Researchers in Lockdown: Life BC and AD

Shobhana Narasimhan


My life BC (Before COVID) was one mad rush. I was on a treadmill that I could not get off from, travelling almost every week for various committee meetings, PhD examination boards, conferences, meetings for collaborations, or workshops. I always kept two suitcases packed, one for trips within India, and another for trips abroad. I was happy when the trips were spaced far enough apart that I managed to get my laundry done in between.

Of course, in between, I had to go to work, do research, meet with my students, teach, and attend more meetings. My list of unread/unanswered emails would pile up, and sometimes I would forget to fill out reimbursement forms. I was not unhappy by any means, but I was tired. By the time I got home late at night, I was usually so exhausted that the only choices for dinner were to cook a two-minute omelette or order dinner through Swiggy. Concerned friends and relatives suggested that I take on and travel less, but that didn’t seem like a viable option for me. 

The only matter up for discussion seemed to be whether to complete my trips to Delhi in a single punishing day (wake up at 3 a.m., catch the 6 a.m. flight, sit through a day of meetings, and given that the wretched 8.40 p.m. flight back to Bengaluru was usually delayed, return home 24 hours later) or space it out over three days. But that would mean three days lost to research! To catch up on the literature, I would print papers out to read on the flights, but I  would often be so wrung out that the moment I fastened my seatbelt, I would fall asleep, only to wake up when the landing announcement was made. 

And then, suddenly, it was March 2020, and everything screeched to a halt. It took me a while to adjust to my life in the AD (Age of Despond? Or is it Age of Deliverance?). During the first few days of the lockdown, I had a sense of impending doom. The walls of my apartment seemed to press down on me. I live alone, and it felt truly strange to see no one else for days on end. I worried that the food I had stocked up on would not last through my incarceration. However, I had many work deadlines to meet. So, in the first two weeks, I worked like crazy, submitting three papers and evaluating dozens of research proposals. 

Almost immediately, my daily routine changed. I stayed up all night, usually falling asleep at dawn when the birds started chirping. I gladly freed myself from the tyranny of the alarm clock and woke up only when I heard the vegetable vendor (allowed inside our campus despite the lockdown) shout out ‘Tarakaari!’ (vegetables). I found no reason to change out of my nightdress and stopped colouring my hair. I thought these behaviours were peculiar to me, until I read that they were, in fact, typical of those (mal)adjusting to life in lockdown. 

The biggest challenge I faced was adapting to teaching from home. I had been teaching a solid state physics course using an ‘active learning’ approach, where I would lecture for a few minutes, introduce a concept, and then divide students into groups of three or four to solve a few problems based on that concept. Every group was guided either by me or a tutor. I believe this approach was first introduced in basic physics courses at Harvard and MIT, and many studies have proved that it is extremely effective. 

However, it was difficult to translate this into an online format, especially when many of the students were at home in rural areas with poor internet connections. I finally had to resort to sending them detailed notes (that took me a long time to write) and lists of problems to solve by themselves. I was not entirely happy with this. I offered to hold discussions over WhatsApp, but very few students chose to do so. Designing a final exam that they could solve at home (with access to websites or books) also proved rather challenging. I had to come up with problems that could not be answered by simply doing a Google search, yet were not too difficult. Of course, the students complained that the resulting exam was rather tough!

My first Zoom meeting was a review committee meeting, which was originally supposed to be held in  Switzerland. Scheduling it proved challenging as the committee members were all under lockdown in different time zones. I had attended in-person meetings of this committee before. While I did miss the camaraderie and the chitchat of the previous years, the abbreviated format of the online meeting accomplished all the essential business in a much shorter time. There were disadvantages, however. In this year’s online meeting, we interacted only with the PIs of the project we were evaluating, whereas in previous years we were able to talk to the students and postdocs as well, and get a more holistic view of the projects, as well as a better feel for the morale in the teams we were evaluating.

Although videos of my talks had previously been uploaded online, I had neither given nor attended a live webinar before the lockdown. The first webinar I gave was a ‘plenary guest lecture’ for the ‘Solid State Physics in Quarantine’ course that my friend Sandro Scandolo, a physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, conducted online in May. Stuck at home during Italy’s lockdown, Sandro decided to conduct a beginners’ physics course online. He announced it on Facebook, hoping to get maybe 25 students. Within a day, he had reached the maximum possible enrollment of 500 students from all over the world. Interestingly, the country with the highest number of students was India.

I gave a talk during this course, where I used examples from my research to show how the concepts they learnt in the course were used in cutting edge research. After a little hesitation (because I worried that it might appear insensitive to those who were ill with COVID-19), I used coronavirus analogies to illustrate concepts in my research: various aspects of my work were likened to the donning of face masks, ‘flattening the curve’, etc. The questions in the chatbox were interesting as the students prefaced their questions by introducing themselves as being from Afghanistan, Palestine, India, Italy, Peru, the Philippines, etc. After the talk, many students asked me if I could organize an advanced course in my field of research. I am currently discussing this possibility with colleagues.

