Midnight, quarantine, research, repeat

by Panagiotis Koutsogiannakis

It is 1 a.m. and I sit in my desk chair reading the last WHO report on the codiv-19 situation. On the background a notification appears informing me that the last simulation for the night has finished, along with the music track that was playing. I sip the last bit of tea from my cup and look at the results. They seem wonderful. I will be getting to sleep with a big smile on my face and a nice feeling of accomplishment. It is day 51 since the start of the quarantine, or not; I have lost count.

There are two main reasons why social isolation can be very hard for most. First, people must contribute actively in order to secure all the products and services they need, not only for survival, but also to keep-up with the high standards of modern life. By staying at home and limiting interactions with others, working becomes very difficult, especially for people that strongly rely on being at a specific workplace, and already, unemployment is reaching unprecedented levels. Second, social distancing can significantly affect our mood and have severe psychological consequences. Some psychologists compare the effects to these of traumatic events; staying isolated can be painful. These are the key problems that must be tackled in order to deal with the difficulties the present situation throws at our everyday lives and decrease the economic and social consequences.

Some work-related issues are mitigated with aids provided by the authorities, like financial support to people that cannot work from home or even lost their jobs during this crisis. But for us that can continue our work from home there are many ways to stay productive and overcome the challenges. Therefore, each one of us is called to find solutions to these problems that fit their personal situation.

As a foreign student in Italy, I spend the quarantine away from my home city. Thankfully, online platforms make it easier to stay connected and share our experiences during this difficult time and many times I catch myself opening my favorite social media platform to read some of the latest posts from my family and friends. Only some years back staying connected with our loved ones during quarantine would have been very difficult, with regular mail as the only option to reach people, if not impossible. But with all the internet technologies we have nowadays, isolation can become bearable, even though video calls and instant messages are not in any way equivalent to spending time with people while physically present. As a result, I can overcome most of the psychological effects of the quarantine and stay optimistic about the future.

On the other hand, continuing work at the same pace as previously is hard and this is understandable. Things have changed, along with the priorities. As a researcher that works on numerical modeling, I find that my work does not depend much on being present at the office and my working hours can be flexible. In theory, I can conduct my research from home without any productivity penalties. But when in quarantine, the apartment is always feeling constant, like the vacuum of space that sucks my creativity and inspiration. Therefore, my routine has seen some significant changes, while the most difficult thing is to separate working hours from free time. Being a PhD student on a tight schedule, personal time is limited and in the current situation the line between work and entertainment has become fuzzy. Now, it is even more important to keep a daily routine and schedule tasks to make sure there is time for myself. Taking care of ourselves in this difficult time should be our first priority.

In order to return to a schedule that lets me be productive, I usually try to setup my desk at home like it would be in an office setting. Luckily having a spare small room in my apartment, I was able to convert it into an office space where I can spend my working hours. By removing any distractions from the room, I can focus on the tasks for the day. Also, it is important to make sure that I continue feeling that I am in the office and not in the comfort of my own home, where I could indulge to very strange daily routines and easily get distracted from work. For this reason, I try to limit that room only for work so that I subconsciously associate it with studying.

Moreover, Internet technology is working wonders to keep the academia running. All educational activities of the university have slowly started again respecting all the rules of social distancing. Again, the internet plays a major role to limit the disruptive effects of the quarantine, as it allows lectures to be given remotely and permits communication between students and teachers and students with other students. Therefore, knowledge can be transmitted nearly as effectively as being in class and online teaching has been proven an efficient alternative in this difficult time. The same goes for my communication with my supervisors, as we can remotely share our ideas, discuss our findings and resolve any issues that arise in real-time.

As for my research, I focus on the study of meta-materials with advanced dissipative properties. The key idea that can make such a device work is an assembly of self-oscillating elements that can absorb part of the seismic energy. As a result, only a fraction of the initial energy of the earthquake goes beyond the device, thus reducing the loads that reach the structure we wish to protect. The end goal is to produce a concept that can be easily miniaturized and manufactured with modern techniques and can be used as an efficient and cost-effective way to protect human-made structures. During the quarantine I focus my work on the development of simulation tools and computational models that will encourage deeper understanding of the working principles behind this concept. This is an ideal project for the quarantine as it does not require physical presence at the university.

Thinking about my research I open my favorite drawing program and I pour one more cup of tea. I sketch the concept and think about its elegant motion. The concept relies on follower forces that “follow” the deformed geometry. Follower-like loads can be approximated by highly anisotropic friction, resulting in oscillatory motion.

Fig.: Sketch of a self-oscillating element

I catch myself contemplating about the near future, as I put one more simulation to run. What is going to happen after the lockdowns? Will the situation relapse or even get worse? The uncertainty is great but I prefer to stay optimistic. We can overcome this situation together, one problem at a time. Now it is time to stay put and wait for things to get better. Respect the rules that the authorities dictated and stay safe. Not only for us but for the most vulnerable part of the society. For those that cannot afford to get sick, for those that need the situation to get resolved as soon as possible.

It is getting late, it is time to sleep. Tomorrow is a new day. Let’s hope it is brighter than yesterday. I go to my bed, listening to the distant hum of my laptop, while one more simulation runs. Things are getting better day by day, a little bit more.