Working in the lab, from home

Photonics and Semiconductor Nanophotonics researcher Jaime Gómez Rivas turned the corona crisis into an opportunity. He started to transform his lab into a remotely controlled experimental facility.

‘As soon as the first lockdown began, I sat down and had a chat with my students to explore the possibilities,’ Jaime Gómez Rivas recalls. ‘For our students doing just theory is not an option. They need to gain hands-on experience by conducting experiments.’ His group made an inventory of what would be needed to operate the lab from home. ‘Since most of our experiments are computer-controlled, the transformation turned out to be reasonably easy.’ A crowdfunding initiative was started to raise the required funds, and the TU/e organization Euflex BV / Technificent stepped in to cover some of the expenses.

Starting from time-consuming measurements

The first remote experiments were done with a near-field terahertz microscope that has been developed by Ph.D. student Niels van Hoof, Gómez Rivas tells. ‘We typically use this microscope for time-consuming measurements, where the microscope is scanning along a surface. Immediately after the lockdown started, Niels asked if he could leave it on. The only reason for anyone to enter the lab would be if the sample needed to be switched. Then we realized that the same goes for other setups. That means that if all of our setups are remote-controlled, we need only one person in the lab to support twenty people who can keep experimenting from home.’

Apart from the research not getting delayed in lockdown situations, experimenting from home also has other huge advantages, Gómez Rivas says. ‘First of all, for optical measurements, the quality of the experiments turns out to be higher when we do them from home. Anytime anyone enters, the unwanted stray light might come in. Also, without any doors opening and closing, the temperature in the lab is more stable. This increases the signal to noise ratio.’ Remote-controlled experiments can also improve efficiency, he adds. ‘We cooperate with a group in Japan. Every so often, a delegation of their staff and students flies over to do experiments here. It is much more time-efficient if they can do that from Japan. And it is more environmentally friendly too.’ A final argument is about the use of the equipment. ‘When the entire lab is remotely controlled, the equipment can be used around the clock by teams of people who live in different time zones.’

Though this initiative started because of restrictions on lab access due to COVID-19, Gómez Rivas is convinced that remote access is the way forward for future research practice. ‘Sometimes you need a crisis to rethink your current practice and change it for the better.’

“Sometimes you need a crisis to rethink your current practice and change it for the better.”

Jaime Gomez Rivas | Full Professor