‘At the whim of the world’

As research on campus slowly restarts, those whose work requires field surveys, large-scale collaborations, or travel face additional challenges in bringing their research back online.

coral reef tank research
Marine biologist Katie Barott and her lab study coral reef resilience and conduct both lab-based studies at Penn and fieldwork in Hawaii.

As on-campus research resumes, laboratory work is starting to make slow and careful progress once more. But for those whose work requires field surveys, large-scale collaborations, or travel, bringing research back online is not as simple as picking things up where they were left two-and-a-half months ago. For these researchers, getting back to work requires strategic planning, flexibility, and an understanding that shutdowns and travel restrictions are beyond their control and will likely have lasting impacts on their work.

Field surveys on hold

Paul Schmidt and his lab are interested in how insect populations adapt to seasonal weather patterns and climate change. The group regularly samples fruit flies, both at nearby sites in rural Pennsylvania as well as from international locations, and have also been running a mesocosm experiment at Pennovation Works since 2014. Because their work is inherently seasonal, Schmidt says it’s possible that they could lose an entire calendar year’s worth of work even after on-campus research resumes. “You can’t run experiments in response to seasonally changing environmental parameters if you can’t work in the field across seasons,” he says.

paul schmidt at the pennovation center
While their field trips have all been cancelled this summer, they hope to collect some mesocosm data to help maintain project continuity. (Pre-pandemic image)

While the group hopes to run a reduced version of the mesocosm experiment over the summer to maintain continuity, resuming field work won’t be easy. In Pennsylvania, for example, Schmidt typically reaches out to owners of organic, pick-your-own orchards to get permission to sample. “You rely on that personal interface with people, and I don’t know what these places are going to look like now,” says Schmidt. “Research-wise, that’s going to be the biggest thing for us: navigating all these modifications and what the new normal is going to look like.”

Katie Barott’s work on coral reef resilience includes both lab experiments and fieldwork in Hawaii. Each summer, the group travels to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, an island research station in Kāne’ohe Bay on Oahu, to study coral reproduction. Coral spawning events only occur during full moons in the months of June and July, so there is only a narrow window to collect data. “We were planning to go this summer,” says Barott. “That’s something that, if we miss it, we have to wait a whole year.”

Barott and her team also had the rare opportunity last fall to collect samples during a coral bleaching event. They were hoping to track the reef’s recovery over time to learn how heat stress impacts coral reproduction, but now they will be missing several crucial time points from the spring and summer. For Barott, it’s both disappointing and a missed scientific opportunity. “We study climate change, and there was this climate-change driven event in the fall. Now, we have to wait until the next event, and, if it happens again, will we be poised to study it?”

Physics collaborations face delays

Many experimental physics and astronomical observatories work on a large scale, from telescopes housed in far-flung locations to massive underground particle accelerators. Because these projects are interwoven with numerous collaborators and institutions from across the world, delays to even a single component can have a huge impact on the entire project.

One of the most famous of these large-scale physics endeavors is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27 km-long particle accelerator at CERN. Penn faculty members I. Joseph Kroll, Elliot Lipeles, Evelyn Thomson, and Hugh Williams are collaborators on ATLAS, one of two general purpose experiments at the LHC that are designed to study a broad range of physical phenomenon. ATLAS is not currently collecting data, but this shutdown period, explains Kroll, is an important time for key maintenance and upgrades.

atlas unit, large hadron collider
As part of ongoing work at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Penn researchers are involved with the maintenance and operation of the Transition Radiation Tracker (TRT), which is located within the inner detector (pictured here). Not being able to work on equipment in the David Rittenhouse Lab, or travel to CERN to work with the TRT directly, has been a challenge for both students and faculty.

Penn researchers play a crucial role in the maintenance and operation of a key component of the ATLAS detector known as the Transition Radiation Tracker (TRT). The group is currently working on key electronic components for a future upgrade, and while they have been able to do some work remotely, not being able to work in the lab or to send their team members to CERN has been challenging.

“Being onsite and having experience working with the TRT is important for knowledge transfer, and that’s not possible right now,” says Kroll. “We're already working on designing electronics for the upgraded version of the ATLAS detector that is currently scheduled to begin collecting data in 2027. The time scales at CERN are very long.”

CERN has not yet put out an official statement as to what the downstream impacts of the shutdown will be on project schedules, in part because there’s still so much uncertainty about the situation. Kroll adds that the current situation is “less severe” than the incident in 2009 that caused a full year’s delay. “The science is going to get done, it just might take longer than anticipated,” he says. 

sno detector interior
A view inside the SNO detector, a 40-foot acrylic sphere covered with thousands of photodetectors located in an underground research facility in Canada. SNOLAB researchers were in the middle of filling up the massive vessel with scintillator when the facility had to be shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Joshua Klein and his group are part of the SNO+ collaboration, which studies subatomic particles called neutrinos at an underground facility called SNOLAB. Right before SNOLAB was shut down, the team was in the middle of filling the 40-foot wide acrylic vessel with 800 tons of scintillator. Now, it’s likely that, between the shutdown and the time required to get things running again, the project will face up to a six-month delay. “We were in the middle of a fill, and everything was going great. Then, we had to stop,” says Klein. “Imagine a small petroleum plant, but underground, and getting that whole plant restarted, essentially recommissioning it, is going to be difficult.”

