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How 4 Different Physics Labs at UK Persevered During Covid-19

By Julie Wrinn

Experimental scientists at UK faced setbacks during the pandemic, and none more so than experimental physics, where the loss of hands-on time in laboratories is especially difficult to overcome. To protect the health and safety of students, faculty and staff involved in experimental research, the University established a four-phase plan for resumption of research, from the most restrictive (phase 1, March-June 2020) to the least restrictive (phase 4, begun in April 2021), when 70-100% of normal activities resumed. We visit the labs of Professors Gannon, Martin, Plaster and Seo to learn how they pressed forward to re-create the lab experience for their students while adhering to health and safety protocols.

Bill Gannon’s Lab

In March 2020, I was in my second semester as an assistant professor and had just hired a postdoc to assist in finalizing the setup of my laboratory. We were about two weeks away from producing our first samples of the new magnetic materials that we study. On Valentine’s Day 2020, the largest piece of equipment I bought with startup money had just been delivered, and we planned its installation for April 2020. We had also started up a piece of equipment that measures magnetic properties of samples, and it was being used by a student in another group in the Physics and Astronomy Department to complete measurements for his Ph.D. thesis.

We then had to stop everything and shut the lab down. This was a blow to me as a new faculty member trying to establish a research program, but it has affected my post doc much more. As a new Ph.D., he was counting on experimental results to help move his career forward. Instead, the best we could do was for me to give him some unanalyzed data from my time as a postdoc for him to work on. Progress was slow, as it required him to learn a considerable amount of new physics.

I also took on two first-year graduate students to do summer research. We met remotely by Zoom nearly daily to discuss physics and experimental techniques. When we were allowed to resume in-person research in summer 2020, there was a lab occupancy limit. Since we were learning new lab skills, there was a considerable amount of redundant teaching because the students and postdoc had to work in shifts. Nonetheless, we managed to finally produce a sample of a never-before-made magnetic material by mid-August.

As time has passed, my students and postdoc have grown more confident, and we have managed to make substantial progress in new sample growths and sample characterization. We have just added our first undergraduate to the group this spring, as we have collectively gained enough institutional knowledge to support an undergraduate doing independent research.

Nicholas Martin’s Lab

The research being carried out at present is the development of a multipass laser system that traps a pulsed laser beam in a repetitive path that intersects an electron beam at the point where it passes through an atomic target beam.

When the University reopened for research under Phase 2 in 2020, I devised a research plan that permitted only one person at a time to be in the lab. Graduate student Brian Kim was a full-time teaching assistant during Fall 2020, and my other graduate student, Mike Weaver, a captain in the Army Reserves, was away from Lexington on secondment to the Army. So it fell to me to keep research going until the end of the fall semester. Consequently, the research projects of Brian and Mike did not come to a standstill, and when they both returned to the lab in Spring 2021, progress had been made, and they were able to take over research, both as full-time RAs. Although I was able to make some progress, the research really requires two people in the lab to adjust widely separated mirrors that define the laser path — thus social distancing is not a problem.

Brad Plaster’s Lab

Experimental research has continued in my group over the past year, although the circumstances of the pandemic have introduced certain challenges, for which I will give a few examples. First, as of March 2020, one of my graduate students, Umit Coskun, had just completed testing of a piece of equipment that we had designed and fabricated here at UK. We were planning to ship this piece of equipment to a collaborator at Caltech, where Umit was planning to take up full-time residence, to install it within a larger system. However, as soon as the pandemic hit, these plans were brought to an immediate halt. Umit delayed relocation to Caltech until December 2020, and we only recently shipped this piece of equipment.

Second, an undergraduate student, Honor Hare, had been working with me on developing machine learning algorithms for the data analysis of an experiment that will be operated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I enjoyed my weekly meetings with Honor, when we would discuss her progress on these algorithms in my office, often together with another of my graduate students, Mojtaba Behzadipour. After the pandemic started, we switched to weekly Zoom meetings and continued these discussions over the summer. Although the Zoom meetings were certainly not a substitute for in-person meetings, during which one or more of us would frequently get up from our chairs to write on the white-board in my office, Honor nevertheless accomplished quite a bit of research during the summer and then during the fall semester. Finally, a few of my graduate students have resumed their on-campus research in our lab. For example, graduate student Piya Amara Palamure has been making progress on fabricating a magnetic field coil from custom-ordered printed circuit boards and 3D printed supporting pieces.

Ambrose Seo’s Lab

The Covid-19  pandemic gave us not only unprecedented challenges but also new opportunities for our research directions and activities. One graduate research assistant (Sujan Shrestha) and two undergraduate students (Christopher Long and Richard Lai) actively worked on the following projects under my supervision.

During Phase 1 of the pandemic (March-June 2020), our lab was one of the few experimental research groups that were approved to run, and we initiated a new project of antiviral materials. We studied cuprous oxide thin films, of which high-quality samples can be synthesized using our state-of-the-art physical vapor deposition techniques. We demonstrated that they are good candidate materials for optically transparent antiviral coating, which can be used in broad applications such as smartphone touch screens because conventional antiviral coatings are opaque. Based on the preliminary data we acquired, we are pursuing further advanced research activities funded by our pending proposal to National Science Foundation.

When Phase 2 started (July-December 2020), we could resume our research activities of 5D transition-metal oxide thin-films and superlattices, which are funded by NSF. This project involves external collaborations at National Labs. Travel restrictions under the pandemic initially were thought to affect this project negatively. However, we scheduled online meetings with staff scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and discussed our experimental progress regularly. Therefore, the online format made us have more frequent discussions with them than the time before the pandemic, helping our students to understand the progress of our project better.