Roberta Ramponi

[Image: Courtesty of Roberta Ramponi]

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 30 March, we spoke with Roberta Ramponi, director of the CNR Institute for Photonics and Nanotechnologies (IFN–CNR) and a physics professor at Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

How did the situation in Milan and at Politecnico di Milano evolve as this crisis unfolded?

When the virus arrived in Western countries, for sure in Italy, we were not able to really trace the initial cases like they did in Singapore, for example. So when we realized that it had arrived here, the spread was already much wider than we were able to control.

In Italy, where the situation has been very bad, even in the worst areas it’s starting to slow down a little bit. Of course, we are all confined at home more or less, apart from really necessary activities.

Everything is controlled and limited—if you go to buy food at the supermarket, you have to queue a couple of meters apart from each other, and a few people enter at a time, but this seems to work. Hopefully in another couple of weeks, we will see things slowing down, and we will probably follow the same experience as Wuhan, China, which is slowly starting to open up again. But this must be done with a lot of care and attention; otherwise you will have a second wave. It’s not easy to predict.

You run a fairly large lab at CNR and Politecnico. How did you respond to some of the challenges associated with working and teaching from home?

The educational part was more easily set in place than the lab work. Politecnico is giving lectures to thousands of students every day at any given time, but luckily the web instruments for online teaching and the online platforms are very well developed. We started progressively—the first week, only a few pilot courses were involved, and then from the second week, everything started to transition online.

Luckily, at Politecnico this all happened just before the beginning of the second semester, so there were a few extra days to be able to organize things. And I would say that that is working quite well, and the students are managing quite well.

What about the lab work? What did that transition look like?

Of course, the big issue is the experimental work. So what we did was to try to finish, as quickly as possible, the experiments that we were running. We slowed down the experimental part and progressively closed it.

It’s not such an issue if the situation doesn’t last that long, because you have all the data that you have to analyze. In the last days, we didn’t analyze any data at all; we just collected measurements to have a good amount of data to work on. Also, if you have a paper that you have to write or you have a project call that you want to submit something to, then that keeps you busy for some weeks. But if things go longer than two months, then it will really be tough.

You have to reschedule everything and have contingency measures that you really didn’t expect you’d need. It goes beyond the normal contingency plan that you do when you start a project. On the other hand, sometimes you feel what you are doing is very urgent—the big issue for humanity right now is coronavirus. It’s not that big a deal if your results on “normal topics” come out a couple of months later.

That all sounds relatively smooth. Were there other situations that posed problems?

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Of course, you have some individual situations that may be difficult. For example, we had a Ph.D. student who was supposed to go abroad in Israel, and she couldn’t leave. And she needs the measurements that she was going to do in Israel to finish her Ph.D. thesis—that’s quite a mess.

Another big issue is with people under contract. All financing institutions are saying, “Don’t worry, you can postpone the deadlines,” but even if you have that possibility, you don’t get more money to pay the people under contract for those projects. So once the contract is finished, and their term ends, what do you do? You will still have the time, but no longer the people in some situations.

It’s also difficult for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are getting venture capital. Venture capital typically is given for a certain time frame. Even if the venture-capital funder extends that time frame, when the money has ended, you still have the time, but you’ll no longer have the people.

These are really the tricky situations in this story—it’s not so easy to solve.

Could you talk a little bit about the video project you’re working on—designing optics experiments for kids?

The National Research Council launched an internal project for science lectures, and they asked researchers if they were willing to contribute homemade videos. At my institute, we have some people that are really enthusiastic about outreach and dissemination on scientific topics, so we are working on this.

Rocío [Borrego-Varillas] is working on one. And another of our colleagues, Cristian Manzoni, just prepared a video explaining polarization that is targeted to younger kids. These are experiments that you can do at home, and they’re quite fun.

We’ve tried to do something that can connect us with the rest of the world, and keep the attention on the importance of science. We had to stop all possible activities for the International Day of Light, so we’re trying to reach out to the population using different means.

You’ve been involved with organizations, such as ICO and Photonics21, that are more global or regional in scope. What do you think this pandemic means for Europe more broadly?

We are, in Europe, in the transition period between the previous framework program, Horizon 2020, and the next one, Horizon Europe. This is quite a delicate period, because you have to set up all the programs and the budgets for the next seven years, and it’s not easy to do that under an emergency situation.

There are two different aspects. One aspect is that we are quite confident that photonics is one of the technologies that can help this situation—for diagnostics, for cell studies and manipulation. We are trying to pass this message along to the authorities, in terms of the need to support the photonics industry and the photonics researcher.

We’re also working with the end-user communities, those who deal mainly with the societal challenges, to show how much photonics can help the current situation and could possibly, in the future, also help to prevent or control a similar situation. In this respect, there are a lot of good messages that we can share about optics and photonics.

The big issue, and what we are worrying about a lot, is that the industry environment for photonics is based mainly on SMEs. And these are the most fragile in this situation because they may not have the critical mass needed to survive a long crisis. We hope that governments will understand this aspect and will give support to SMEs. Otherwise, recovering will really be a problem.

Do you have any concerns or thoughts about the EU?

Again, this is happening in a period that already was not easy for the European Union. We were just facing what will actually come out of Brexit—and we have no idea. And there are a lot of countries where the population and the politicians—Italy is one of them—are divided half and half between people strongly in favor of Europe and others that are very critical or would even like to leave.

For sure, the European Union has made many mistakes in the past, and during this crisis we see them all. I think it’s because Europe was never really able to become a strong union from a political or fiscal perspective—it has remained very much a union from the commercial point of view, free circulation of things and people. We do not have a common position on taxes or on foreign policy, for example.

I think that this big crisis may actually help Europe to find a common position, and understand that we need this reciprocal help. It’s a big threat, and it could be an opportunity to gather together again. But it’s really a big question mark. I think it’s too early to understand it.

Do you have any thoughts on the long-term impact of this pandemic on photonics?

The impact on photonics might be really hard depending on the amount time this goes on. Photonics has a lot of modeling behind it, but it’s an experimental science and a hardware technology.

I think that one important thing is to try to make plans for the future. The future can be in one month or in two months—but try to have a perspective on how we will start working again when this situation ends. Because this motivates people.