No Lunch Breaks
A chemist’s COVID schedule
Natasha Vargo ’23 PhD investigates copper-based oxygen-reduction catalysts. “Currently solar panels are producing all this energy and there’s not really a great way to store it, so if you can transform molecular oxygen to hydrogen peroxide using an electric chemical cell and these catalysts, that would be a more efficient way,” she says. BAM asked her about life and work on a distanced campus.
Right now, my lab is doing an a.m./p.m. schedule. I stick to mornings—that’s the best time for me to put my head down and work, and then I have all my data and can go home and assess it.
We stagger. I have two coworkers on my shift, so someone gets there right at six, someone else gets in at seven, and then I’ll get in at eight. I’ll wake up at six to walk my dog, Cobalt (chemistry-themed!). My workday used to start at nine, and I’ve actually found that walking him this early is way better than trying to navigate bustling traffic. When I get back, I make a quick coffee, get ready, and then head to work.
There’s a clean lab coat there for me when I arrive, which isn’t new, but the most annoying thing about COVID-19 restrictions is wearing a mask with your goggles. They fog up nonstop. There are a few tricks. You can put a thin layer of dish soap on them, or I just get the masks that really stick to your nose. I’ll put my goggles on top and then secure them really tight. But then you get those raccoon rings around your eyes at the end of the shift!
There are just so many extra things. Logging your symptoms, temperature checks, and I’ve been randomly selected to get tested four times recently, so that’s another thing to set aside time to do and then worry about. But Brown’s preparation overall with reopening the labs has been really good. The first time I got a test it took a week to get back, and the most recent time I found out within 24 hours. There’s hand sanitizer, soap, and disinfectant everywhere, and enough space to social distance.
Our lab has eight fume hoods, and right now there are only three people in the whole space. Prior to COVID, there would be up to seven all trying to share the same materials. It was more crowded, more people, more complicated. Now it’s definitely a little bit of yelling over your mask and the ventilation, and we still have to coordinate, but overall you just have more access to things when you need them.
I work straight through from eight to two. I used to break for lunch, but if I want to stay later, it’s tricky—you generally need to organize it beforehand. There’s a lot of rushing around at the end ’cause you don’t want to be there when the next shift comes in, so I’ve learned to just hit a groove and keep working until I finish everything I want to do that day.
It’s kind of sad with so few people. I miss running into people and having conversations. Now I almost never see anyone and sort of have to wave and keep moving along. I can’t talk to the staff. I have to set up an appointment to come pick something up at the stock room and it has to be no-contact. It used to feel like there was a real community in the chemistry building. I haven’t gone and gotten lunch on Thayer in forever.
After I’m done in the lab, I’ll sometimes have a meeting—I have one-on-ones with my professor a lot. He’s young, energetic, always had his office door open, and now keeps his virtual meeting room open and is just sitting at his kitchen table. The other day he said, “You should look into getting an inexpensive tablet so you can draw out what you’re trying to explain.” I realized that I might need to invest in this, because this is how it’s going to be for a while.
On the bright side, I have so much extra time to myself. I can cook, tidy up, watch a movie, go to the park with my dog—I feel like life’s a lot more relaxed.