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Zoom concerts and PhD defences from home: lockdown leads to creative solutions

Astronomers like to video call from the cosmos. PhDs from NIOZ and SRON, however, just defend their theses from their own homes. At Nikhef, they listen via Zoom to piano and clarinet concerts. DIFFER, NIOZ and SRON have donated facemasks and gloves to healthcare. The NWO Institutes may be largely closed, but the research continues and the work and informal contacts are maintained through a range of creative approaches.

AMOLF Amsterdam

  • AMOLF is open on a limited scale. Critical experiments can continue thanks to the technicians and the emergency response staff and others who are present on a rotational basis. Most of the researchers and support departments are working from home. All of the meetings and the weekly colloquium now take place online.
  • Besides a daily, business update sent via email by the institute manager, director Huib Bakker has converted the weekly announcements on Thursday into a blog. In this, he tells the story of AMOLF as it currently operates, with photos and stories from the people who are working from home or at the institute.
  • A buddy system has also been set up that links (new) foreign researchers with employees who have already found their way in the Netherlands. With daily online coffee breaks in the groups, all employees remain in the picture.

ARCNL Amsterdam

  • After two weeks of being completely closed, ARCNL once again opened to a limited extent on 6 April, especially for those junior researchers who now desperately need experimental results. To ensure that this proceeds safely, just a handful of employees are invited each time according to a strict entrance scheme. Furthermore, ARCNL ensures that during, and if needs be outside, working hours, there are at least two emergency response employees present as well as a member of the management team.
  • Many gatherings, conversations and meetings now take place via Zoom and Slack, including the institute colloquium and a joint coffee break twice per week. On 16 and 17 April, even the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) came to Amsterdam virtually, complete with a moderator, plenary meetings, breakout sessions and a virtual tour of the labs.

 ASTRON Dwingeloo

  • The institute is closed. Only somebody from the ICT Department is present each day. The other employees work from home and stay in touch with each other in a Slack group and via Zoom meetings. Via Daily Images they give each other insights into working from home.
  • The astronomers consult weekly with each other about the scientific research that they are doing and other matters too. They prefer to do that in higher spheres: in the video backdrop, you can see not just the usual attics and ceilings, but also virtual telescopes and images from the cosmos.
  • The instrument makers have no access to their large machines, but they are now busy producing prototypes with a 3D printer, and that can be done from home. 

CWI Amsterdam

  • The CWI building is closed and nearly all CWI employees are working from home. However, they did have a chance to pick up office items and other things so that they could work from home as ergonomically as possible. Employees can work from home reasonably well because CWI has relatively little infrastructure in the form of experiments/setups.
  • During this coronavirus crisis, CWI decided to take the opportunity to establish a new expertise group with CWI researchers. They wanted to put their tools and experience within mathematics and computer science to good use during this coronavirus crisis, but especially after the crisis. What will happen if a second wave of infection comes, and can computer science be used then, for example, to make a contribution to describing how the infections proceeded during the first wave? The group is affiliated with a broader knowledge group that RIVM is also part of. They recently discussed their plans on Dutch national radio (Radio 1) during the news programme “Dit was de dag” [This was the day].
  • Director Jos Baeten addressed everybody during an organisation-wide Zoom meeting as an alternative to his monthly staff talk. He had previously sent a video message to employees in which he expressed his support and thanks. In this, he discussed the concern about which impact the crisis will have on the scientific process in the long term: after all, science is about meeting people and exchanging ideas. In the current situation, with the distance between colleagues, the daily serendipity disappears. CWI employees are therefore strongly encouraged to maintain contact with each other as well as possible during this situation.