Klein and Chris Mauger also work on projects at Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory near Chicago. With a skeleton crew in place during the shutdown, active equipment could be rebooted as needed, but work by outside researchers, including Ph.D. student David Rivera, who was in the middle of installing equipment for the Short-Baseline Near Detector (SBND), had to be halted. Overall, the timelines for SBND haven’t been hugely impacted, says Klein, and the group was able to shift their focus to design and data analysis. But, he adds, “Now we’re getting to that point where we’re really going to need people physically in the lab.”

Since 2016, Mark Devlin has been leading efforts to build the Simons Observatory, a $40 million astronomy facility in Northern Chile. A massive collaborative effort involving research groups from around the world, Devlin’s group is responsible for assembling the largest cryogenic camera ever built, called the large aperture telescope receiver (LATR for short). When they were unable to work on the LATR, Devlin’s group shifted to advanced project planning and were able to get hundreds of parts designed and manufactured. “We had a whole Gantt chart of things to do up through the end of the year, and we moved a lot of those forward,” explains Devlin. “We’re ready to hit the ground running when things turn back on.”

one researching looking through equipment
Zhilei Xu and other members of the Devlin lab, are working on creating an extremely cold environment (nearly -460 degrees Fahrenheit) so that the new Simons Observatory can detect cosmic microwave background (CMB), the residual radiation left behind by the Big Bang. Work done at the High Bay is essential for keeping the project from falling further behind after shutdown delays.

But even with this adaptation, the timeline for the Simons Observatory still faces major delays because so many components from across the world have to be interfaced with one another. “We need to get [the LATR] qualified so that we can move on to the next stage, which means integrating other components that are coming in from other locations,” says Devlin. “Everybody impacts everybody else, and the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” 

And with tractors, earth movers, and cement trucks in place at the site in March, the shutdown was also an abrupt shock to the observatory’s construction. Due to the extreme weather in this high-altitude region, it could cause further delays beyond the length of the shutdown. “You might have to wait six months when the weather is appropriate again,” says Devlin.

Archaeological conservation on pause

Brian Rose has been leading efforts to excavate and conserve Gordion, the ancient capital of Phrygia in west central Turkey, since becoming the project’s co-director in 2006. Last summer, his team wrapped up a five-year conservation project of the 2,800-year-old monumental gateway to the citadel.

Gordion, located in West Central Turkey
Last summer, Brian Rose and his team completed a 5-year conservation project at Gordion, located in West Central Turkey. While the 2,800 year-old monumental gateway is safely preserved for this summer, their ongoing research and conservation efforts are likely to be impacted for at least a full year. (Pre-pandemic image)

Had this pandemic happened last year, says Rose, travel restrictions would have likely resulted in a significant loss of their progress. Now, unable to spend the entirety of this summer at the site, his group’s research efforts are likely to be set back by a full year. “As long as it’s only set back by a year, it’s not the end of the world, but you never know what’s going to happen. It’s always a question mark whether or not there will be any obstacles to our work,” says Rose.

Dealing with uncertainty is a typical aspect of archaeological conservation, especially at sites in the Near East and Middle East, says Rose. “At the end of every season, I say to the staff, ‘We have to wrap everything up as if we’re never coming back,’ because who knows what will happen,” he adds.

Adapting to and accepting uncertainty

As an experimental biologist, Schmidt understands the frustrations of losing momentum and is working with group members to develop detailed plans and realistic goals for the coming months. “That way, we can get ourselves in position so that, when we do come back, everybody feels like they know what it is they need to do and we have a plan in place,” says Schmidt.

Devlin is also no stranger to the frustration of lost momentum: The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope project had major delays due to equipment malfunctions and bad weather. His advice is to “Just roll with it.” “If you sweat all that small stuff, you can’t make progress. You can sit there and work nine times as hard and get 10 percent done, or you can say that it won’t all get done but I’ll be in better shape when this all opens up,” he says.

mark devlin team
The Devlin lab with the LATR when it arrived to the High Bay in July 2019. As the project manager of the $100 million Simons Observatory project, Devlin (center) is working to keep the numerous and disparate components of the project from falling behind due to pandemic-related shutdowns while recognizing that some delays and disruptions will be inevitable. His advice is to not “sweat the small stuff.” (Pre-pandemic image)

Klein, as both the PI of his group and as the graduate chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, is proud of how students have adapted—whether it’s taking materials to work on at home or learning new skills. “I tell the students that it’s OK to find yourself doing nothing because you have to process all of this. At the same time, it’s good to find things that you otherwise might not get time to do,” says Klein.

Rose and his team also know firsthand the importance of adapting to challenging situations. His first summer in Turkey took place during the 1980 military coup, and he and his team were also working at Gordion during the attempted coup in July of 2016. These situations showed him the importance of being adaptable. “You do have to turn on a dime sometimes—it really tests your resilience and your patience,” he says.

Despite her group’s disappointments in missing out on field work, Barott is encouraged to see the lab maintain a sense of community, with virtual tea times and celebrating awards received by her group members. She tells her group members to work on maintaining a sense of purpose and to “keep moving forward.”

“We’re at the whim of the world,” she adds, a sentiment likely echoed by anyone who’s faced these types of challenges in their work. “Research will go on, and we’ll keep studying these things and see where it takes us.”

Additional information and resources on COVID-19 are available at  https://coronavirus.upenn.edu/

Homepage image: Post-doc Zhilei Xu inspects equipment inside the large aperture telescope receiver (LATR), the cosmic microwave background sensor that will sit at the “heart” of the Simons Observatory. Work on this international collaborative project has been delayed on multiple levels, from lab work at Penn to certify the LATR to construction at the observatory site in Northern Chile.