Popular Science: Education and Research in the Pandemic Times
1) How did the anti-covid measures affect your academic life? Were you compelled to reduce a part of your teaching or research?
LK: Of course, it affected me. At first, I hoped to get more time for researching, while students would be absent, but this did not happen. My children were at home, students were online, experiments did not stop and papers had to be finished… some things became more complicated. Online lectures were either as demanding as before (e.g. our Evolution and Ecological Journal Club) or even harder. I started recording my lessons and sending presentations to students. This was more time-consuming than normal lectures. Finally, everything was very challenging; only a minimum of usual duties was cancelled (e.g. some meetings) but many unexpected tasks shot up.
PT: My research remained nearly uninfluenced by these events. What I need most for my job as a theoretical biologist is primarily my computer – so a home office was no problem for me. Anyhow, high-performance computer stations, which I have in the faculty building, are dirigible from my notebook.
This semester I was tutoring a seminar in theoretical biology. Eventually, we decided to cancel it completely. It is mostly a thing for interested students of a master’s degree and postgraduates, who were definitely able to find another hobby. This seminar is based on discussions, which do not work right online. The preparation of this seminar usually requires one workday. I used the saved time for other research projects. In this way, the preventive measures had a positive effect on my research.
The negative impact that Covid-19 had was on the work of my colleagues who reside in affected countries and those who have to stay at home with their children. I feel a great pity for both of them.
2. Did your education help you in some way? Did it make the situation more manageable for you? Did you panic?
LK: Every evolution biologist has a certain notion of the virus and its behaviour, knowing that evolution is predictable only to a limited extent. So I was actually prepared for anything. I remember an interview for Czech Radio: the editor asked me if I consider Covid-19 a mere puffery. I told her: “It would be quite a mess; in the best case, a great training for next epidemics.”
I did observe hygienic instructions, carefully observing and evaluating the situation. This also included expecting others to panic.
PT: Definitely. The crucial and most helpful knowledge I have achieved at the course of Evolutionary Parasitology taught by Prof. Flegr. It gave me the knowledge that the virulence of this new pathogen would probably sink in time, partially due to applied measures. Some other lessons in statistics, computer modelling and population ecology was also helpful to me. I liked various models of the spread and infection rate. I think that this global pandemic will once serve as a highly interesting casuistic.
I did not panic. I am fully aware that it is only my chosen profession which enables me to feel this way. Being a professional musician or a pub keeper, I would have likely panicked a bit...
In March, I was observing the development of this pandemic, but later it became boring for me. Anyhow, I like to watch changes in human behaviour in the development of the pandemic. With my friends living abroad, we even started a project exploring the relationship between human morals and behaviour in the covid crisis.
3. Do you expect to gain some benefit from the time spent at home? Probably, it gave you more time for theoretic research.
LK: My work did not stop and I did not spend more time at home than before. I always read a lot (articles, books, manuscripts) and I always think a lot – but without the feeling of figuring out more now than at other times.
PT: For sure! In the normal routine I had four seminars every week, went to a theatre, cinema, pub or a concert nearly every evening. These couple of months gave me an abundance of time that I had not experienced since my second year at the university. It was amazing. I found time for activities I have neglected for long. Let’s say, my potato pancakes have improved about a hundred per cent since the crisis outbreak!
I do not think that the pandemic significantly influenced the number of my publications, but those I worked on in the time of crisis received proper care, I must say. I dedicated a huge amount of time to theoretical ‘research’; unlike my first expectations, it spread quite a lot beyond my original area of focus. For instance, now I am reading a gargantuan monograph about foretelling in ancient Greece from the pen of Tomáš Vítek. A year ago, I could hardly even think about such an activity.
4. Do you consider personal meetings indispensable for scientific work and education at the University?
LK: Yes, I am sure of that. I have not experienced a really profound discussion about a thorny theoretical problem with a colleague online. In cooperation with someone living in the U.S. or in Australia, online consulting is quite helpful – but even in these cases, the best dialogues always arose in personal meetings. For me, online lecturing was only a makeshift activity. I can compare my experience with two entrance exams, one of them zoomed and the second an in-person meeting of commission and candidate. I vote for preserving the personal dialogue!
I have also missed conferences – at the coffee break or dinner, you always meet someone interesting who you never met before or only knew a little bit...
I am one of organisers of the ‘Biological Thursdays at Viničná’ and in recent years, we have recorded them and published on YouTube. I admit, until now, I have not watched any one of them in full length online! By contrast, in the lecture hall I observe approximately 90% of the programme...
PT: Personal meetings are dispensable for scientific work (at any rate, I have written several works with co-authors who I have never seen in person, but I have the feeling I know them well). But it is definitely nothing superfluous. I find scientific conferences utterly important, as this is where people meet to socialise, view interesting presentations, share statistic gimmicks and booze properly. Some of the best ideas will come to you in a non-stop pub at 3 A.M.
I have been thinking about leaving conferences off for about a year. I used to visit four to five conferences per year that are not beneficial to the quality of my work. That beautiful synchronicity of the entire wide world stopping at the very same moment – it suits me. My psychic contentment is on its historical maximum. Maybe I would the whole academic world taking on a kind of altering regime – a year of sitting at home universities doing research and then another year meeting, maybe even twice as often.
For teaching, I feel personal meetings are dispensable mostly because ‘frontal’ teaching as such is something totally out-dated. Nearly all the amount of information you get in a huge auditorium with a hundred people more you can find just as well – or even better –in books, on YouTube or somewhere on the Internet. On the Facebook site ‘Natural scientific quiz’ that came into being during the Covid-crisis, I have learned more interesting things about animals than I have in the ten years of my studies at FSc. I wish not to waste any more time with lecturing. I do not consider smaller collegial seminars, or some kind of mentoring in little groups education, but rather part of scientific work as such – and as I have mentioned already, for this type of work, personal meeting is essential.
5. How should we prepare for a possible future epidemic?
LK: I think we should stay prepared constantly, for death and epidemics are a part of life; it’s just that we tend to be somehow forgetful about it. Covid-19 did remind people of that. I do not mean that we should twiddle on our thumbs and wait on a plague outbreak, but we have come to terms with the fact that life is interesting because of its great unpredictability and its evanescence: that is the only thing we are sure about. – So, I think that preparations should be based on technological and scientific progress; and also, on an effort to understand and humbly accept the limits of technology and science. This is the realisation we should apply in our everyday views on individual life.
PK: Let it come. I do not think we have ever been prepared better for anything than we are now. We have been quite lucky in that it started exactly this way, with a virus that is relatively tame. In my opinion, the best way would be to develop small home-fit sequencing colons. Everyone suffering from a scratchy throat or increased temperature would spit into it, the colons would automatically scan all the genetic information in the spit; and after comparing all sections with a database of all the known sequences on the Internet, they would say which pathogen has invaded the person. I assume that the discomfort of gathering the material for tests, involving an ‘astronaut’ in an ambulance car coming into your house and sticking a little brush through your nose into your throat, has cost too many innocent lives. I think that even today we have all technologies needed for making such equipment. We only have to make it miniature and affordable for mass production.
Both interviews were made in the summer semester 2020.