Physics in the pandemic: ‘During challenges, what you focus on matters a lot’ – Physics World


Suman Shrestha is a PhD student in medical physics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UT Health Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Houston, Texas.

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at 

Suman Shrestha, in the George and Cynthia Mitchell Basic Sciences Research Building, the home for The MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston. (Courtesy: Tracey Barnett, MD Anderson UT Health Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences)

It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters” – Epictetus.

Amid the current challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw our institution’s core values (caring, integrity and discovery) shine through brighter than ever. Here at MD Anderson, we did much more than react – we responded! As a scientist in training in the biggest medical center in the world and the number one cancer center in the USA, we were vigilant from the outset. Leadership from both fronts was exceptional, which helped students and trainees like me do our job.

As I write this blog article on my home computer, I am approaching the 14th hour of screen time just for today. For some, this might seem high but for me, a doctoral research fellow with a computational project involving a vast amount of data and lots of programming, it’s a normal day. Like most well-established educational institutions, we have transitioned to online lectures, virtual meetings and remote working now. This is already my third week working from home, so I am well-settled (having an excellent home office since the beginning helped a lot).

So, what is different? I don’t get to walk to the office, go to the gym and have social interactions that were part of life a couple of weeks ago. In-class lectures and research meetings are now virtual (but effective); my $29 pullup bar and living room is my gym. Though I lean towards the introvert side of the personality scale, in the 21st century, we have many ways to stay connected so that is never a problem. As of last week, if needed, I could go to my office after hours and on weekends as all other workers would be relieved for the day.

Every day I wake up in the morning, freshen up, try some form of a home workout, make some coffee, breakfast, and call home. As an international student from Nepal, family time is a must for me, and now some of it is taken up by COVID-19. I inform my family about real developments and measures to stay safe. Nepal had a first positive case just this week and has gone into lockdown for a week. As a developing country with limited medical capability, stricter measures must be taken to ensure safety. After the call, I move on to my home office and start working as I would any other day.

I am lucky to be educated enough and experienced enough to make an informed decision during the current situation. I have had firsthand experience of chaos and death in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal that took close to 9000 lives and caused about 22,000 injuries. During challenges, what you focus on matters a lot. When some misguided individuals were frolicking on beaches or having picnics in parks, medical professionals were fighting this pandemic on the frontline, essential supply chain personnel were working intensely to get supplies to us, researchers were pushing the boundary of knowledge. It is admittedly frustrating to see some disregard the enormity of the situation, but I know that enough people were doing their best and will do the right thing. We will surely come out on top of this situation. Amid this chaos, institutional leadership and peer support have been excellent here and I am proud to be a part of this establishment.

Though some of my friends have had to stop their research as their lab shuts down for an indefinite time, I can practically keep working as normal with some minor modifications. I am utilizing this time to wrap up two first-author manuscripts from my work in MD Anderson Late Effects Research Group. Many of us are doing our part by staying home and pausing laboratory research to maintain social distance, but some of us can keep pushing the boundary of knowledge as we are uniquely positioned to do so. I think it is not only possible, but we must do so more than ever before.

As a human, I must admit I am not always positive or successful in utilizing the whole day. Some social media posts or news stories break my heart, but some fill me up with hope. Amid this chaos, I will personally keep doing my very best and expect the same from everyone out there.

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