuously in touch with me on various online platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and they are doing their work from home. I’m encouraging them that it doesn't matter—that we'll try to cope with this delay and these problems we’re all facing.
But, on the other hand, I know that the time that we’ve lost is gone. It’s gone, and no one can do anything about that.
You're also a 2020 OSA Ambassador, a role that normally involves a lot of travel and personal outreach. How has this role changed?
We were about to meet at the OSA Leadership Conference, which was supposed to be in late March in Washington D.C., when the coronavirus really started to spread. That was obviously canceled, but we are staying in touch on Zoom.
We recently had a five-hour-long online training session, and I'm fortunate that there were so many earlier OSA Ambassadors who attended that meeting. They motivated us and gave us interesting ideas for what we can do, as far as exploring online content and activities, to live up to the duties and expectations of OSA Ambassadors.
We are brainstorming ideas for webinars that will appeal to early career professionals and students, and we’re in the process of writing some blogs related to career development. So, we are trying to make the best possible use of available online platforms to perform this role.
Here at Manipal University, I'm also the OSA student chapter advisor, so I’m discussing with my students what else we can do to make the most out of this year.
What are your thoughts on what the larger impact of this pandemic will be on photonics? And on the economy, more broadly?
The impact on photonics research is concerning. I think it'll be a tough time for maybe a couple of years because, as we can see now, a lot of the government funding is directed toward solving the problem of COVID-19. However, many researchers have also started exploring solutions for COVID-19 from the photonics point of view, so there is some opportunity.
As far as the economic impact is concerned, it is going to be a tough time in the coming years because India made a very quick decision to lock down everything—all universities and all industries and all businesses have been closed except essential services. I think that this will greatly impact employment and businesses, and it is going to hamper economic growth for a little while.
However, I hope that it will not last for long. Already, there are experts who have indicated that India and a few other countries will be impacted the least by this. The general reasoning is that Indians are not spending people—they don't spend much, they don't need much to survive. So the economic effect will perhaps not be as dramatic.