Home, not alone.

Home, not alone
Wednesday, April 01, 2020 

In this period of social distancing, a term that used to carry negative connotations but now is an essential health safety practice, the work done at Carnegie continues, even if it must now be done remotely.  As our new name Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) implies, a good fraction of our work is done in laboratories, with equipment and instrumentation that have for the most part been put into limbo while local stay-at-home orders are in place. 

Equally hard hit are our staff and postdocs who have field programs and visits to national and international facilities either underway or planned as travel restrictions will force these projects to be postponed.  We are pleased to report that all of our scientists who were working abroad when the travel restrictions began were able to make it back to the DC area safely.

Science by wire

With the exceptions noted above, a good deal of the work carried out by EPL scientists continues.  Some of our instruments can be run remotely, so, for example, Staff Scientist Larry Nittler, from home, is conducting highly detailed investigations of the hydrogen and nitrogen isotopic composition of a meteorite via remote operation of the Carnegie ion probe.  For those who no longer have access to their laboratories or field sites, many have compiled sufficiently deep datasets that the break from obtaining new data allows thorough analysis and publication of existing data. 

Science publication is one of the few endeavors that is likely to see a huge positive surge during this period of isolation as scientists around the world focus on writing up existing data during the break.  A good example is the exciting paper that was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about how carbon is partitioned between core and mantle during Earth formation.  The work used high pressure experiments and EPL ion probe analyses performed by lead author Rebecca Fischer, now an assistant professor at Harvard, with coauthors that include our departed colleague and ion probe master Erik Hauri and two former EPL Postdoctoral Fellows, Elizabeth Cottrell and Marion Le Voyer, now at the Smithsonian Institution.

For many EPL scientists, working from home means analyzing data and publishing papers. Here, Postdoctoral Fellow Joyce Sim works out equations by hand. Credit: Joyce Sim

 For our theorists on campus, and thanks to our crack team of IT specialists, their work can continue nearly unaffected.  The campus computers and internet connections to the outside world including Carnegie’s high-performance computing facility Memex are up and running.  Accessing these systems is done as easily from a home computer as they are from the office computer. Whether using molecular dynamics to calculate the properties of novel new phases or hydrodynamics to understand generation of Earth’s magnetic field or nebular collapse our computers keep chugging away unabated. Some, like geodynamics postdoc Joyce Sim, can make headway with only pen and paper on such complicated subjects as how fluids and melts move in the deep Earth above subducting plates or under mid-ocean ridge volcanoes.

Communicating from a distance

Even in these challenging times, we are able to come together as a community. Although we had to postpone our outreach program that includes the Neighborhood Lecture series and our weekly seminars, it took less than a day for the campus community to initiate the transition of our normal daily panoply of seminars, reading groups, committee meetings, and social gatherings (even the Friday beer hour!) to their online substitutes. 

On April 1, we even hosted our own mini Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, normally held in Houston in March. The virtual version brought together people from EPL, the Smithsonian, and the University of Maryland to share the work they would have presented at the conference. 

We also have been able to virtually celebrate Women’s History Month with both a look back at the contributions of the first women staff scientists at GL and DTM and then the important and continuing roles of the women now on campus as staff scientists, technical support, and postdocs.

These types of activities are an adequate substitute for in-person meetings as we all do our best to minimize the propagation of the coronavirus, but there is no question that we all look forward to when we can return to our labs, can have meetings without sitting in front of a computer screen, and just, in general, enjoy the camaraderie of our colleagues at Carnegie.

A most disappointing aspect of the restrictions on social gatherings is that we will be forced to delay a celebration of Trong Nguyen, who is retiring after 28 years of stellar service to Carnegie first in the business office at headquarters and then, since 2006, as Assistant Controller in the Geophysical Lab. Showcasing the talents and contribution of our colleagues like Trong is more difficult as they don’t produce the amazing images of distant planets, Earth’s interior, or the arrangement of atoms in newly created materials like our scientific staff, but to the aficionado of spreadsheets and numbers, Trong’s work is equally elegant. There is absolutely no question that the ability of our scientists to pursue their groundbreaking discoveries simply would not be possible without Trong’s contributions to the efficient and creative business operations of the campus.  We thank him for his years of dedicated service to Carnegie, and wish him the best in the next phase of his life.

Trong Nguyen (right) is retiring after 28 years of service. This photo of the accounting team was taken before EPL began social distancing. From left to right: Jeff Lightfield, Helen Venzon, Wan Kim, Dyanne Furtado, and Trong Nguyen. Credit: Wan Kim.

Our best wishes also go out to all of you during this time of crisis, with our hope that you are all finding ways to keep out of the reach of the coronavirus while continuing with activities, from a distance, that bring you joy and fulfillment.

Richard Carlson

Director, Earth and Planets Laboratory

Mike Walter

Deputy Director, Earth and Planets Laboratory