I found this first Zoom talk difficult to give – I am so used to looking at my audience and judging from their faces whether I am conveying my message or not. With 500 students online, I could not see the participants’ faces, and at one point, I felt that I was talking into a vacuum. It was very strange and disorienting. I also kept forgetting that I was supposed to look at the laptop camera; instead, I found my eyes repeatedly straying to the little thumbnail image of myself in one corner of the screen!  

Since then, I have given several Zoom talks: not just about my research, but also about women in science and how to write scientific papers. I realize that with the online format, I am able to reach much larger audiences – each talk has had a live audience of hundreds or even thousands, and the videos have subsequently been watched by many more. I am also able to reach people from small institutions or remote places who do not normally have access to such talks. One of the talks I gave was for students in the Philippines. It would have been difficult for me to give this talk in-person.

Typical for coronavirus times, many old friends and classmates, some of whom I had not heard from in decades, contacted me. A participant in one group call is now a professor of physics; as a graduate student, he had been a TA for the quantum mechanics course I had taken in my first semester at Harvard. I could laugh about a 35-year-old memory of when, as a nervous freshie, I had approached him for help with a problem, he had said, “You are so stupid, I don’t know how you got into Harvard!” Having considerably mellowed from the sharp-tongued Oxonian he was in 1985, he wrote me a letter of apology after our Zoom call, telling me how happy he was that I had ignored his stupidity and bizarre sense of humour, and gone on to become a successful scientist!

I am surprised by how rapidly I adjusted to the ‘new normal’. I am now back to a fairly ‘old normal’ wake-sleep routine, even without an alarm clock. I find I feel much better if I wear nicely ironed clothes, even if no one is going to see me. I have been cooking healthy meals for myself every day and have lost a significant amount of weight. My students tell me that they are very happy that they now have more of my time, even though we mostly interact over Skype and WhatsApp. I suspect that I am also more patient with them these days. Many former students, in lockdown abroad, are lonely and homesick, and I spend a lot of time talking to them. 

I was supposed to go to Paris to write some papers with a collaborator, but we have now been working on them remotely. He and I logged on to overleaf (an online LaTeX editor) together, and spoke on Skype, while we whittled down the abstract of our paper to fit in with the journal’s word limits. First, he would delete one word, then I would replace two words with one, then he would remove yet another word, and so on. It felt just like sitting down at the computer together – except, of course, that when we were done, we could not give each other a high five, and go off to have a drink at a cafe around the corner to celebrate!

With the time saved from travelling and commuting, I have been able to return to old hobbies. To help a little girl I know overcome her fear of face masks, I dug out my sewing machine (untouched for twenty years) and made her a kitty-cat mask and a teddy bear mask. These became quite popular and I now have a long list of pending orders for face masks for the children of friends. I have also been baking bread, cakes and pies, though with the lockdown in effect, I feel sad that I have no one to share them with. I have been reading a lot of fiction too; I find myself looking for books with happy endings. 

I realize just how privileged I am that the lockdown is, for me, merely an annoyance rather than a life-destroying calamity. My biggest complaints are piles of dishes to wash, and not miles of highway to walk to reach home; it is my internet connection that keeps dying, not the ones who are near and dear to me. When cyclone Amphan hit the eastern coast, during the lockdown period, I called my student Abhishek, who was in a small village in the Sunderbans. “Ma’am,” he said, “the roof of my house just blew off. I fought for six years to get electricity to my village, the electric poles just fell down.” I, however, still have a roof over my head, my salary, a fridge full of food, and the ability to work from home. I have the luxury of enjoying the slowing-down of life, rather than having it represent the end of my livelihood, as it has for millions in India. I feel terribly guilty about this.

One day, I suppose, the pandemic will be over. What then? Will I get back on the treadmill? I suppose I will start travelling again, but I hope that our community will introspect about how much of this travel is really necessary. Most committee meetings can easily be conducted online, saving a lot of money and time. In-person conferences clearly have many advantages – many ideas are born and collaborations cemented in the coffee breaks and on escalator rides. However, in addition to everyone’s carbon credits being shot to hell, this format clearly favours a privileged few - those who have invitations to conferences and a big travel budget. 

An online format is far more egalitarian. Someone in a small town in Africa with a mobile data connection, has, in principle, as much access to the conference as someone at Stanford, Oxford, or the University of Tokyo. The online format is also more friendly toward those who have logistic constraints that prevent them from travelling, e.g., the parents of young children. These are issues we should think about seriously as a community. We have now been forced to have the previously unthinkable ‘big pause’. Perhaps we should now confront other previously unthinkable possibilities, and not return to business as usual?

Shobhana Narasimhan is a Professor of Theoretical Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, India.