Michal Lipson in lab

Michal Lipson. [Photo courtesy of M. Lipson]

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 22 April, we spoke with OSA Fellow Michal Lipson, a professor at Columbia University, USA, and head of a nanophotonics lab there, about her group’s experience of the pandemic in New York City—the U.S. epicenter of the crisis.

Do you recall when you first heard about the coronavirus and started thinking about its potential impact on your operation?

I think it came—as I’m sure is the case with many in this experience—as a wave of shock. The first impact for me was when I landed for the American Physical Society meeting, in Denver. As soon as the plane landed, I opened my iPhone, and learned that the conference was canceled. So I basically had to turn around—although there were no flights.

But it was shocking. Because up until then, it was not really clear that this was that serious. In my own world of nanofabrication, there were rumors that the cleanrooms might close, but we still didn’t really understand or even envision that our own labs would close.

So the students started working around the clock on nanofabrication. And as soon as I realized that there might be a possibility that the labs would be closed, then the students started really working like crazy for a week. And then that was it—we were closed.

New York, and New York City in particular, has been kind of the U.S. epicenter for this infection. I believe you live in the city itself. What has this meant there?

When you go out in the streets here, it’s very eerie. It feels like—I can’t help it, but I think about the Gulf War in Israel, which I went through. I believe this would remind every Israeli of that. Because it’s the same sense, that the world will never be the same ... But it’s a little harder here, because it’s an invisible enemy.

It’s been kind of amazing the way it’s spread in New York. What is the situation now?

Since a few days ago, it’s been illegal to walk in the streets without a mask. Grocery shops are threatening to close, because there have been quite a lot of grocery workers who have been getting sick. So the situation is still tough.

Absolutely, we were able to flatten the curve. And I think the experience in the hospitals—while it’s still very extreme, and there is a lot of tension and pressure there, I think the fear of the hospitals going completely under and being completely overwhelmed is much less.

But that’s just because we are under those restrictions; we don’t know what’s going to happen when we open again.

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[Image: Alessia Kirkland]

Looking at this from the outside, we’ve seen a lot of coverage of the briefings and communications from the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo. How much of a difference has that made, from your perspective?

I think it is important to have someone that you can look up to in these emergencies. He basically filled that role—“As the leader, you can trust me.” And to people here, he’s a hero; that’s how people are looking at him.

Let’s look a bit closer at how this affected your work and your lab. You’ve already talked a bit about the amount of work that you did in advance of the closure. Was that aimed at getting lots of data, so that during the period of closure, there would still be things to do?

Yes, absolutely. That was the idea; that was critical. But of course, eventually this is going to end—we only took a finite amount of data!

It could be that I’m trying to look only at the positives, and of course I absolutely never would have chosen this. But the good side is that to do a pause, and to think, to work more heavily on theory, to work on design, to understand the data, or even to understand simulations, come up with new ideas—that is an opportunity. Hopefully, it’s not all lost.

It’s almost an enforced period of reflection, I guess.

Right, exactly. And also physics-wise—you kind of think about, “Are there other topics that we could be impacting?” But it’s not something I would have chosen!

What about on the education side—in terms of getting set up for distance learning and things like that, which has been sort of a theme for the people we’ve been talking to?

I only teach graduate students, so it’s not as crazy and demanding. But it did feel that the level of the course was not the same. For me it was not so difficult, but I think for the students it was definitely impactful.

The way my class was set up was that it involved a lot of collaboration among the students. So it was basically impossible to hold it the way I was doing it. The whole class was about that—they were working together. So in the end I ended up giving them a lot of projects, and it was not what it was supposed to be.

We read something on your group’s social media about the Columbia Engineering Department teaming up with some local medical centers to design and prototype and manufacture face shields for medical workers.

Yes; a number of people who work in that area are doing that. In my own group, I have some students volunteering for other things. And I have a postdoc, who actually joined my lab not too long ago, and he’s now working in a hospital. Because they need people—not necessarily medics; they just need manpower and transportation and so on.

I guess it’s hard not to be a little concerned about that.

Yes! He asked my permission, and I said, “Well, you’re a grown-up guy, and I have no say in this. If I were your mom I’d be very worried. But I understand.”

Let’s talk a bit about the larger impact of this. Do you have any thoughts, with respect to the photonics community and the kind of work you’re doing, on what sort of long-term effects this experience might have?

If we’re looking for a silver lining, now more than ever, communication is clearly a priority. Of course we’re all very worried about the financial situation and the funding situation of the country. But communication, in which photonics is a very big player—if not the player—is clearly a major priority. Sensing, another area where photonics is important, might be able to help solve some of the diagnostic issues.

So I think it’s an interesting time that really kind of emphasizes what are the areas that humanity needs right now.

What about funding for science generally?

Of course, in terms of funding, we are all very worried. But when you think about it, it’s very hard to predict. In 2008, [during the financial crisis], funding for research was still fine—there was never really a time when things was terrible.

I think today we do have a situation where universities are now issuing press releases saying there are going to be salary cuts, and that the job market for academics is completely folding. That has an immediate impact on our community; there’s no question about it.

But whatever science funding there will be—and there will be science funding, no matter what—whatever there will be, the photonics world is well positioned. Even so, it’s clear that research funding is at risk, like all other funding.

Another obvious impact that we will see is in the area of scientific conferences. Our community really relies on these interactions, on collaborations, on interpersonal communications. Zoom has proven to be fantastic—but it’s not a replacement. It is definitely worrisome that there will be no face-to-face interaction, possibly for quite a long time. Even after the labs reopen.

Are there last thoughts you’d like to share—things to think about looking ahead that we haven’t really touched on?

Most of our generation has not experienced war, of course. But I would say that in wars or in other hard times, there is a sense of community. I definitely have felt it. I’ve gotten emails from people, from scientists around the world, asking if were are okay here in New York City; and we have been asking other areas that were highly impacted how they are doing. It definitely brings out the best in people in hard times. So there is beauty, also, in these situations.