Emily Toomey is a member of the Quantum Nanostructures and Nanofabrication Group led by Professor Karl Berggren. Recently she worked on a joint RLE/MTL effort to collect and donate PPE to support medical professionals in Massachusetts. We checked in with her for a graduate student perspective as she works towards defending her thesis later this spring 2020, what it’s like to have family working on the frontlines in the medical field during Covid 19, and how her work as an artist has been an outlet for her during grad school.

On  PPE donations and my brother:

My brother David (one of my three brothers) is an ER doctor at MGH, where he’s finishing his second year of residency. Being able to get his side of the story has been both informative and humbling. A couple of weeks ago, he told me that they were already running low on PPE, and that the pandemic wasn’t even expected to peak in Boston until mid-April. This shortage places medical personnel in pretty desperate situations, where they’re asked to risk their own safety in order to help patients who are seriously ill. When I heard that MIT Medical had an outreach program to collect PPE, I asked Karl if the NSL would be willing to donate supplies, and he immediately said yes. Jim Daley and Mark Mondol were really the ones who brought all of the PPE together, and I just helped with the organization and coordination. These are stressful and isolating times, but it brought me a lot of hope seeing how quickly everyone jumped at the chance to help out in any way that they could.

I worry about my brother a lot, and my sister-in-law who is susceptible to catching anything that he might bring home from the hospital. But I’m also incredibly proud of how calmly and dutifully he’s approached the situation, and grateful that I have his experience to put whatever small things I’m stressing about in perspective.

On finishing my thesis remotely:

Needless to say, a remote thesis defense and a postponed graduation is not how I envisioned the last semester of my PhD. I’m nearing the final stages of my defense preparation (scheduled for April 23), but I definitely have days where I struggle to focus on work because I’m so anxious about my family or what I read in the news. The start date of my job is also a bit up in the air right now because of coronavirus. My younger brother is in a similar situation, since his undergraduate graduation at USC is postponed, and many workplaces are on a hiring freeze.

I’ve seen a lot of conversations online about taking advantage of all of this time indoors to be extra productive– work on the book you always wanted to write, advance the theory behind your research, or reorganize your entire house. These are all great things to aspire to, but what I’ve tried to keep in mind is that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and the main goals we should really focus on are mentally coping and staying healthy. Overall, I’m trying to take things day by day, and avoid the temptation of expecting too much from myself right now. I’m also notoriously bad at celebrating any of my own accomplishments, so I’m trying to figure out how to properly celebrate my defense (assuming it goes well– fingers crossed).

On self-isolation artwork:

Painting has been a huge outlet for me throughout grad school, and even more so these days when I need to take my focus off work and the news. I mostly paint people, figurative studies, and scenes from around the city, and I usually work in oils. Since being in self-isolation, however, I’ve really been drawn towards watercolors, which I hadn’t worked in since at least five years ago. There’s something calming about gradually building up layers and working with a more delicate hand.

Cezanne is the inspiration behind so much of my work– he really knew how to celebrate color, and to make brush strokes feel rich and alive. I absolutely love how he uses dark outlines around objects as well, and if you look at my work from the past ~3 years or so, you’ll see that I’ve tried to capture a similar technique. Lately though, thanks to Instagram, I’ve been able to follow the contemporary portrait painting scene in the UK and have become completely captivated by it. The work there tends to have much tighter brushstrokes, and to look like somewhat distorted realism. I think that’s likely due to the influence of Lucien Freud, whose self-portrait exhibit is currently at the MFA (I was lucky enough to see it right before the museum closed down due to coronavirus). This type of work has really inspired me to emphasize the texture and reflections in the skin tones of my portraits more.