June 2020 - Letter from the Directors

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Thursday, June 25, 2020 

Living in a virtual world

Four months into the coronavirus pandemic, many of the activities traditionally held on campus have converted into their virtual equivalents.  Although the depth of personal interaction is not the same as in-person meetings, we have found some advantages and learned much about maintaining communication while social distancing. 

We all now know where the “raise hand” command is on Zoom.  We learned to our astonishment that PowerPoint allows audio files to be attached to every presentation slide.  This feature, along with the ability to record presentations in Zoom, provides the means for one of the largest conferences in our field, the Goldschmidt Conference on geochemistry, to move to a completely virtual format. Most of the other prominent meetings in our field have followed suit and will be turning to all, or at least mostly, virtual formats. 

The experience of the virtual Goldschmidt certainly is different from its past in-person format, but arguably many of the presentations are more effective. There are no pillars in the middle of the room to restrict view of the screen; late arrival for a presentation doesn’t mean you will be viewing the presentation through the door from the hallway; fonts don’t have to be poster-sized to be legible; narrations are often clearer if a bit less spontaneous; and, no one has to be pulled from the stage when their presentation drags on for too long. 

The other obvious advantage is the cost savings for participants and the reduction in fossil fuel emissions associated with flying thousands of people from around the world. These advantages are offset by the serious reduction of income for professional societies whose economic models often depend on the income from meetings, and by the still clumsy nature of random personal interaction in the various “chat rooms” available in the virtual conference. 

Nevertheless, being forced into exploring modern options for online communication will almost certainly fundamentally change the way we do science communication.  A good example will be the revised seminar program being developed for EPL where remote connections can allow us to invite speakers from anywhere in the world without subjecting them to days of travel for a 1-hour presentation. This format also has the advantage of improving the opportunity to hear from a much wider array of scientists for whom travel may be difficult. The impressively high viewer numbers for the series of lectures currently being run by the Carnegie Institution also speak to the ability of virtual presentations to reach a much broader audience.

A slow return to data acquisition

Larry Nittler collects data remotely on the NanoSIMS 50 L.

Although our theoretical efforts have been largely unimpeded for the last four months, laboratory operations have just resumed on campus, albeit with rather stringent social distancing and PPE use requirements.  Increasingly, many of our instruments are computer-controlled and can be run remotely. This has given us the ability to spend only a few hours in the week on campus for activities that require the hands-on approach, whereas the rest of the time, running 24/7, data acquisition can continue to be monitored from home. 

The one activity of EPL that is suffering the most is fieldwork. Many of our geological and volcanological programs require extensive work in the field to collect samples or to install instrumentation for seismic or geodetic measurements for a variety of projects.  For these, we have yet to find an online substitute and can only hope that the situation improves soon. 

The fruits of the pause

Melt focusing diagram as published in Sim’s 2020 paper, The Influence of Spreading Rate and Permeability on Melt Focusing Beneath Mid-ocean Ridges.

As expected, the pause in data taking has led to a wave of papers reporting results obtained before the arrival of COVID-19.  In May and June, 32 papers that involve EPL scientists as authors or coauthors have been published or accepted for publication in subjects ranging from studies of Earth dynamics and history, characteristics of other planets in our Solar System and in exoplanetary systems, and how novel materials can be created by the high temperatures and pressures characteristic of planetary interiors.  The full list of publications can be accessed from our recent publications page. 

Assuring a more diverse future

Earth and Planets Laboratory staff participated in #ShutdownSTEM, some met at the Carnegie Science headquarters for a small group discussion of racial injustice and equity in academia before walking to the White House in downtown D.C.

Finally, as I am sure you are all aware, a series of tragedies has once again illuminated the painful fact that not all members of our society are treated equally.  While we in academia sometimes like to think of ourselves as leaders in the fight against inequality, the lack of diversity within our own research staff is a clear sign that we need to do a better job with our actions and not just our words. 

In this direction, Carnegie President Eric Isaacs has established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) task force to examine what steps Carnegie can take to both lower the barriers to the participation of a more diverse research community and proactively create paths that will encourage underrepresented groups to move through STEM educational paths into careers in fundamental research.  A recent article in Nature involving former EPL intern and current visiting scientist Lavontria Miché Aaron gives an interesting perspective on the types of support that can encourage students from minority ethnic groups to continue their pursuits into careers in science.  We have a long way to go, but at least we are starting in earnest on making sure that our future leaders in the basic sciences include a more comprehensive representation of society.

Rick Carlson and Michael Walter
Director and Deputy Director
Earth and Planets Laboratory