  DIFFER Eindhoven

  • DIFFER, situated in the coronavirus epicentre in the province of North Brabant, was one of the first institutes to close, at the same time as the Eindhoven University of Technology campus. Employees stay in touch with each other via Skype for Business, receive weekly email updates about the prevailing measures, and now see each other virtually via Zoom every two weeks for an update from the director about news from the institute. A brand-new informal newsletter is also now helping employees "through the spring".
  • Director Richard van de Sanden quickly revealed what his workstation and daily work look like. With his computer screen on two books from Umberto Eco he openly discovered, for example, that many things that pretty seemed impossible can actually be done, such as certain meetings. He will even give his first remote keynote speech shortly. But according to the director, the daily conversations at the coffee machine and in the corridors are really missed though. However, there is now a joint morning and afternoon virtual coffee and tea break.
  • PhD students quickly moved their informal drinks to virtual locations. Their first “beer-o-clock” immediately had 11 participants.
  • DIFFER allows itself to be inspired by how other institutes are getting through this period and it informs its employees about this. That immediately prompted the organisation of a virtual pub quiz.
  • DIFFER also made a contribution to the public need for the supply of personal protective equipment and donated this to the Red Cross for distribution among healthcare providers: in total 13 face masks, 10 safety glasses, 56 disposable overalls and 1200 latex gloves.

Nikhef Amsterdam

  • In the institute’s virtual living room, Nikhef has organised lunch concerts via Zoom given by employees from home. On Wednesday 1 April, PhD student Bouke Jisse Jung from the KM3NeT group played his favourite piano pieces including works from Bach and Glass, and he personally introduced these as well. About 60 people listened from home.
  • On 8 April, staff physicist Peter Kluit (ATLAS) gave a clarinet concert with works from 17th-century Venetian music, and during his concert, he also said various things about classical instruments, the St Marks Basilica and Monteverdi. In the background, viewers could see St Mark’s square. This stylish lunch concert attracted about 50 viewers. New online music lunches will follow in the Nikhef Zoom Room.
  • Nikhef is also organising a series of lunchtime talks by researchers from within and outside of Nikhef. For example, in this manner the institute was nevertheless able to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the accelerator used to discover the Higgs particle. Head of the CERN accelerator Rende Steerenberg gave a one-hour talk about running the largest particle accelerator in the world.

NIOZ Texel/Yerseke

  • What happens if you end up having to defend your PhD thesis from home and then of all subjects on viruses? Then you get a lot of attention, as Jennifer Welsh can confirm. From the journals Nature and Science to the La Republica newspaper and the Australian Food News. On 30 March, Jennifer Welsh defended her thesis at VU Amsterdam, but literally speaking from her home on Texel. Only her boyfriend, by chance also her paranymph, was with her. ‘I still had to dress formally, and that helped me to give the ceremony an important and official feeling.’ Welsh did, however, notice several idiosyncrasies associated with defending your doctoral thesis online. ‘You gain an insight into the personal lives of people because you see their home in the backdrop to the video. I tried not to be distracted by that. I think that defending from home is less stressful, but it is not nice to close an important chapter in your life without your friends and family present.'
  • Every little thing helps: NIOZ itemised which lab materials are suitable for the fight against the virus. It sent 12 boxes of items to the national collection point of the Red Cross containing: 15,000 laboratory gloves (latex & nitrile rubber, various sizes), 30 face masks (sterile & non-sterile), 70 disposable lab jackets, 300 plastic disposable slippers and five safety glasses.

NSCR Amsterdam

  • NSCR Is located at the campus of VU Amsterdam and is open to a limited extent. Each day a maximum of three researchers may be at the office so that they can work on files that may not leave NSCR, such as privacy-sensitive information like camera images.
  • NSCR strives to allow the usual work and contact between colleagues to proceed as normally as possible. For example, NSCR colleagues normally meet each other every Monday morning during a coffee pitch. That still happens, but now from home at the kitchen table via Zoom. Institute manager Angeniet Gilessen sends an email update each day about the latest developments and practical issues.
  • Colleagues also take initiatives to make contact with each other: for example, there was a Zoom informal drinks and a bingo competition has been planned.

SRON Utrecht/Groningen 

  • SRON has closed and is only accessible for a few employees who carry out essential maintenance. Employees hold regular coffee meetings via Zoom and have started an informal newsletter with everyday experiences from the home front.
  • On 3 April, the first online PhD graduation took place: the PhD candidate was at home and the professors too.
  • SRON also donated gloves and face masks from the clean rooms to healthcare.
  • SRON is now making preparations for the starting up of reduced operations: the institute will remain closed except for a very small group of people (less than ten) who, under strict conditions, will carry out essential (integration) activities for projects.

Newsletter Inside NWO-I, April 2020

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