20 April 2020

What happens when you lock the scientists out of the lab?

MagLab physical chemist Fred Mentink-Vigier tries to get some science done in his Tallahassee apartment. Frequent interruptions from his 3-year-old son make working from home a challenge. "It's hard for him to understand that he should not interrupt me, especially if I'm on a Zoom meeting," he said. (The same appears to be the case for Pesto the cat.) MagLab physical chemist Fred Mentink-Vigier tries to get some science done in his Tallahassee apartment. Frequent interruptions from his 3-year-old son make working from home a challenge. "It's hard for him to understand that he should not interrupt me, especially if I'm on a Zoom meeting," he said. (The same appears to be the case for Pesto the cat.) Marion Millet & Frederic Mentink-Vigier

That experiment is taking place right now. The data so far is mixed, but resourceful researchers find the upside.


Does science come to a halt when all the labs shut down?

Nope: Not even COVID-19 can stop science. In fact, at least for some scientists who work or do experiments at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, this year may be their most productive ever.


MagLab at night

The MagLab has created a collection of 15 Zoom backgrounds. Whether you're a scientist or just dig magnets, download one or the whole bunch so you can "work" in the lab from the comfort of your own home.

In normal times the MagLab is a bustling place. On any given day dozens of visiting scientists from around the globe are running experiments in the many unique, world-record magnets at the lab, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the state of Florida, They do predominantly basic research (rather than applied), including a lot of physics. (No research related to COVID-19 has occurred there to date.) But for several weeks now the lab's fleet of 75 magnets, located at Florida State University (FSU), the University of Florida (UF) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), have been closed to visiting and staff scientists alike.

Much as absence makes the heart grow fonder, distance, according to interviews with MagLab staff, can make the researcher grow more productive, creative and focused — in some ways, flat-out better.

Not that being banished from the lab is easy. In fact, it violates a major tenet of science, according to Mark Meisel, director of the MagLab's High B/T Facility, where high fields are combined with extremely low temperatures. A physics professor at UF, Meisel frequently reminds his students of one of his top science rules: ABCD. Always Be Collecting Data.

Now he can't. Near midnight on the last day before all non-essential personnel were barred from campus, he had to shut down a squid magnetometer that had been running continuously since 2008. The measurement instrument will be idle for who knows how long: Meisel felt deeply said.


Mark Meisel Zoom Group

Mark Meisel (top middle) meets with his group using Zoom. Although he misses working in his lab, Meisel has found time to focus on long-term planning for the lab's High B/T Facility, which he directs. "Every time that something like this happens, something new will come of it," he said. "There will be something fresh that I haven't anticipated yet coming out of this."


"I miss it," Meisel said from his home, where he shares office space with his cat rather than his colleagues. "I call it emotional distancing. I have had to emotionally distance myself from the laboratory."

Time for data

But where one science door closes, another opens.

Being out of the lab gives some scientists a windfall of time to actually process their backlogs of data. A particularly successful week-long experiment can require months of work, involving data analysis, paper writing, editing and peer review.

"You can easily have a single week of magnet run yield enough data for two or three publications," said Tim Murphy, director of the lab's DC Field Facility.

Data and ideas that had slid to the back burner are now getting a second look. Some may yet yield science surprises.

That's what MagLab chemist Amy McKenna, who works in the lab's Ion Cyclotron Resonance (ICR) Facility, is hoping. She said 10 minutes worth of data from one of the facility's mass spectrometers translates into a whole day of data analysis. Because helping visiting scientists collect data often takes priority over analyzing her own research projects, they sometimes get pushed to the back burner.

"I have data back to 2010," she confessed.

If there was ever an opportunity to slog through it all, it's now.

"Everybody is at home and everybody can process the data from home," McKenna said. "From my perspective, this should be one of the largest years of publications [for her facility] … There's no excuse for you not to get all your data written up."

The publication pipeline

We won't know for a while exactly how productive scientists will be during this period: It typically takes months for a paper to get written and published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, the number of preprints scientists are now producing is one indicator of what literature we'll see down the road. Scientists often post their papers online prior to submitting them to peer-reviewed journals so that the science community can see it sooner. Postings of preprints in the sciences have ticked up of late.

Although one might expect a surge in biology preprints related to the virus, an increase in physics, math and related disciplines is also occurring, suggesting that scientists are indeed hunkering down and writing. The preprint repository arXiv, where mathematicians, physicists and some other disciplines post preprints (biologists and chemists typically post preprints elsewhere), has seen postings increase significantly. Preprints posted between March 15 and April 14 of this year are up 50 percent over the same period in 2019; and preprints posted in March 2020 were up 26 percent over January 2020.


Applied Superconductivity Center Zoom group

Lance Cooley (top row, second from left) meets with staff at the MagLab's Applied Superconductivity Center via Zoom. Cooley has found some upsides to working from home. "Isolation has helped us defragment our time blocks," he said.

