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The Mass Media

Relativity in the midst of uncertainty: A professor’s perspective

As a UMass Boston student in online classes, I’ve found myself longing for human connection like never before. Something I’ve particularly missed is connecting with my professors. With that in mind, I reached out to Gabriela Barreto Lemos, a scientist, artist, and my former professor. Dr. Barreto Lemos was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and has since lived and worked in England, Austria, Chicago, and Boston. In addition to her impressive research in quantum mechanics, she has combined her passion for science with a passion for art, using her creations to comment on our world. I sat down with her over Zoom to discuss how the different aspects of her identity have shaped how she’s experienced the pandemic. 

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Work in a Time of Lockdown

What classes are you teaching now? I know you said you taught three classes yesterday.

Yeah so, it’s just three different sections of the same class, Physics 1. It’s three different groups of people, but the same subject matter. You’re kind of repeating the whole day.

So you went from no routine to way too much of a routine?

It’s still, I feel like there’s no routine because, in a sense, I’m at home. So I’m here and then I’m sorting something out in the kitchen, then I rush to class, then I teach, then I do something else, and then I’m back in my living room teaching. So even though Tuesdays and Thursdays are marked by classes, I don’t feel like I’m leaving my space.

And I have this problem: it’s kind of noisy in my house, there are streets here which is annoying for class. And when I’m teaching, it distracts, right? 

I notice you’re not wearing a sweater like I am. Are you still in Brazil?

Yeah, no, it’s super hot. I’m in Brazil and I’m teaching in Rio actually, so I’m not going to teach at UMass Boston this semester. It’s a very different dynamic. Students are different and so is the university bureaucracy.

Which university is it?

The Federal University of Rio, it is an enormous university, the biggest one in Brazil. It’s about at least five times UMass Boston.

Oh. Yeah. Yeah that’s big.

Yeah, each section of mine has 100 students. And obviously, not all of them come to class. I’ve never seen them before; they don’t turn on their cameras. So I’m talking to this… void for the whole time. It feels so lonely!

What is the Physics I content like? Is it like introductory physics? 

Mechanics. Newton’s laws and energy: what’s energy, what’s work, what’s force. I’ve taught at three universities and it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s basically the same thing. So in a sense, it’s funny: although I’m teaching physics here for the first time, the course is very familiar to me because I know the students are going to have the same problems here as they have at UMass Boston. 

What has that been like over Zoom? 

Um… it’s boring. I mean, I have them do these problems and then we discuss and try to draw on Zoom’s whiteboard. The students don’t use it as much, but for the professors, we go, “Oh my God this is amazing!” And the students are like “… It doesn’t work,” and we’re like, “Yes it does!” For me, I can’t teach calculus-based physics without writing stuff down. And my students want to try to solve it in their heads.

You can’t do that in physics!

You can’t! And one of the things you do as an instructor is to go, “Please write it down, please write it down,” and I know they’re making mistakes because they’re trying to do it in their heads. In physics, you go through a problem with a student and you say, “you’ve jumped from here to here: go slow and it’ll work out.” But I can’t see what they’ve done in this setting.

Office hours must have become essential then, especially in a class with 100 people.

Yeah, it’s difficult. In the end, you always have the same five who are engaged, and you try to get the rest of the class to get to that level. I’ve maintained a bi-weekly journal club with some science educators from UMass Boston and we’ve been discussing strategies that have worked or haven’t in Zoom and online learning.

Well, that’s helpful, so at least you’re not figuring it all out on your own.

Yeah, so we have some things we try out, we discuss, we see if it doesn’t work out. UMass Boston actually had a series of webinars and resources to help and I participated in many of these. They helped me organize my courses, for sure, and during the summer I did feel supported by UMass Boston. And the professors I’m talking to regularly who are teaching there are feeling much more supported than when we were thrown into the fire at the beginning. 

I love how when you were talking about your journal club, you ended up applying the scientific method. I know that research is just as important in your life as an education. What has that been like for you?

So basically, the lab work has been suspended. And it’s about time to get back, but in the U.S. and Brazil, there’s this thing where it seems that the pandemic seems to go on forever. Whereas my colleagues in Europe stopped for a month and a half and then they were back in their labs. But you can’t stop research, and physics has a theoretical part and an experimental part, so you focus on the theoretical part. 

I’m not a lab rat, my research was originally all in theoryI only started going in about eight years ago. I work well in these two systems, but I have friends who are in despair because they need to be in the lab to think, it’s their space. But I’m used to working from home for physics.

