I write this, 12 months from when I sent an email message to my School informing them that our buildings would be closed from 5pm the following day and that they were to take home with them the things that they thought they would need to work from home for a while. At that stage few, if any, had a clear idea of what lay ahead, and looking at the other emails received and sent on that day and on the few days prior to and following, provides a rather surreal picture of the situation at that time. It is useful to reflect on the challenges the last year presented, on our individual and collective responses to those challenges, on our resilience and on our achievements.

Academic life in 2020 was unlike any other year for us. The need to quickly move to online teaching, which required acquisition of new skills, flexibility in contribution, and a not insignificant amount of preparation time were immediate challenges. The need to support tutees and graduate students with concerns not previously imagined emerged. Worries about research programmes built around clinical trials and access to laboratories were genuine and well-founded and for some continue to be so.

We are not fully out of the woods with these aspects. Against this dark background, our staff have shone. Our academics and their teams were vital to the vaccine trials, conducted really important research about the immunology of viral infection and possible therapeutic interventions, and helped to develop and test novel PPE strategies. These contributions are all well recorded. But our research contributions went beyond that: our researchers studied the effects of the pandemic on society, including the young, were responsible for setting up from scratch and then running the virus testing programme that serves the University and wider community, and are now leading post-COVID research. In addition, our clinical academic staff stepped up contributing to the success of the NHS in this most challenging of years. Thus, 2020 was a year of great challenge but one of high achievement for the Faculty, achievement that was borne from the skills, dedication and collegiality of its staff. Alongside this, the academic effort of the last 12 months has been quite remarkable. Numbers of grant submissions have been high and staff have published many good quality papers and have made significant contributions to the virtual scientific discussions that have now become the norm.

Many in the Faculty remained on site (or returned quickly) in vital research or clinical roles, using their skills and in many cases putting themselves at risk. Others have remained working from home throughout, a new experience for most. It is my impression that most staff adapted well to new ways of delivering education, of communicating, and of squeezing what they could out of their research programmes. Laboratory access was not possible for some staff for a period, but progressively increased access to laboratories enabled those needing to return to wet-lab work the opportunities they were crying out for. The contributions of our technical and support staff have been immense. Right across the Faculty, our technical staff have operated effectively and with great dedication keeping core facilities running, supporting research, looking after areas in lockdown, and enabling the efficient phased partial return to work. Our office support staff have been amazingly adaptable to the demands of working from home and their efforts have been instrumental in keeping the Faculty ticking over nicely. They have enabled and supported group networks and vital meetings and several took on wider roles in supporting the Faculty response to the pandemic. Life has not been easy for these staff members who thrive on the social network that the Faculty offers. Nevertheless, their characteristic good humour and strong work ethic have shone through and as a result, these individuals have been instrumental in the smooth running of the Faculty over this period.

This has been a tough year for all of our graduate students, especially those conducting human-based research and those working in laboratories. Their concerns about progress have been legitimate. They have answered the call to be adaptable and significant effort in additional data analysis and in exploring other avenues like writing reviews has been fruitful and will ultimately help them to achieve their goals. Our post-doctoral researchers and fellows have shared these same concerns and have also needed to be flexible in their approaches. Out of this experience will come strengths that many did not know they possessed.

Finally, from our collective, it is possibly the undergraduates who have had the greatest challenges, with interruption to teaching programmes, a different and untried (to us and them) means of education delivery, disruptions to assessments and altered social arrangements. It is difficult to fully assess the impact of this combination of circumstances, but it is clear that undergraduate students have been differentially affected and that close monitoring of (any) adverse impact is going to be important.

It has been tough for everyone in the Faculty. We got through this period, showing resilience combined with collegiality and humility. But in my view, we have done more than just “got through”: we have contributed, we have achieved, we have shone. We have all learned a lot about ourselves and this will stand us in good stead, as individuals and as a community, as we move forward. As we now see light at the end of the dark tunnel, we can begin to think about what lies ahead.

It is clear that many things will not return to how they were before late-March of 2020: we will adapt our way of working using the lessons of the last twelve months to enhance the way that we, as educators and researchers, work in the future. But right now, it is most appropriate to reflect on the events of the last twelve months …..

Personal reflections on a difficult year by Professor Philip Calder

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.