How the Earth and Planets Lab Is Exploring the Universe at a Social Distance

How the Earth and Planets Lab Is Exploring the Universe at a Social Distance
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 

Now that the majority of us are working from home due to COVID-19, we asked the scientists and staff of the Earth and Planets Lab to share what they’ve been working on. Between discovering exoplanets, writing books, modeling data, and teaching classes it certainly sounds like they’re keeping busy. They also share their favorite telework tips for anyone trying to stay sane while working from home. Enjoy!

Joyce Sim double-checks and trip-checks her equations before implementing them numerically. Credit: Joyce Sim

Joyce Sim

Postdoctoral Fellow | Geodynamicist

Much of what I do is theoretical. So here, I’m deriving some equations in finite element weak form and checking and double-checking and triple-checking that they are right before implementing them numerically. Hopefully, I have enough paper laying around. 

I am currently working on two main things: 1) implementing fluid pathways on a carbon solubility map at global subduction zones to understand carbon transport and 2) debugging a fully coupled two-phase flow model applied to mid-ocean ridges.

There are many side projects that will hopefully flourish!

Telework Tips: Set a schedule and stick to it. Go for a walk to think or clear your mind! Set up weekly meetings to ensure interactions with colleagues.

Larry Nittler remotely drives the Carnegie NanoSIMS from his dining room table to remotely measure meteorite isotopes. Credit: Larry Nittler

Larry Nittler

Staff Scientist | Cosmochemist

I have been measuring the hydrogen and nitrogen isotopic composition of a meteorite by remotely operating the Carnegie NanoSIMS ion microprobe. The instrument is largely automated and can be run remotely through the internet, so I have been able to keep collecting data while working from home. It only requires a brief visit to the lab once a week to check that there are no problems with support instrumentation (water chillers for example). While the NanoSIMS collects data I have been analyzing it, as well as catching up on some manuscript writing.

Despite the lack of books, Shaun Hardy runs the Broad Branch Road campus library from his home computer. Credit: Shaun Hardy

Shaun Hardy

Earth and Planets Laboratory Librarian

I never imagined I'd be running a library with no books - but then, connecting people with information is what it's really always been about. 

Neil Gaiman famously wrote: "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one." My remote office may not have the gorgeous view of Rock Creek Park that my "real" one does, but having my entire arsenal of research tools on my desktop and a slew of collaboration technologies to boot is nothing short of amazing.  A big “Thank You” to our stellar Carnegie IT team for that.  

Oh, and at least I can enjoy my neighbor's trees and flowers while I work!

Photo of Robert Hazen taken on the Broad Branch Road campus before COVID-19.

Robert Hazen 

Staff Scientist | Mineralogist

For the past two years, I've been torn between finding quiet times to write a major series of papers and traveling around the globe multiple times per month for meetings, lectures, workshops, and more. It's been hectic, especially with some grant programs ramping down and others ramping up. Covid-19 has changed that. I now spend many hours a day, 7 days a week, working on the new "Evolutionary System of Mineralogy.

It takes deep concentration and many uninterrupted hours--something I didn't have before. The System will be published in perhaps 20 parts (all in American Mineralogist) and take years to complete. But, thanks to the enforced sequestration, rapid progress is being made. Part I is now in press, Part II in review, Part III completed and in an internal review, and Parts IV and V plowing ahead quickly in tandem. 

In a way, I feel guilty, because of this terrible situation, which is so difficult and damaging and scary for many people, it is a kind of respite for Margee and me. Maybe I need to rethink priorities going forward.

Telework Tip: Exercise, eat well and get lots of sleep. If you can, take naps when you feel like it--or even a few minutes of quiet meditation.

Matt Clement sips coffee and simulates solar system evolution while wearing traditional work-from-home attire. Credit: Matt Clement

Matthew Clement

Postdoctoral Fellow | Astrophysicist

I’ve been continuing to use numerical simulations to study the early dynamical evolution of the solar system while at home. In particular, I have been using artificial forces to build different primordial orbital orientations for the giant planets on my home computer.  I then perform hundreds of iterations of calculations on Carnegie’s Memex computing cluster and the Texas Advanced Computing Center’s new next-generation Frontera supercomputer to study how their orbits evolve. Constraining the early evolution of the giant planets will help us better understand the conditions that helped give rise to life in the solar system.

Alan Boss uses his webcam to take a selfie as he works in his sunroom. Credit: Alan Boss 

Alan Boss

Staff Scientist | Theoretical Astrophysicist

Teleworking comes naturally for me because essentially all of my work is done over the internet, and this has been the case for many years.

