You are now in the main content area

Reimagining lab-based research for our new remote-based reality

By: Vanessa Balintec
September 02, 2020

Thiago Ramos Fernandes (second from left) and Engy Hassan (second from right) collaborating with their fellow researchers in a CUE laboratory prior to the COVID-19 lockdown. 

The COVID-19 pandemic led to unforeseen consequences that impacted every facet of society, including the economy, travel and the environment. Research and development is no exception. At the Centre for Urban Energy (CUE), our researchers had to transition overnight from working in our state-of-the-art labs and offices to their bedrooms or living rooms. Their clean energy research continues alongside the unique challenges that working from home creates. I spoke to several CUE researchers to help understand how they cope with the stresses and strains of life during lockdown. 

For Thiago Ramos Fernandes, a visiting PhD student from the University of Campinas in Brazil, building a routine while working from home was, and still is, crucial for success. 

“When the situation changed in mid-March, at first I thought it would be fast,” says Fernandes. “After two months, I started to realize that it would be more than I expected. It took me three months or so to go back to my routine like waking up early, and try to do the same here in my room. When you don’t have a routine, you don’t have discipline [and] you don’t have consistency in your work.”

Fernandes says he felt supported by his academic supervisor Bala Venkatesh during this time, especially when receiving a desk and chair to help him set up his own workspace at home.

“At first, we just received an email from Ryerson saying if you can, work from home,” explains Fernandes. “But I couldn’t because I didn’t have those things. And I asked him if it’s possible to work in the lab because I didn’t even have a chair in my room. He said no, stay at home, buy those things, and we’ll reimburse you.”

Third-year electrical engineering undergraduate student Mariam Mendha is taking summer classes online and assisting Venkatesh as a research intern. Mendha says juggling the two things at once has been a lot easier in some respects, but harder in others.

“Honestly, the lab portion is a big part of engineering,” admits Mendha, who normally commutes to campus from Scarborough. “You don’t have that lab portion in person, and that makes it really hard to understand the content.”

“But it’s really easy to manage the time. Right now I can work on Saturdays and Sundays as a research intern, which I couldn’t have done if I was actually doing it in person.”

Engy Hassan is a PhD student working under Venkatesh’s guidance researching renewable energy in the transactive energy market. With two children at home, both she and her husband take turns overseeing them while working. 

“We’re trying to split the responsibilities towards our kids - we are trying to manage, both of us,” explains Hassan. “I’m trying to make them engaged all the time - they have virtual camps, [and] with their teacher, they are learning something new. That reduces my stress load a little.”

Moving forward beyond the pandemic, a combination of both working from home and commuting to campus is something that researchers could benefit from, suggests PhD student Shima Bagher Zade Homayie. 

“Because I don’t need to commute everyday to go to university and get back home, it is better,” says Homayie, who lives in Vaughan. “When I had to go to [the] university, I spent more than two hours commuting back and forth. [But] doing research from the university also has some positive points. I have access to the university library [and] my other colleagues. Here, I need to contact them, make an appointment, set a meeting with them... it is more challenging. I think a combination of them both is the best option.”

Working from home can sometimes mean losing interactions with colleagues. To help keep CUE researchers connected and updated with one another, weekly meetings are set up through Zoom.

“In Bala’s weekly meetings, people mention what they’re doing and also if they have any road blocks or barriers,” explains Jessie Ma, IESO research fellow and PhD student. “I think that’s one way where we interact with and try to help each other. At least once a week we have that opportunity to touch base and try to help each other to figure out a technical problem.”

Beyond the practicalities, Ma also believes that the future of research and development in urban energy has changed because of the pandemic. 

“I think it is asking us to re-think what useful research we will explore going forward,” says Ma. “Energy patterns have changed [since] the global pandemic, and that could change what are the areas that are of most concern in delivering clean, cost effective, safe and reliable energy. We haven’t launched any new research projects on that yet, but it’s something we’re thinking about because energy will be a part of the recovery.”

 Vanessa Balintec is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University

"Energy patterns have changed since the global pandemic, and that could change what are the areas that are of most concern in delivering clean, cost-effective, safe and reliable energy."