Research Group Wins and Loses Through COVID-19

Shelley Minteer on the pandemic’s effect on her research group

In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and AdvancesShelley Minteer reviews changes—both positive and negative—wrought by the pandemic on her research group. Shelley holds the Dale and Susan Poulter Endowed Chair of Biological Chemistry and Associate Chair of Chemistry at the University of Utah. The Minteer Research Group works at the interface of electrochemistry, biology, synthesis, and materials chemistry, to provide solutions and address challenges in the areas of catalysis, fuel cells, sensing, and energy storage. She received her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Iowa in 2000. A member-at-large of the ECS Organic & Biological Electrochemistry Division, Shelley served as technical editor for the Journal of The Electrochemical Society (2013-2016) and received the ECS Physical and Analytical Electrochemistry Division David C. Grahame Award (2019).

Pandemic slows down publishing

“By the time the University of Utah transitioned to online instruction, I was finished teaching for the year. So I haven’t had the challenge that a lot of faculty had with making their lab classes virtual. I have been at home, doing my own work, and working with my research group.

We were super productive in those first weeks. We had a few papers in the revision stage and some where we had all the data required to publish. The shut-down made it possible for me to Zoom with the group multiple times a day and get some of those papers out the door. Then we started crafting papers where we had most, but not all of the data. We have four or five papers where when we sat down and started writing, we realized there was a missing control experiment, or it had been duplicated but hadn’t been done in triplicate yet. In this situation, where only a little bit is missing, but we know what the paper’s story is, we start working on the introductions and thinking about the experiments. However, we can’t complete these papers until we get back into the lab. I think a lot of research publication is going to slow down because of situations like this.”

Students lose out

“Even though I was expecting it, the cancellation of the ECS meeting in Montreal was still shocking.  After all, in its 180+ year history, ECS has only cancelled one other meeting. Regardless, my university would not have allowed me to travel at that time.

The cancellation was very hard on the student community. While it’s disappointing for me to miss an ECS meeting, eventually my research will appear in peer-reviewed literature. But a student only gets to attend an ECS meeting maybe once or twice in their graduate career. There they have the opportunity to present their research and meet and network with faculty whose papers they’ve been reading and citing. While ECS is home for a lot of faculty and the biannual meetings are like family reunions, they’re not 100 percent necessary, the way they are for students’ development and their professional careers.

The ECS University of Utah Student Chapter’s annual speaker presentation was canceled. That’s their big opportunity to bring in the electrochemist that they want to hear. That’s why it would be great if the Society organized virtual speaker seminars for students. While it won’t be the same, at least they would learn from the presentation and communicate with electrochemists and each other through breakout sessions.”

Cross campus collaboration

“One advantage to going virtual is that now we’re having a lot more joint group meetings with other people with similar interests across campus. Although we knew that each other existed, we weren’t taking the time to get our students to interact and meet. Now we have time to come together.

We’re also sharing information about the Society. Some people on campus didn’t realize that we are ECS Plus members. Now they know they can use the membership benefits including access to all 161,000+ abstracts and articles in the ECS Digital Library, and the ability to publish an unlimited number of open access articles in ECS journals free of charge.”

Benefits of digital communication

“In the past, I never FaceTimed my colleagues. I called them on the phone or talked with them in the hall. Now we’re so comfortable with Zoom that people FaceTime me rather than calling.

Even though thirty people may participate in our Zoom faculty meetings, they are quieter and quicker than before COVID. They don’t want to interrupt unless they have something important to say. This is good because we are having more faculty meetings than normal to figure out what to do with online teaching, labs, and ramping up when the state opens!

Everything associated with the graduate program is virtual now. We Zoom candidacy exams and PhD defenses. Some students do better on Zoom. They’re calmer at home than they would be wearing fancy clothes, standing before six faculty at the front of the room, waiting for questions.

Lunchtime and happy hour Zoom socials I host for my research group are very popular. My current students loved my Zoom reunion which brought together past group members, many of whom teach at universities and colleges around the world. The students know the alumni as names on papers and from stories. Now they ‘hung out with them’ virtually. During this isolated time, the students felt like they were part of a larger, supportive community.”

New perspectives

“We’ve seen some interesting dynamics play out during conference calls. I was on one last week with a symposium organizer. His three-or-four-year-old son was trying to get his attention then finally said, ‘Dad, the kitchen’s on fire!’ The guy’s face went white and everyone on the call jumped! Then we heard his wife shout from the kitchen, ‘No, I just burnt the toast!’

I’m part of JCESR, (the Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research) which is basically battery health. During directorate meetings, you see children and living rooms, kitchens, and dining rooms. We’re letting people into different aspects of our lives. We’ve all gotten to know each other in in a more personal way. This is much more interesting than what you normally see in the office!

I remember that at Pittcon in early March when people came together, they would say, ‘Don’t shake my hand. We’re not going to give you a hug.’ Then we would make a joke and do it anyway. I don’t think we’ll be shaking hands or hugging for a long time to come.”


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