October 2020 - Letter from the Directors

October 2020 Letter from the Directors Banner, Pumpkins on Zoom by Olivier Gagné
One of the submissions for the annual pumpkin carving competition, just one of many things held remotely this year. Carving and zoom-staging by Olivier Gagné.
Tuesday, October 27, 2020 

Challenges of working through the pandemic

As you well know, the last seven months have been dominated by a few zillion strands of microscopic RNA. The carnage the novel coronavirus has caused around the world will not be soon forgotten, nor will its impact on everyday human social interactions. 

At the Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL), access to campus laboratories has continued, albeit at lowered efficiencies due to social distancing and PPE requirements. Time in the lab is most important to our postdoctoral fellows who come to us with the expectation of a joyous few years focused on pursuing exciting research of their own design. They are the most vulnerable to this new normal because of their need to do a lot of work quickly and do it visibly through publications and meeting appearances—both of which are currently in short supply.

Another EPL group severely impacted are those whose research depends on access to the field. Two such projects should have made much progress over the last year but were halted by the virus: Staff Scientists Lara Wagner’s study of the complicated history of oceanic plate subduction beneath Colombia (MUSICA) and Hélène Le Mével’s study of the magmatic plumbing system beneath the Villarrica volcano in southern Chile. 

This video was taken at the top of the Villarrica volcano in June. Much of EPL’s fieldwork had to stop during the coronavirus pandemic, including Hélène Le Mével’s study of Villarrica. Luckily, some instrumentation got placed on the volcano right before the pandemic took-off. The instrumentation is currently buried under the volcano’s winter snow cap and will have to wait for the Chilean government and warm weather to reclaim them. Video credit: Fabián Sáez

At least in the case of the Villarrica project, Le Mével and her team installed an array of seismometers, GPS, and gravity stations in the days leading up to the closedown. Hopefully, these instruments have been doing their job in isolation by recording the rumblings of the magma supply beneath the volcano—including the activity that contributed to its most recent small eruption on October 9. However, the data stored on these instruments will have to wait to be collected until access is again allowed by both the Chilean government and the melting of the snow cover at the summit of the volcano as Chile enters summer. 

The closedown in Chile also resulted in the closing of Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, but we are pleased to report that at least one of the two Magellan Telescopes is now up and running, in remote mode, and the other should come on line soon.

Staff Scientist Johanna Teske celebrates her first remote observation at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory.

The silver lining to a really dark cloud

Another aspect of the pandemic experience that likely will change the way society, and EPL, works is the forced introduction and increased reliance on virtual approaches to the many tasks that we used to do in person—teleworking, seminars, and scientific conferences. 

In this vein, we would like to single out our crack IT staff, Michael Acierno, Gabor Szilagyi, Adriana Kuehnel, and Daniel Nicholls, and communications staff Katy Cain and Alycia Alexander. The IT staff provided the technical support and instruction needed to enable our usual on-campus activities to migrate successfully into virtual mode. The communications staff developed the means to keep our campus community together—even though only a fraction of our team is now working on campus.

Afraid of one more Zoom meeting? COVID has even changed the things we see as scary, as depicted in this Zoom-o-lantern carved by Staff Scientist Larry Nittler for the remote version of our annual pumpkin carving contest.

A recent comment from one of our newly arrived postdocs illustrates the success of our new virtual approach. While sitting alone at the instrument control computer with instruction coming from the lab supervisor verbally through a zoom connection and tactfully through remote control of the instrument, the postdoc noted that this form of remote training may be better than in-person! He didn’t have to step over the lab supervisor in the crowded laboratory to fill the cold finger with LN2. 

We are still looking for new virtual approaches to fill the need for social interaction— particularly random conversations in the hallway or around the coffee machine. Zoom communications can be very efficient, but spontaneity is not their strong suit.  

Similarly, in social functions, conversations alone in front of a computer screen are a poor substitute for the joyful clinking of glasses and the accompanying discussions of real, not virtual, social interaction.

We will see how well we can overcome these limitations when we host the “AGU Hangover” annual Carnegie alumni reception that will be virtual this year, as will be the whole AGU meeting. 

Events made for the digital world

Where virtual communication methods have proven extremely useful is for seminars and public outreach events.

The EPL regular seminar series is drawing twice the number of attendees and includes both speakers and attendees from around the world. Similarly, our most recent Neighborhood Lecture had three times our expected attendance, again with attendees from as far away as Australia. We expect an even bigger turnout for the upcoming Neighborhood Lecture on November 12 to be given by former GL Postdoc Sarah Stewart, who will talk about “A New Creation Story for the Earth and Moon”. 

Register for Dr. Sarah Stewart's talk on Thursday, November 12! 

Virtual events are drawing bigger crowds, and we have been able to assemble forums of the world’s experts on the subjects being discussed leading to fascinating topical discussions.  Most of these events also are recorded and available for (re)viewing on the EPL YouTube channel.  While we cannot wait for the virus to subside and allow in-person interaction again, seminars and public outreach events hopefully will continue to take advantage of the enhanced communication opportunities allowed in virtual formats.

Winning awards and taking names!

Carnegie Alum Jackie Faherty (right) recently won the American Astronomical Society's Vera Rubin Prize. Here she stands with the then postdoc, now Staff Scientist Johanna Teske (left) and Staff Scientist Alycia Weinberger (middle) in 2016.

Fall is the time when many professional societies announce their award winners. Though EPL scientists did not win any Nobel Prizes (this year), we are proud to report on several of our alumni’s success. Former DTM Hubble Fellow Jackie Faherty, now at the American Museum of Natural History, was awarded the Vera Rubin Early Career Prize of the American Astronomical Society.  This recognition of Jackie’s contributions is especially pleasing given that the award is named in honor of our treasured, now departed, Staff Scientist, Vera Rubin. 

Additionally, the American Geophysical Union selected former DTM postdocs Malcolm Sambridge, now at the Australian National University, to present the Beno Gutenberg Lecture of the Seismology Section and Maud Boyet of the University of Clermont Auvergne for the Reginald Daly Lecture of the Volcanology, Geochemistry, and Petrology Section. Our postdocs’ quality isn’t just reflected in those who have left, but in those who have joined us recently. AGU announced the award of their Mineral and Rock Physics Graduate Research Award to Francesca Miozzi and the John C. Jamieson Student Paper Award to Rajkrishna Dutta, both members of this year’s class of postdocs at EPL. 

Richard Carlson, Director, Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory
Carnegie Institution for Science

Michael Walter, Deputy Director, Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory
Carnegie Institution for Science 


October 2020 Newsletter