COVID-19 has disrupted the usual process, said Lance Cooley, director of the MagLab's Applied Superconductivity Center. As vice president of publications for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Council on Superconductivity, Cooley has been trying to figure out how to plan for the publications in his portfolio. He’s been eyeing the preprint numbers, but also expects a qualitative difference in submissions because scientists aren't attending conferences, where they often first share their findings with peers before writing papers. That may result in submitted papers that require more peer review, Cooley guessed — but who really knows?

"We're in unknown territory," he said.

While some scientists now have the time, space and peace to crank out papers, others may not. The COVID crisis has also spread stress, anxiety and distractions across the globe. Submissions to The Journal of Magnetic Resonance have dipped so far this year compared to recent years, according to editor Lucio Frydman, and that could well be due to the disruptive effects of the virus.

"I was also expecting a big flood of papers, but it hasn't happened so far," said Frydman, who is the MagLab's chief scientist in chemistry and biology and a professor of chemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science. "It could be that it has affected people personally … People have their families at home and they have to take care of kids; they may also have parents to worry about. I can see how the added stresses created by the pandemic could really impact not only the normal flow of research activities, but also the peace of mind that scientists need to be creative."

Through the Weizmann Institute, Frydman is beginning to collaborate on some COVID-19 nuclear magnetic resonance research, as are many other chemists and biologists. That research, of course, is critical.

"On the other hand," Frydman observed, "there are so many good ideas that are not being tested in other fields of research. I'm sure that in the long run it's going to affect us."

Zoom: A boon or bane for science?

Tom Mareci, a professor of biochemistry & molecular biology at UF and a staff scientist at the MagLab, has found an upside to this tough situation: better communication with students, collaborators — even his own mom.

Before social distancing, Mareci was, by his own account, a subpar communicator.


Tom Mareci Zoom Group

MagLab biophysicist Tom Mareci (top row in the middle) meets with his research group via Zoom. He says the online meeting tool has actually made him a better mentor and communicator.


"I would just walk down the hallway and talk to somebody for a few minutes," said Mareci, who works at the MagLab's Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy facility.

Now, however, thanks to pre-scheduled, time-limited virtual meetings, he plans more thoughtfully and gets a lot more out of them.

"In that way it's working much better for us to communicate in general." His more thoughtful approach has even translated into better Google Duo conversations with his mom, who lives in a nursing home about two hours away, he said.

Video conferencing tools like Zoom, which Mareci had barely used before, have been a revelation, he said. Meetings are more productive and efficient, and screensharing tools make sharing data easy. They work surprisingly well for large groups, he added. His Zoom sessions with a dozen colleagues spanning three continents, who are collaborating on a grant on a genetic movement disorder called Friedreich's ataxia, have been very productive, he said.

The challenge will be adapting to the "normal" office environment after all of this is over.

"I'm almost reluctant to go back into the chaos of the office and all the distractions that happen," he said. "Sometimes I don't have time to think."

Out of crisis, clarity and creativity

In fact, isolation can be fertile ground for science creativity, as happened famously during the 1660s when an English college student named Isaac Newton was chased home to his family's country estate to shelter from the Black Death. Over the course of his retreat, he churned out ideas and papers about optics, gravity and the new field of calculus.

Three and a half centuries later, those scientists isolating in a relatively quiet environment may also find that, with fewer distractions and interruptions, the science muse pays more frequent visits.

In normal times, it's easy to succumb to "time fragmentation," said the MagLab's Cooley: Five minutes for an email, another five for an unscheduled pop-in, 10 for an unexpected phone call, 10 trying to remember where you stored an important file. After spending a day like that, it can seem like you've accomplished nothing. Sometimes that's even the case.

Working from home, away from the office hubbub, means a less choppy day for Cooley. He has time to dive into a job with better focus.

"Isolation has helped us defragment our time blocks," he said. "Now I have the luxury of being able to use that time a little more creatively."

DC Field Director Murphy, who oversees the MagLab's busiest facility, is rarely still when on site. "I greatly miss the interactions and intellectual stimulation that come from being around a whole lot of people who are smarter than me and who give me views into their realities," he said.


Lucia Steinke mask

Lucia Steinke, an associate scientist at the MagLab's High B/T Facility, shows off her handmade mask to colleagues during a regular lunchtime Zoom meeting she has organized. "I was just really just missing work and missing the connections that you make with work," she said.


But the weeks before COVID forced him to ramp down his magnets were stressful: He felt, as he put it, like a "frog in a blender." Now, at home in his log cabin on the outskirts of Tallahassee, the relative peace has made him productive in a different way.

"I do find myself being able to think more deeply on a given topic and explore a greater number of possibilities — rabbit holes — than I would normally have time for."

That part is pretty nice, he said, then added: "Sorry it took a pandemic to do it."

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet facility. Located at Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the interdisciplinary National MagLab hosts scientists from around the world to perform basic research in high magnetic fields, advancing our understanding of materials, energy and life. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1644779) and the state of Florida. For more information, visit us online at nationalmaglab.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at NationalMagLab.