How COVID made physics more accessible


Even before COVID-19 made airports and train stations dangerous destinations, traveling to university conferences was a logistical nightmare, says physicist Maria Elena Monzani.

Monzani, who is a lead scientist in the LUX-ZEPLIN Dark Matter Experiment, has been diagnosed with skeletal dysplasia, which makes tasks like driving a rental car or walking past a health center. conference physically difficult, if not impossible. Before COVID, mobility issues sometimes prevented Monzani from attending workshops or conferences away from the US Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, where she works.

But that all changed when COVID sent academia remotely.

Monzani says she was able to attend a CERN training session on continuous integration with GitHub, which she would have previously ignored. “And I did it from my kitchen table and my couch,” she says.

Over the past year and a half, COVID has transformed the way physicists work. Conference poster rooms have been converted to virtual spaces that resemble 8-bit video games, and impromptu conversations with classmates have moved to breakout rooms on Zoom.

But while the virtual university encountered its own issues during this time, such as increasing faculty workload or disrupting classroom dynamics, it also helped highlight challenges and opportunities. inequalities already deeply rooted in the system, especially for people with physical disabilities or mental illness.

Sarah Tuttle, assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Washington, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 4.5 years. Autoimmune disease causes painful swelling, especially in the joints; Tuttle had both hips replaced with titanium.

Tuttle says she also suffers from generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks that began in 2010, four months before completing her doctoral thesis.

These “health adventures,” as Tuttle calls them, mean that she always keeps an eye on how her field treats people with chronic illnesses. The difficulty of having a disability in academia can vary by institution, Tuttle says, but before COVID, she had noticed a disturbing state of mind.

“We [scientists in astronomy and physics] think of ourselves as really pushing the boundaries, intellectually, ”she says. “There is a lot of reluctance to expose vulnerabilities which may be physical, mental or emotional due to this kind of inherent feeling that these might be disqualifying to make these difficult intellectual endeavors.”

But attitudes started to change during COVID, Monzani says.

The sudden shift towards greater accessibility is frustrating in some ways, she says. After all, many ideas that suddenly became reality, like flexible working hours, are accommodations that people with disabilities have been asking for for years.

But ultimately, says Monzani, these changes are proof that such workplace accommodations are possible and useful for both people with disabilities and those without.

Amber Roepe, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma who studies high-energy particle physics, does not live with a physical disability. But Roepe says the new prevalence of remote conferences and workshops since 2019 has been a positive part of their pandemic experience. “I have attended a number of virtual conferences before, I think at least six,” they say. “There was one conference I attended, it was the best conference I have ever attended.

The move to virtual events has made conferences more accessible for researchers with care responsibilities and for researchers with financial limitations, including early career researchers like Roepe with little or no travel budgets.

“It’s a lot easier for students to attend these lectures,” Roepe says. “Especially when registration fees are low and you don’t have to pay for travel. It is becoming much, much more accessible for everyone.

There is still room for improvement, says Roepe. As part of the Snowmass physicist community’s future planning initiative, Roepe advocated for the use of live captioning at conferences, especially for the benefit of attendees with partial or total hearing loss.

Although cheaper than human caption writers, AI-based transcription services tend to have difficulty transcribing scientific terms, Roepe explains. Roepe says they have seen some movement among conference planners towards budgeting for better options, although the change is far from pervasive.

Monzani says she hopes conference organizers continue to offer remote options in the future, but hopes the future is not fully online. She and Tuttle agree that virtual meetings, conferences, and lectures lack one part of what makes physics research so exciting and rewarding: a real sense of connection.

“There’s a lot of communication that gets lost if you’re not physically in the same place,” Monzani says. “I work with people all over the world and haven’t seen most of these people for over two years.

How to strike a balance that both provides accessibility while maintaining a sense of community is an open question. But whatever the solution, Roepe says, the pandemic has made it clear that inclusiveness is possible when people see it as essential to getting the job done.

“When we exclude people, whether they need accommodation, whether we discriminate against people based on their gender, sexual orientation or race, we are not in a position to do our best on scientifically, ”says Roepe.

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