This post was written by Thomas Rainbolt, a student from the ScIU-led winter intersession course “Science in a Digital Age.”
Phineas and Ferb (in the funny Disney cartoon) had it right when they wondered what could be done over a 104-day summer vacation. There is a lot to do, such as go on a trip, get ice cream, spend weeks on end floating in a pool, or do particle physics research. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted everything in life, resulting in many of these plans being canceled this past summer.
Wait! Go back! Why would any student want to spend their summer, their solitary free time during the year, doing particle physics research? Moreover, how would that work during a pandemic, when the university is completely shut down?
Physics research has taken a significant hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the first wave started in March 2020, Nature published an article about how major physics research projects were brought to their knees due to the restrictive nature of the safety guidelines. In fact, the American Institute of Physics predicted that the impacts of the pandemic will result in billions of dollars in fund deficits and “could reverberate for years to come.”
IU research was not spared from this hit, either. Many graduate researchers were stuck at home, with some people returning from research trips and unable to complete their work. Reed Bowles, a graduate student and researcher on my team, said that the pandemic delayed the start of taking new data for him until the end of the year. He has “had to work multiple 12 hour days throughout Thanksgiving break and now into finals week [and] Christmas break,” which even delayed him from getting a concurrent Master’s degree.
For undergraduates, however, it went a little better. Freshman Indiana Daily Student (IDS) opinion writer Sarah Waters, who did some sleuthing earlier in the fall semester, told me that she talked mostly to undergraduates doing research across multiple fields “who weren’t really affected in a disastrous way by the switch to remote learning.” In addition, she said that “most of the people who I spoke to said it might be harder to find good mentors now, but the quality of their research wasn’t negatively affected.”
But, what can an undergraduate student do in physics research? The answer is a lot: anything from analyzing data, to helping design and create parts for an experiment, to taking data for their own experiment(s)! Here at IU Bloomington, there are many physics professors with various interests, and they are almost always looking for an undergraduate student to work with them on research projects. I know of one person doing research in physics who isn’t even a physics major, but has relevant experience in the subject.
For my part, I asked one of my freshman year physics professors, Dr. Mark Messier, if I could do research with him. He said “no” and cited being too busy, but pointed me to the next office, where my future mentor, Dr. Jon Urheim, conducted similar research and asked if I was familiar with the project that he was working on. Yes, I was very familiar with the project. It was my dream to work on it, but I didn’t know anyone at IU was working on it!
Additionally, there are summer opportunities through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, a competitive program that allows undergraduate students to conduct research in many fields. There are many great REU programs, and I applied to some last summer. Unfortunately, the pandemic shuttered many of these opportunities, so I didn’t get to participate in one. Some people also do internships with companies that work primarily with physics research in industry.
But was I, an undergrad physics researcher, affected by the pandemic? Not really. My research is in experimental high energy physics, working on data analysis and simulation modeling with particles called neutrinos for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) and the “rehearsal” for DUNE, ProtoDUNE. I have been a part of IU’s Experimental Neutrino research group since November 2018. Simply stated, I do computer work on really tiny particles. Almost all of my work is done on my computer at home, using a computer terminal to remotely run my calculations and programs through computers at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab. During a regular week, I might come into campus a few times to attend meetings, but all of these meetings just shifted to Zoom when the pandemic happened.
Phineas and Ferb ended up spending their free time at home driving their sister insane. However, physics researchers are a little harder to break than that. Much like the UK’s Institute of Physics said in August, as students returned to campuses, some great work in physics was being done from home, even during a pandemic. Many of us have still been able to follow our exciting physics passions from home using our remote computer terminals.
Thank you to Sarah Waters for your insight into the broader scope of the effects of COVID-19 on undergraduate researchers at IUB and to Reed Bowles for sharing your experience with graduate physics during a pandemic with me.