My theoretical models of gas giant planet formation are run on the memex cluster at Stanford, so it makes no difference if I am sitting in my office at EPL, in my sunroom at home, or in my second home in Florida -- I have fast fiber optics connections, mac desktops, and laser printers at all three locations. Those calculations run continually, so I am used to checking on their status 24/7, no matter where I am at the moment. That work never stops. Teleworking has been my life at Carnegie for decades.

Last weekend I spent Sunday afternoon performing dome flats (i.e., calibration data) using my Carnegie Astrometric Planets Search Camera (CAPSCam), mounted on the 2.5-m du Pont telescope at Las Campanas in Chile. Starting at 8 PM that evening, I controlled CAPSCam from home, working until 6 AM in the morning, sitting up all night in my sunroom. The same was true for Monday evening, until 6 AM on Tuesday. However, Las Campanas was shut down on Tuesday afternoon because of Chilean government decisions about COVID-19, so I lost the third night of the CAPSCam run. At least I did not have to try to find an earlier flight back home from Chile!

Teleworking also saves me about 1.5 hours a day of commuting in heavy DC traffic to the Earth and Planets Laboratory from my home in the Maryland suburbs, so other than the major fact that COVID-19 has changed our world, teleworking does not affect my productivity as a Carnegie scientist.

Telework Tips:

  • Try to stay with a regular schedule - start at your usual time, take coffee breaks and lunch as usual, and stop for a cocktail hour each evening. ;) 

  • Set up your work area to be as close as possible to how you work in your office (e.g., I brought relevant paper file folders home, and keep them next to my working table).

  • Work in an area at home that is as free of distractions from others as possible.

  • Keep a USB stick mounted on your computer, and save copies of any files you know you will want to put on your office machine someday.

  • Enjoy checking the latest news on relevant science websites (for me that would be,, and, in order to keep up with what is happening in your field.

  • Savor scrolling through the weekly issues of Nature and Science, as well as the specific journals in your field -- this is an opportunity to catch up on research that you might have missed or were too busy at the time to consider in-depth.

Dionysis Foustoukos teaches geochemistry virtually at George Mason University. Credit: Dionysis Foustoukos

Dionysis Foustoukos

Research Scientist | Experimental Geochemist
I can’t wait to be back in the lab.

Right now, I have been focusing on proposal writing and teaching Geochemistry (virtually) at GMU.

Telework Tip: Get up early in the morning to find some peace before the battle for homeschooling starts!

Rick’s home office with all the necessary components – large-screen computer, printer, back-up device, and distractions.

Rick Carlson

Director of the Earth and Planets Laboratory  | Isotope geochemist

While my mass spectrometers gently sleep (with apologies to George Harrison), working from home has so far included a number of telecons, some about science, some about pandemic response management (I missed that class in graduate school), completing two long-overdue reviews, editing two papers authored by former postdocs, putting together a couple of nomination letters, and planning how to conduct the upcoming National Academy of Sciences geology section business meeting online.

Thankfully, my job as BBR Hall Monitor is not consuming much effort due to the cooperation of the great group of colleagues on campus who understand and appreciate the need for campus access restrictions in the current situation.  I can’t wait to get the mass spectrometers going again as I have a batch of samples already through chemistry, just waiting for analysis, that are going to reveal fantastic new insights into the composition of Earth’s interior (I hope).

Teleworking Tip:  Actually, I find it almost too easy to work from home because the interruptions are so few that I can concentrate on single tasks for long enough to do them justice.  Access to the computer is simply too easy, so I find it necessary to force myself to take short walks outside from time to time, with all my electronics left behind, to enjoy the beautiful Spring flowers.

Katy Cain works on web articles from the floor of the corner window office. Credit: Katy Cain

Katy Cain

Communications and Digital Media Coordinator 

As the communications coordinator, it’s my job to share the work we’re doing at the Earth and Planets Lab. As you can tell from this list, science stops for no virus.

Normally, when I’m on campus, people pop into my office to chat or share their science stories. Now, I have to schedule those conversations. Even though I’m losing the spontaneous interactions, the uninterrupted work time has allowed me to start editing a couple of video interviews that were on hold. So far, it’s been pretty productive! 

Telework Tip: I’m a huge fan of the Pomodoro time management method. You pick 2-3 major tasks for the day and work in 25-minute intervals to complete them with small breaks in between. It keeps me on task and reminds me to get up and stretch every once in a while.