Feeling the Global Impact

You mentioned how things are different in Europe right now, but do you mind me asking how things are in Brazil right now? Because I know the last time we talked you said it was… not good.

Terrible. It’s… the economic crisis is enormous. I’ve not seen this situation in the country since I was a child. People are in extreme situations of poverty, many people are losing their jobs and their homes, and food inflation has started, which is something we haven’t seen in a long time. And environmentally, as there are fires in California, there are fires in our wetlands, the PantanalI think it’s the most biodiverse region by kilometer in the world. It’s also an area where there’s a lot of isolated indigenous peoples. The native people might be dead, but we don’t know. 

And because there hasn’t been an adequate COVID responsein all honestly, really there has been no proper COVID response. We haven’t had a health minister in six months, he threw in the towel when the president wanted to interfere in his job. But then we never had another health minister take his place. So now we have an interim minister, a general who doesn’t know anything about health.

Like the military?

Yes, a military general. So yeah, we don’t have anyone. And most of the technical teams in the health ministry left because of this. Basically, we have nothing being done. And I just read an article yesterday that native populations in various areas of Brazil are highly affected by COVID and are in danger of being wiped out, so the situation is drastic.

In the face of a government that seems to focus more on preserving their power than their people, what has public opinion been like in Brazil?

Yeah so, this is the really insane thing: our government’s approval has been the highest it’s been since the beginning of its term.

When was the beginning?

2018. Now, at the beginning of the pandemic, they said: “There’s no COVID. It’s the Chinese government, they invented it just to make us stop our economy and take overwe’re not gonna worry, nobody will die”. Because of this, our Congress and the left pushed for this emergency basic income fund. If you’ve lost your job, you can apply for this and the government will give you 600 reals which is about 100-150 US dollars. The administration didn’t want this, but the left pushed, and now the government is saying, “See? We’re giving you monthly this money because we care for you.” But they didn’t want to! 

So now the government is saying, “We told you there weren’t going to be three million deaths, there are only 150,000 deaths in Brazil”. ‘Only.’ And they insist that most of these deaths are lies because most people are dying of other things and fake news is saying it’s COVID. But then they follow all of this up with, “We’re so good that despite all of this, we’re giving you money.” And so, the people of Brazil are like, “These guys are great”…

[On the Brazilian Emergency Fund] Are people actually getting the money? Because I know in the U.S., we’re wicked backlogged, so is it even going through?

It is going through, in a way. Many people who deserve it, who need it, aren’t getting it. Many people who do need it are getting it. And many people who don’t need it found a good way to get it. There was an estimated 10 percent being given to people in the military.

It’s always the military.

Yes, and that has amounted to 10 percent of the budget, which is enormous. But this isn’t seen as a problem. The population that needed it and got it along with the population that didn’t need it but saw the people who got it on the newsthese are the people supporting the government.

There’s no accountability. 

And that’s the point: it’s because there’s this narrative of the other. The ‘other’ are the Chinese who are creating all these problems, so it’s never attributed to the incompetence of the government. When they put this blame, it deepens racism, but it also helps them because they always will be the savior against this sort of outside force. 

It’s interesting to me how people don’t see the U.S. as part of the ‘other’ considering our history with Latin America. In light of how we’re handling the pandemic, I’m curious to know how Brazilians view America right now?

I think that people in Brazil see the U.S. and have this mindset of, “Oh, that’s how I want to be”. But seeing how the U.S. didn’t handle the pandemic well, people are like “oh yeah, it’s because Trump is an idiot”. But then, Bolsonaro is not? It’s like, hello!

Then there’s another portion that thinks the U.S. is handling things well, it’s just the communists saying that the U.S. isn’t. It’s the “alternate facts”, and thus the media has been put into question with all of this. And so if they say that the US.. isn’t handling this well, now that’s because they are Communists who are trying to manipulate us; actually, the U.S. is doing right and that’s why we’re following them. 

Communication in a Time of Division

It’s sad how it’s gotten to a point where journalists have to work in an environment where anything they publish seems to be treated as fake news by many.

I think for journalism, this is an important moment. It’s the dispute surrounding the narrative of what it’s about. Not just what it says, but what its intentions are. And I think there’s a parallel, I think, with science if I may?

Yeah, of course.

