Research work in these times.

We are currently living in exceptional times in the Netherlands. The measures recently implemented by the government have had a profound impact on VU Amsterdam. Having everyone stay at home as much as possible and work remotely is, of course, the right thing to do. VU Amsterdam is therefore following the government guidelines in this respect. Our staff, despite worrying about health, loved ones and the future, are doing their utmost to continue research activities, operations and support as usual.

04/16/2020 | 3:56 PM

We took a virtual tour of the university and visited some of the different faculties.

RSN_acquelien_van_stekelenburgJacquelien van Stekelenburg: All business is unusual
Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, Full Professor Social Change & Conflict, Portfolio holder for Research & Valorization and Vice Dean, tells us: “All business is unusual - that is the best way to describe the current situation. We are doing our best to provide researchers and teaching staff with the support they need. But certain social science research methods, such as collecting data through face-to-face interviews, are not possible at the moment. We would therefore like to reiterate how important it is that everyone follows the RIVM guidelines. And that they seek, where possible, alternative, digital solutions. However, we also need to be understanding of the fact that some colleagues cannot give it their all right now. They have more than enough on their plates with trying to teach remotely and often have to juggle this with additional responsibilities in the home, such as having to look after young children.

Academics that are able to continue working on their research projects, need to be very thorough when documenting how research methodologies have been affected by the preventative measures – the so-called fieldnotes during corona. It is important, for later reference, to record anything done differently, or if any alternatives were used, as this could affect the findings of the study. These are particularly interesting times for social scientists as the following types of questions come to mind: What impact will the new situation have on human behaviour and norms and values? How will it affect governance and decision making? A myriad of innovative alternatives and solutions have sprung up in this time, ensuring we now have sufficient shelter for the homeless and that teaching can continue digitally. However, some things have been put on hold, such as the nitrogen crisis. We believe ongoing dialogues about these types of issues are important, which is why the VU Amsterdam profile theme ‘Governance for Society’ and the Institute for Societal Resilience joined forces with Pakhuis de Zwijger to create the five-part livecast ‘Stad in Spagaat’ (A city torn). The first episode looked at education and aired on 2 April. If you would like to watch a previously aired episode or if you would like to register as a participant, please visit: dezwijger.nl."

RSN_Erwin_PetermanErwin Peterman: What about the research?
Erwin Peterman, Full Professor of Physics of Living Systems, reveals: “It has been quite an adjustment. The university is devoting a great deal of its time and energy to education and teaching – which is understandable. But, sometimes I think ‘What about the research work?’ Experiments cannot be conducted at present as these have all been put on hold. Fortunately, we were able to make sure important resources, such as crucial cell lines and worm species, were properly stored before the labs closed. Another cause for concern is that some researchers’ contracts are set to end soon, which could potentially mean their work will remain unfinished. The positive side is that a lot more time can be devoted to analysing any unusual or exceptional outcomes, which will benefit certain research areas. So, we will continue our work as best as we can and will keep in touch via Zoom, which has turned out to be the best communication app so far. We have also donated key protective equipment, such as gloves, to the Red Cross so that we can make a positive contribution to what is going on around us. And, of course, several of our faculty colleagues are currently working on finding a COVID-19 cure or vaccine. It goes without saying that they are doing this while maintaining a safe distance from one another in the lab.”

Juan Rojo:Important to stay in touch with international studentsRSN_JuanRojo-Photo-Profv3
Juan Rojo, Associate Professor, Faculty of Science - Astroparticle Physics, says: “We have started using Slack to facilitate remote teaching and remote research work and we also use Zoom. Slack is similar to WhatsApp, but is used for the business and academic community. It allows users to communicate more directly with each other than, for instance, email does. It also tends to be less formal, making communication with students easier. Another benefit is that it helps us stay in touch with our international students, which is important. International students often have family and friends that are far away. The corona situation can exacerbate loneliness and so it is good to maintain social contact with these students. A definite advantage to using Slack is that it supports several integrations. For instance, you can use Slack to set up a Zoom meeting or to share documents, such as research papers. We will continue using this app once the corona crisis is over. It has proven to be more efficient in many situations and will help mitigate the strain on our network as we will all be emailing less. Workwise, things are going well in terms of theoretical research – but, unfortunately, for the time being, any kind of lab work has been put on hold. We are currently going on the assumption that this situation will last until the summer”.

RSN Gerrit KuikGerrit Kuik: the digital lab
Gerrit Kuik, Head of Physics Practicals & Didactics and also a lecturer, updates us on his faculty’s happenings: “Our faculty is responsible for the physics practicals incorporated in the Bachelor’s programmes. Corona has forced our labs to close for the time being and so we had to come up with an alternative. We managed this for our first-year students, who are currently conducting experiments on solar cells. We gave them complete freedom in what they wanted to research. This includes such experiments as covering half the cell to see what happens, or heating or cooling the cell to see how this affects outcomes and returns. We have now come up with a way to use video calls so that each experiment’s steps can be executed remotely. However, students cannot conduct the experiment themselves – we have to do it for them. Several of our faculty staff took equipment home with them so that they could send the data sets for the experiments to the students, who can then work on the analysis. This method has one drawback: students are not performing the experiments themselves and are therefore not making mistakes that they can learn from. They are just given the correct data straight away. However, despite this, I would say, on the whole, we have designed a good alternative! One of our courses teaches students how to use the computer to influence experiments. These types of experiments cannot be done at the university right now so we are offering students an alternative that is just as effective and allows students to do a hearing test at home with a sound card. In this way, we are able to give students a thorough grounding in the principles we are trying to teach them”.

Ewa Miedzobrodzka: Now is a good time to get more involved in Open Science
RSN_ewaEwa Miedzobrodzka, PhD candidate in Media Psychology at the Faculty of Social Sciences, states: “I am fortunate enough to have collected all my data, which means I can continue working on my analysis from home. I keep in touch with my colleagues through such apps as Skype. Quite a few of them are worried as they have had to put interviews and tests, involving test subjects, on hold. Funding is frequently granted for a certain period of time only and many academics are concerned as to how their funding will be affected if they require a three-month extension. A positive side to this whole situation is that many researchers will have more time to devote their energy and attention to such things as Open Science. This is a topic I am obviously very passionate about, considering my role in the Open Science Community Amsterdam. I recommend reading our last newsletter, which looked at the best ways of dealing with delays in research in these times”.