As the first fully online fall quarter comes to a close, on-campus laboratories remain quiet while campus research communities look for new and creative ways to adapt virtually.
Jacob Zacarias, who graduated in 2020 with a degree in philosophy and researches meditation in the Memory Emotion Thought Awareness (META) lab, is one of the many researchers who was forced to move his studies online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even I am waiting to shift to [in person],” Zacarias said. “I don’t know how long it would take, but at this point, we can just try to gain our assets, get more grants and wait for that time to come. I’m not fully sure yet what’s the next step.”
Researchers are uncertain about the future of their research projects and opportunities. Since early March, when on-campus research was first suspended, the majority of equipment and chemicals had to stay put in university labs.
Jason Barrios is a third-year astrophysics undergraduate at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) whose research focuses on lunar dust mitigation. He said that conducting his research in a virtual environment can be limiting for his team, the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group, as physical equipment can be difficult to obtain outside a lab.
“If we have experiments that we wanted to conduct in a lab, it would be pretty easy to get the materials,” Barrios said. “We might have it around or we can send someone to get it. But now, we just kind of do everything theoretically and make plans for experimentation.”
Before COVID-19 forced most research labs to close in-person operations, the META Lab would give credits to students who participate as subjects in research studies. But as the participant pool declined, Zacarias said that META had to spend more money to incentivize participants with gift cards to take part in the study.
While the pandemic forced some research groups to halt their projects, Anna Pedersen, a third-year undergraduate physics major and the team lead research assistant of the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group, said her goal is to remain flexible and open-minded to whichever direction her team takes.
“One of the coolest things is that the lunar dust project that we are currently researching has the potential to be done in a pretty strong online format,” Pedersen said. “In terms of goals, it’s just to continue that sense of communal research and learning together while still maintaining passion for the topics we are going for.”
However, the setting of an in-person university lab can also help keep teams productive, said Sean Chu, a second-year mechanical engineering major and research assistant for the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group. Chu added that the commitment and teamwork that come naturally with in-person meetings would normally help keep him in check. Additionally, he said, conducting research in a virtual environment is an ongoing transition for him personally.
“The temptation to procrastinate and be distracted from work, school and research is immense,” Chu said. “What I’ve learned is that the environment matters a lot.”
Despite the shuttering of on-campus research and limitations on project ideas, researchers remain optimistic about the future. In fact, there’s a silver lining to COVID-19’s effect on research and the world around us, said Audri Sewal, a third-year astrophysics major at SBCC and research assistant for the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group.
“Going through everything the world is going through right now, it’s been really nice to have that place where you can come to,” Sewal said, “that safe space where you can discuss your ideas openly and learn more about things that you are very passionate about.”