Posted January 12, 2021
Now more than ever, Trinity’s Information + Technology Services (IT) is keeping us connected and productive during these unpredictable times. The College’s IT team are in constant communication with each other and the communities they serve – supporting staff in their daily work, and faculty, instructors and students with teaching and learning, as well as making sure that the College’s technology systems and infrastructure continue to be maintained and secure. Trinity’s IT department is staffed by a well-rounded team of three: Dr. Gilbert Verghese (Coordinator), Marvin Chen (Systems Administrator) and Michael Yee (Specialist). Providing essential services, they continue to work both remotely and on-site to provide their regular IT support services, in addition to addressing new issues and finding technical solutions in response to the shift to telecommuting and remote learning. And since Gilbert lives at Trinity – he is among a few staff members who are campus residents – he is often the one doing the on-site physical IT legwork during the lockdown and off hours.
Gilbert joined Trinity College in 1989 as Computer Science Don while completing his PhD in Computer Vision. He later became Senior Resident, Coordinator of Computer Services, and Information + Technology Services Coordinator, which is his current position. In his role, he is responsible for managing the IT team and bringing computer networking, email, ResNet, and web services to the College.
We sat down (virtually) with Gilbert to find out how the pandemic has impacted his team’s daily work, and what his life is like during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Trinity College (TC): When you heard that the campus was closing due to COVID-19 back in March 2020, what was your initial response plan?
Gilbert Verghese (GV): We received advance notice in February about the possibility of classes going online. We knew then we’d need to prepare instructional information to support professors and staff. I wrote an instructional continuity checklist based on consultation with U of T colleagues and online resources, followed by a checklist for staff about working remotely. Months earlier, I had applied for our Trinity College Microsoft Teams platform, which took some time to approve and setup, and that turned out to be essential and timely.
The larger impact in this case – compared with past workflow evolutions like email or cellphone adoption – is that Trinity had to adopt telecommuting workflow immediately and for everyone at once. There are many reasons to keep some of the telecommuting workflow changes post-pandemic, not the least of which is the benefit to the environment.
TC: What has been the simplest IT question you’ve been asked? And what has been the most difficult or complex IT issue to solve?
GV: This one! But contenders include remote desktop issues usually requiring a reset for staff workstations. We tend to create shortcuts to address repeated questions and we’ll soon have an automated way of doing resets.
The most difficult and complex IT issue is the George Ignatieff Theatre (GIT) smart classroom (with physically distanced seating), as it’s a custom solution requiring a lot of technical design and testing. The College obtained funding for a smart camera and microphone setup for the GIT that will solve the technical problem of in-class students interacting with online classmates – the missing link. It will have three pan/tilt/zoom cameras that will turn to and focus on whoever in the GIT is talking, based on each person’s microphone. This solution requires wiring 30 mics in front of theatre seats and programming the cameras to turn and zoom in to the person behind the mic from which the voice is coming. The camera pointed at the stage will follow the professor automatically. It’s a complex but effective smart classroom solution for synchronous learning that will allow for virtual individual interaction among local and remote participants alike. Our plan is to have the GIT smart classroom ready for when it’s safe to resume in-person classes at the University.
TC: What has been the most challenging or rewarding aspects of your pandemic-related work?
GV: Enabling telecommuting has been the most challenging pandemic-related work since it involves coordinating local and remote systems for everyone at once. It’s also the most rewarding, as staff and students have been extremely patient, understanding, and appreciative of safe ways to operate during the pandemic. The College community’s collective morphing into flexible and effective telecommuters has been most gratifying to witness. Looking back at what we’ve been through and how we are doing, I think each of us in the Trinity community can be proud of how we are coping with the pandemic.
TC: Anything else you would like to share?
GV: I’d just like to share a couple of PSAs: Can you spot when you’re being phished? Take the quiz
and this article “A room, a bar and a classroom: how the coronavirus is spread through the air”.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
TC: Since the start of the pandemic, what has been…
TC: …the one thing that you look forward to every day/week?
GV: The weekly Zoom call with my family in Quebec, Alberta, BC, Virginia, New Jersey, and Bangalore. I see them more now than pre-pandemic.
TC: …the one thing that you dread to do every day/week?
GV: To deal with unexpected emergencies like power, network, server or cloud service issues.
TC: …your most surprising moment?
GV: I noticed a gaggle of geese had taken up residence in our back field outside my window from mid-August to mid-November.
I thought they had migrated south after the snow arrived in mid-November and they disappeared; but imagine my surprise when I saw this on November 22 during a snow storm.
TC: …your biggest challenge?
GV: Guessing what’s around the corner technologically.
TC: …the thing you miss, or miss doing, the most?
GV: Freely going in and out.
TC: …the best way for you to stay/feel connected with others?
GV: Zoom/Teams calls and meetings for now.
TC: …the one thing you enjoy the most about working remotely?
GV: No commute (and I’ve enjoyed that for 31 years living at Trinity)!
TC: …the one thing you enjoy the least about working remotely?
GV: Having to run around the buildings maintaining IT by myself unexpectedly since I’m the closest. Still, I do like getting out when I can plan ahead.
TC: …your new-found hobby or activity?
GV: Figuring out the possible roles of quantum computing such as, ‘Finally, a Problem That Only Quantum Computers Will Ever Be Able to Solve.’
TC: …the one thing you purchased that you would never have bought before?
GV: Automatic person-tracking pan/tilt/zoom camera.
TC: …your (new) favourite food or item to eat/cook/bake?
GV: Avocados. Surprisingly good for making vegan chocolate mousse.
TC: …your favourite way to spend time at home?
GV: Learning about Lie Group E8 and linking my math roots with quantum physics.
TC: …the last show/series you binge-watched?
GV: I sometimes watch Netflix to take a break but haven’t had time to binge watch.
TC: …the show/series/movie/book you recommend to others?
GV: I find The Good Place with Ted Danson and Kristen Bell to be an entertaining distraction. Also any of the Stat Trek series if you like sci-fi.
TC: …the thing you can now do without?
GV: We could always do without traffic congestion and subway crowds, but now we can for real!
TC: …the thing you can now not live without?
TC: …the thing that brings you the most joy/happiness?
GV: Solving problems that would otherwise burden us.
TC: …the first thing you will do when physical-distancing restriction are lifted and/or when the pandemic is over?
GV: Travel – to an ocean beach maybe! Also Latin ballroom dancing.
TC: …the best lesson or thing you learned that you will continue post-pandemic?
GV: We can get through anything as a community by working together with patience, compassion, and care.