There’s this argument that science is telling us lies because they haven’t figured out this COVID thing. But it’s actually about disputing the narrative of science and its purpose. There’s this idea right now that science is used to control us, and it’s the same thing with journalism. And I think in a sense, they both have reinforced this damaging narrative. In science, we just repeat what we’ve been saying, only louder, and hope that people will somehow understand. It’s like the thing where someone doesn’t understand you because you’re speaking a different language and you just-


Yes, so science has been doing that, and so has journalism! What I think should happen is a shift in focus to how we are going to connect with the populations that are rejecting us. I don’t think they’re rejecting scientists or journalists; I think they’re rejecting the institutions! And it’s because these institutions have in many ways failed to communicate and create a dialogue with the greater population. Instead of shouting louder, we should say “now wait, let’s talk, let’s find a way to talk.”

Bringing this back into education, I think this is an important framework that you’re in a unique position to advocate for. Especially with this upcoming, socially conscious generation, is this something you try to weave into your role as an educator?

Always. Always. And I think again, we need to recognize that views never come from nowhere. We need to start saying why we have reasons, how we arrived here, and why we think they hold.  

As an educator, I even weave this into Newtonian physics. For example, yesterday I was looking at energy. You can’t just say that a body has ‘this much’ energy, that doesn’t make sense. Energy is only relative to what an object had and what is gained or lost. You can gain energy and momentum to create change, but it’s not yoursit’s in the relationship between you and where you are, the other bodies in that space, and the movements between them. I’m trying to get them to recognize that we’re in this together. 

I think that’s part about science that I’ve come to have an appreciation for—it’s not just about discovery and progress, but that it’s about understanding the relationship between us and the world. 

Yes, and that’s the part that’s most frustrating about remote learning for me because there’s this thing that comes about when you’re in the same space. It’s not just about the relationship between the instructor and the students: the students themselves need to interact, I’m just there to facilitate that interaction. You’ll learn more from each other, really, than just me. And if it’s everyone with their cameras off and they’re muted and they’re not really talking amongst each other, there’s so much they’re missing out on. 

Being online really emphasizes how it’s possible to be in the same space but not actually occupy the same… space. If that makes sense?

Yes, and I think that comes back to boundaries. Now with this online remote thing, we’re always everywhere. We’re always in our personal life, our work life, our studiesyou’re occupying all these spaces at the same time, but you’re not occupying any of them! There’re no delimitations, no boundaries, and so they cease to exist. I live in Boston and Brazil at the same time because half of my week I’m working at UMass Boston and half of my week I’m working here. And when you don’t have these things, the concept of rest doesn’t exist, and we all become tired, we don’t have energy and we can’t make a change. 

I definitely have been getting stuck in that loop, and I think I also get stuck in a loop of anger where I end up seeing people as the other.

Even I’ve been getting stuck in that. But my sister, she’s an activist, and she works full time educating and trying to get people out of prison. And when I get caught in my anger, she says, “Gabby. I don’t have time to have that. I’m just doing. I spend a lot of my day talking to people who are in prisons being punished for things that they didn’t do or talking to the family of people who have been killed or tortured by the police and… there’s no time for anger. I’m just there, I’m with these people.” And that’s the point. When I notice that I’m too absorbed in thinking that the world is horrible, I remind myself to get out there and do something for the world. Because it is horrible! But you have to confront it. 

Along that same line, what is something that you’d want people or your students to know for the time we’re living in right now?

There’s something that really struck me when I watched this documentary on Noam Chomsky: he said that what struck him about modern times wasn’t the crisis, it’s how everyone is paralyzed by it. Because there’s no hope, there’s no imagination. And I get stuck in that too. But then I have to ask myself, ‘How can I help?’ What are the projects I can contribute to? Then, that takes me to a different place. So I’d like my students to know that it’s very easy at the moment to get stuck in this whirlpool of ‘life is horrible’. You get depressed, and it’s very difficult to get out. But I want to tell them to start with one thing and do it, just do it. That will give you the energy and the hope to do all the other things that you feel are useless. Because I feel that! I’m doing my research and the world is falling apart and I think “who cares about this photon, or this electron?” But then I keep going and have this moment where I can see a future. Because the crisis isn’t a crisis of economics or health, it’s a crisis of our heads. We have to imagine a better future so we can construct it. 

But it doesn’t start massive. It starts little. It starts with ‘this is something I care about and I’m going to do what I can do’. And it can’t just be about me. If it’s just about me, it goes nowhere. But if it’s about the larger community…

Relationship. Relativity. It all comes full circle.

Yeah whenever I see these people that are really transforming the world and I watch their interviews, I can just see that they’re much more hopeful than us. And they’re in the middle of the horrible things! You know more about the horrors of the world than I do, how can you be more hopeful? It’s because they’re out there.