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CAR from Home

Since March 19, The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) has been operating virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past three months, the CAR community has maintained their connections through Zoom happy hours and coffee chats, a “Weekly Morale Booster” newsletter, and a collaborative Spotify playlist entitled “CAR Family Faves.” “Everybody is keeping up with the CAR spirit,” says Assistant Professor Stephanie Stockar.

While CAR is generally operating well online, students and faculty are battling with the implications of working from home. “The truth is, we can do a lot in our current mode of operation,” says Giorgio Rizzoni, director of CAR. “I haven't really felt that that this has impaired our productivity in a significant way.” But with 11 meetings or more on a given workday, Rizzoni says he’s had to be careful not to work constantly. “I'm trying to create this Zoom discipline. To avoid Zoom coma.”

PhD students Danny Freudiger and Polina Brodsky face similar challenges. “I've found myself actually having to schedule a break maybe every two hours,” says Freudiger. Brodsky agrees. “Sitting uninterrupted in the same spot for hours without having meetings to break it up...  I've been getting outside but it's very forced,” she says. “I have to do it myself.”

Polina BrodskyPets and kids have become new coworkers for many during this time. PhD student, Polina Brodsky works from home with her dog Gizmo close by. Working from home gives students and faculty more control over their own schedules, allowing them to schedule breaks as easily as blocks of time without interruptions. Because of this control, Rizzoni says he has been able to participate more actively in research projects and devote more quality time to his advisees. Shawn Midlam-Mohler and Stephanie Stockar agree that working from home has streamlined their workdays. “Being on campus, somebody may always enter and say, ‘Hey, can I ask you a question,’” says Stockar. “There’s a lot more drop-ins and people coming in for meetings,” agrees Midlam-Mohler.

But this efficiency comes with an inefficient trade-off. “I think the community at CAR is really useful,” says Brodsky. “If I have a question, I can just ask my neighbor. Now, I need to email the person and set up a meeting, and by the time we talk three days later, I’ve already solved the problem. It’s hard to get used to not having that expertise around.”

That community has proved necessary for those who are struggling to stay motivated at home. Master’s student Aaronn Sergent most misses, “the motivation that everybody else working around me gives me. As you meet with people more frequently in person and talk with them, you get different ideas, which keeps things more interesting.”

Master’s student Kerri Loyd has built productivity by having daily Zoom meetings with the other members of the Propulsion Systems Integration EcoCAR sub-team. “The meetings are scheduled for the normal time that we would all typically arrive to the office. This helps to ensure that we are all awake and moving and allows us to catch up for 5-10 minutes since we are so used to seeing each other all day, every day,” she says. “We also talk about our work goals for the day and what we accomplished the previous day. It has definitely increased my productivity and motivation.”

The time at home has also allowed CAR faculty, staff and students to reach more personal goals. Aaronn Sergent ran ten miles for the first time and visiting scholar Faissal El Idrissi takes joy in cooking dinner each night. Danny Freudiger even watched two bird families lay eggs, hatch chicks and leave the nest while working from his computer.

CAR has been able to keep working online because much of the research at the center is split between in-person experimental work and online simulation and modeling. Rizzoni estimates that while more than half of the research needs experimental data, a far smaller percentage of research staff and students complete the in-person work. This means that most of the researchers working from home are able to continue large parts of their work remotely.

But for researchers who participate in mostly experimental work, closed research labs pose serious problems. "Working from home has been pretty difficult for me since we are currently in the build/integration phase of the EcoCAR competition,” says Loyd. “Most of my research for this year requires working on the physical vehicle, which we currently don’t have access to since we aren’t allowed into campus facilities.”

El Idrissi’s research includes thermal modeling of battery packs, as well as their building, testing and manufacturing. “During this lockdown we weren’t able to do the experimental work because the lab was closed,” he says. “But, luckily, in the near future we will we be able to get back to work again.”

The university has announced a phased return to campus, and CAR facilities will soon reopen with limited capacities. CAR faculty, students and staff are eager to return. Says Stockar, “That funky building with not enough windows and seating space and air conditioning... we would like to be back there soon.”

Written by Georgia Drost, CAR Writing Intern