Jessica Arnold has built her at-home videoconferencing cubicle to take advantage of the natural light of her balcony. Credit: Jessica Arnold

Jessica Arnold

Postdoctoral Fellow | Astronomer

Right now, I'm trying to figure out what debris disks might look like with JWST's NIRCam. While people are surprised to very occasionally see one of the astronomers poking around the lab, almost all of my work is on the computer. If I have a laptop with Python installed and I can work! I can also log into Carnegie's Memex cluster and my desktop workstation.

Telework Tip: I don't know if after one week I've figured out how to tune out all of the distractions of working from home. One thing that has helped is trying to stick to my usual morning routine, except, instead of driving to campus I walk to my laptop. 

This comic says it all:

After work, I try to make sure I text/chat with at least a couple of people. I'm trying not to have "social distancing" mean "social isolation" and we're lucky to have plenty of technology to help stay in touch.

Lara Wagner’s home office reminds us all that “it will be ok.” Credit: Lara Wagner

Lara Wagner

Staff Scientist | Seismologist

Unfortunately, we've had to postpone our MUSICA kick-off meeting for a year, but we've been moving forward with the research to the best of our ability from home. 

Telework Tip: Things like virtual journal clubs, coffee/tea hours, and discussion groups have been a great way to keep in touch and keep motivated.

Alexander Goncharov teleworks from his dining table. Credit: Alexander Goncharov

Alexander Goncharov

Staff Scientist | Geophysicist

I am reducing data and writing papers.

Telework Tip: Just pretend that you are at work and use normal working hours as effectively as you can.

Fabo Feng enjoys a coffee at his desk at home while showing an example result of his recent exoplanet detections on screen. Credit: Fabo Feng

Fabo Feng

Postdoctoral Fellow | Astronomer

I have been analyzing the radial velocity data for thousands of nearby stars in order to find planet candidates and, especially, Earth-like planets. The data has been collected by multiple groups and are either available to the public or accessible by Paul Butler and me. 

I just need to log into the supercomputer through a VPN to analyze the data. By the end of April, I am going to report more than 20 planet candidates based on this work. Some of these planets are located in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of a planet. 

Telework Tips: 

  • Maintain a good balance between working and resting to keep mental health, e.g. hiking a bit, play with kids, hobbies. 

  • Focus on one project rather than multiples. This can help us to achieve small goals every day/week in order to have a sense of achievement. 

  • Enjoy a cup of coffee/tea to refresh the body. 

  • Keep a comfortable working environment, e.g. use a proper table, chair, and other things to avoid neck/back pain, etc.

Janice Dunlap works from her kitchen with Carnegie Science sunglasses at hand. 

Janice Dunlap 

Assistant to the Director

Thanks to the fact that so much of my work revolves around responding to emails and working through Google shared documents, work has been ongoing.  Had our IT Specialist Adriana Kuehnel not had the foresight to upgrade my 2011 MacBook Air and provide me with a quick training course on VPN, I could not have accessed my files remotely.  My dining room table is my workspace (conveniently close to the kitchen).

What a difference ~40 years has made in our ability to conduct science remotely and communicate so swiftly, thus enabling us to continue to work remotely in times like this!

In early 1984, we were all connected via VT100 terminals, where information was stored on "massive" 400MB disk drives that weighed about 200 pounds.  I also used an IBM Selectric typewriter for envelopes and forms (what is a typewriter, you may ask?). I could never have had remote access; Macs, laptops, and Microsoft Windows were not yet available. My work consisted of typing out handwritten documents.  Soon thereafter we had one of the first laser printers being used, so that I could learn and subsequently typeset all publications sent to journals using TeX, and later LaTeX. Alan Boss was the first person to assemble a "cluster" of computers at DTM - buying PC desktops running Linux and stacking them on baker's shelves that he assembled in the VAX 11/750-11/780 machine room on the astronomy floor in the Research Building.

Telework Tips: Setting up a schedule is very important. It is all about time management. I continue to take my daily walks (albeit with the 6' distance rule) and never leave behind my Carnegie sunglasses, regardless as to whether or not it is sunny.  They connect me to a place I have loved for 36 years.

We're All in This Together

Social distancing hits a little different for everyone. We hope you’ve picked up some good tips-and-tricks for working from home from our scientists and staff. Maybe you’ve even found the motivation to get started on a project or two!

Throughout all of this, we encourage you to stay curious, take care of yourself, and remember: we’re all in this together.