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[Image: courtesy of Rocío Borrego-Varillas]

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 member Rocío Borrego-Varillas, a staff researcher at the Institute of Photonics and Nanotechnology of the Italian National Research Council (IFN-CNR) and an assistant lecturer at Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

From the outside, it seemed that the situation in Italy happened really fast. What was your experience watching everything unfold?

At first, it seemed like something far away; it was only affecting China. Then, in Italy, it all happened on 20 February. For the first two weeks after the first case, nothing was officially forbidden by the government in Milan—other than to close the schools and the universities to students, which happened immediately, and keeping a security distance of one meter. But the research lab was still operating.

After two weeks, the government decided to block almost everything. You can only go out, basically, for the supermarket or for an emergency. And every time you go out, you need to have a certificate with you, saying where you are going from and to, and for what reason.

What is the mood like in Milan? And in Spain, where your family is from? Having roots in two heavily affected countries must be tremendously stressful for you.

Most people I know are fine, but it is stressful. People are dying, but funerals are forbidden now, as are weddings—everything that involves a concentration of people. People that are getting ill are completely isolated in the hospitals. They don’t have any contact with their family while they’re sick. And if they die, they die alone.

I’m very concerned about my family in Spain, because if something happens I cannot go—all flights between Italy and Spain have been cancelled. It is heartbreaking in Italy, too—especially the situation in Bergamo, which is just 60 kilometers from here and has a high number of cases.

What about on a professional level? How has the lockdown affected your work?

Basically, we have been working completely from home since 8 March. We teach the lessons online, and part of the research. The labs are now closed.

For me it’s not making a big difference, because I had so much paperwork to do that I’m just using the time to finish writing papers or data analysis. Normally, I would spend half of the time in the lab, taking measurements, and half of the time of in the office, analyzing the data. So we, along with the students, are working on data analysis, and the simulations that can support experiments. In terms of that analysis, it’s quite okay.

Of course, from the experimental point of view it is a serious issue, especially for first year Ph.D. students or Master’s students who have just started their activities in the lab. During the two weeks of “limbo” we tried to hurry up with the experiments. When everything closed, my colleagues and I made a schedule of the possible tasks for students (such as data modeling or simulations). We keep our weekly group meeting online so that we can check their current progress.

I hope that we can be back in the lab by June. If it gets even longer than that, then I don’t know.

How has it been teaching classes virtually? Do you have any tips for educators switching to distance learning?

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There are 200 students in some classes, so we are using a platform provided by Politecnico for online teaching. I share the screen with my students using OneNote, but you can also use PowerPoint or something else. I have a touchpad, so I write on the computer by hand, and they see what I’m writing.

One problem, for me, is that it’s very weird to not have contact with the students—you just talk with a computer, and they look at the screen. They write questions on the chat, but I don’t have any direct feedback.

This is something new—it’s the first time we’ve taught online. Politecnico did a good job providing some guidelines for online teaching, but there is so much to do, and things happened very fast. On the other hand, it can be a chance to  look for new resources online and take advantage of different programs to support your teaching.

It sounds like you’re staying busy. Are you working on any other projects right now?

We are at home, so we all need to find new hobbies. One thing we are trying, with some of the researchers at the institute, is to record short videos showing some homemade optics experiments that kids can do using household items.

Cristian [Manzoni, another IFN-CNR researcher] is preparing one on polarization using the 3D glasses that are used for the cinema. Others that we are thinking about would use a pinwheel to teach about color, or using a microwave oven to measure the speed of light with a piece of candy.

With the Ultrafast Optical Phenomena OSA technical group, we are working to organize a series of online events specially oriented for undergraduate and Ph.D. students—similar to a virtual “summer school.” Since many conferences and schools have been canceled this year, I believe this will be a helpful initiative for the students.   

We’ve talked about the impact on your personal and professional life. What’s your perspective on how this will affect Europe as a whole?

If you look at all the countries in Europe, Italy was the first one to be affected, but now the situation is similar everywhere. There will be an economic crisis afterwards, that’s obvious, but I remain a little bit optimistic. I hope it will not be a crisis like in 2008, because it’s not coming from a financial problem, but it will take time to get back to the same situation as before the outbreak.

On a longer timescale, in science, I think we will suffer the consequences because this means that the government will have to invest more money into helping industry, companies and self-employed workers. And of course, if part of the federal finances goes to them, it would mean that they will need to cut from something else. And usually when they cut, this means cuts in science.

On a more positive note, I think that during a crisis you always learn something new, and there are countries that are showing a lot of solidarity. In Italy, for example, there are people singing on the balcony. In Spain, at eight o’clock every day, they go out to the balcony and applaud the doctors and nurses. Both in Italy and Spain, there are a lot of initiatives to share free online resources from companies or to sew facemasks. In such a sad time, that is something positive at least.