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Author: Matthew J. Wright

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 and reflect on 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 mito-nuclear 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:

One of our university’s famous alumni, Jonathan Larson, asked in his Rent lyrics, “525,600 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 https://wrightresearchlab.wordpress.com and on Twitter as @WrightPhysHop.

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