Published:

This op-ed appeared in the February 1 issue of the publication Academic Leader and is used here with permission.


As a physicist, I spend time thinking about different ways to measure things. As we reach the COVID-19 pandemic’s one-year mark, we should take an opportunity to reflect on the progress, successes and failures of the past year. I am left with an uneasy question: How do you measure success over the previous year?

Back in March 2020, I was preparing to lead a group of brilliant and excited undergraduate students from Adelphi University on Long Island to our annual physics industry conference in Denver. One day before we were to leave for the conference, it got canceled. I spent an entire weekend on the phone with hotel staff, airline staff, panicked students and our administrative colleagues, trying to undo everything. It was an intense couple of days. The opportunity for our students to present their research at a national level disappeared overnight. At the time, it seemed like such a big deal.

Then we suddenly moved from in-person to online classes. Students, staff and peers were having breakdown after breakdown and looking to me for help. I recall one text that simply said, “I am not doing well.” Tied up in a meeting, I texted back, “Are you going to hurt yourself?” The person replied, “Yes.” Fast forward: Everyone is OK. But how do you measure a moment like that?

As for labs, the usual methods of evaluating successful annual productivity ceased to make sense. We were barred from them for a large chunk of the year. After months of inactivity, I got back in and turned on the equipment (in my case, an atomic laser cooling lab), and a number of the fuses for our equipment simultaneously shorted out. We spent weeks sorting everything out. Some of my biology colleagues took their animals home to take care of them. A colleague using drosophila to research mitonuclear diseases tweeted, “Can’t wait to stop mingling grant writing with basic fly maintenance.”

One could argue that all that time away from the lab would have been a great opportunity to catch up on writing papers and applying for funding. The reality was rather different. My whole family got pretty sick from what we believe was COVID-19; we were sick before testing was commonplace. How do you get any work done when you are deciding whether it is safer to take your wife to the hospital or care for her at home? Like many Americans, I was working full time teaching, parenting, homeschooling and cooking a lot of soup.

In higher education, we work in fields that are highly competitive and filled with many people who are naturally brilliant; I am not. The only way I stay ahead of the curve is with extra hard work. During most of the year, however, I spent so much time helping students and colleagues through troubling times, caring for my family and personally recovering that I could not possibly have accomplished my usual amount of work.

By all outward appearances, this year has been a failure. But has it? I think it is time to acknowledge that we need different metrics. Here are some questions I asked myself:

  • Are you still open for business? As a department chair, I ask what kinds of difficult things I have done to keep the department afloat. Being in management means that you often have to make difficult, unpopular decisions. While at times that doesn’t really matter, this year our decisions have bigger than usual consequences. A few ill-timed mistakes at any level could lead to disaster for a small department, especially for a physics department at a primarily undergraduate institution. That meant I was always on guard and triple-checking even the little details. Every day our doors are open for the business of teaching tomorrow’s scientists is a win.
  • Have you successfully made the transition from doing business one way pre-COVID-19 to another post-COVID-19? A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought that transitioning from in person to online would have been possible. That was incredibly hard. It’s OK to pat yourself on the back for making that happen. If you’re still going, you’re a wild success! We should also take time to celebrate our teams of faculty, staff and students that made it all happen. In my department, our lab coordinator, James St. John ’18, really stepped up to the plate, ultimately being the go-to person for help on making educational videos, remote labs, in-person labs on the softball field, and social media. I made sure to highlight his success in writing on my blog and in his performance evaluations.
  • As a leader, how have you helped your staff keep their jobs? Not everyone’s job was saved this year. As middle managers, we have to look for ways to keep our teams together and going strong even when budgets are being cut.
  • What have you done to navigate deep dives into topics around racism and other forms of discrimination in the higher education workplace? As a manager, it is difficult to get a team of people who have radically polarized views on topics such as race to work together toward meaningful change. Undergraduate students in my department asked me to develop a departmental statement on racism in Summer 2020. I’ll be honest: Nothing in my training as a physicist prepared me for this moment. I asked for help, and I got it from various offices on campus, such as the diversity, equity, and inclusion office and my dean’s office. The extra help gave me the confidence to tackle sensitive issues. The process was slow, but folks were happy with the statement when it went public.
  • Despite all barriers that this year brought, did you connect with people? Were you there for your family, your friends, your co-workers, your staff, your clients, your team and the people you mentor? We have to acknowledge what that means this year and the toll it takes on us. After the details of the siege on January 6 came to light, I decided to reach out to the students and let them know that I was available to chat and that there were University resources available. Three students contacted me within minutes of sending that email. One student just found out that she had COVID-19, and the other students needed to vent about the political unrest in Washington. Those were difficult conversations. But I also made sure that I spent time with those closest to me. I hung out with my wife and daughter away from the TV, and I called my parents. Before bed, I texted a close friend who is a detective on the Washington, D.C., police force; I told him to keep his head down and how proud I was of him, and I thanked him for his service.
  • How did you personally handle the year’s emotional roller coaster? Are you strong and ready for the next year? If you are, that’s a big win too! Self-care really matters. You matter!

One of our University’s famous alumni, Jonathan Larson ’82, asked in his Rent lyrics, “526,600 minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?” Twenty-five years later, I am asking myself the same question. Ultimately, when we all look back, 2020 will have been about sustainability: getting our families, our students, our staff and our friends through the year—and ready for the next.

Matthew J. Wright, PhD, is associate professor and chair of physics at Adelphi University. His professional mission is to create a warm, open community for students to be successful in the physical sciences. Find him on his blog at wrightresearchlab.wordpress.com and on twitter as @WrightPhysHop.

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