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COVID-19 Impacts and University Reopening Strategies: Interview with Dr. Joseph Licciardi

Dr. Joseph Licciardi

Dr. Joseph Licciardi
Dr. Joseph Licciardi is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire, and previously served as a journal editor for five years. Licciardi's primary fields of study include glacial geology, geomorphology, paleoclimatology, and volcanology, with the majority of his research focusing on the development and application of geochronological methods and understanding mechanisms of climate change. His work in the United States, Peru, Iceland, and Greenland has led to an internationally recognized research program. Licciardi's research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including Science and Nature Geoscience, accruing thousands of citations and numerous publications.

As universities worldwide consider reopening strategies and what higher education will look like in the wake of COVID-19, many complex academic, financial and operational questions arise. In this interview, Dr. Joseph Licciardi provides a candid take on his experience as a faculty member, researcher, mentor and administrator during the pandemic, in addition to his thoughts on how academia will evolve as these unprecedented challenges are faced.

LetPub: Hi, Joe - Thank you for agreeing to complete another interview and for joining us today. As you have interviewed with LetPub previously (read Joe’s previous interview here), I won’t request a super formal introduction; however, it would be great if you could briefly tell us about your current roles and responsibilities at the University of New Hampshire (UNH).

Dr. Licciardi: Of course and thank you for inviting me to this interview. I am currently a Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, and I am also serving in my fourth year as Department Chair. My research interests include glaciers, volcanoes, and climate change. I advise graduate and undergraduate students who are working with me on research projects in these fields of study. I teach courses in these topics as well.

LetPub: Like most academics, I suspect your research program, laboratory operations, teaching format and administrative duties changed because of COVID-19. May I ask what changes you personally found the most challenging?

Dr. Licciardi: Well, I would say by far the most challenging aspect of the past year in terms of my job has been serving as a Department Chair during this pandemic. Similar to most universities, UNH had to pivot and change its operations on very short notice in response to COVID-19, and from day one, it was uncharted territory. As a result, it was a huge challenge and an enormous collective effort on the parts of many people across campus to make sure that we stayed open, as well as safe, while still fulfilling our mission to provide a high-quality educational experience for our students.

LetPub: I imagine the experience was quite overwhelming. Other than your administrative duties as Department Chair, were there any other challenging aspects with regard to your day-to-day operations?

Dr. Licciardi: Like many others, my own day-to-day changed dramatically in terms of teaching and research. For teaching, we all switched from in-person to online instruction with very little notice, and in the earlier days of the pandemic, it was 100% remote, and campus was essentially closed. That was initially a real challenge, and it only very gradually evolved to a hybrid format, where there was some in-person instruction. Overall, this past year was very difficult on instructors as well as students, with the day-to-day requiring a lot of additional work. It was tough.

LetPub: Can you comment on how your research program was impacted?

Dr. Licciardi: Much of my research relies heavily on lab work and field work, and both of those were either completely shut down or severely restricted by the COVID-19 protocols that UNH had in place. All of our field work originally planned for summer 2020 had to be postponed or cancelled, and this impeded progress on several projects. Restrictions on laboratory operations and field work are only now just starting to lift and return to full steam.

LetPub: Sounds like a familiar situation for most academics this past year. Do you have any insight regarding the undergraduate and graduate student perspective at your university?

Dr. Licciardi: We do have initial insight regarding the student reaction to the new formats of instruction through university-wide polls that were conducted, as well as anecdotally from the students that know us well enough to tell us how they are feeling. Suffice to say, I think it was an incredibly challenging year for our undergraduate and graduate students. The issues run the gamut from struggles involved in trying to maintain focus on their studies and their research, to worries about the health and safety of family and friends, to broader mental health concerns, which have always been an important issue that we encounter as faculty; however, mental health concerns were far more pervasive this past year due to the extreme stress related to the pandemic. Just imagine if you are a student and all the sudden you are living with your parents again, taking courses remotely, and trying to find some quiet corner of the house to work. Overall, it was very difficult on them.

LetPub: I think the student reaction is completely understandable. What was UNH’s protocol like for COVID-19 testing this past year?

Dr. Licciardi: During the past year, UNH adopted an aggressive COVID-19 testing program, one that I think was stricter than most other universities I am aware of. Faculty were being tested once per week, and students were tested twice per week. All the data were posted publicly for transparency, so the wider community could see if UNH was doing “good” or “bad” in terms of infection rates. The university also invested considerable resources into setting up a state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing lab right on campus, and that was critical to maintaining a high testing capacity.

LetPub: Wow, that’s impressive.

Dr. Licciardi: Yeah, and thanks to these efforts, UNH did as well as could be expected with keeping the numbers down and avoiding any kind of super spreader events on campus. As a result, the UNH campus stayed open much longer than most other universities; however, we did curtail operations when it needed to happen. We are currently at a very low rate of infection, so we are optimistically looking forward to full operations in Fall 2021, all of which is being guided by CDC recommendations and state guidelines.

LetPub: It is indeed wonderful that many universities across the United States are reopening with positive outlooks for Fall 2021. What is the current status of the University of New Hampshire?

Dr. Licciardi: The UNH campus is currently open but there are still a lot of people who are choosing to work remotely. I actually think it may be a difficult transition for at least some people who have grown accustomed to, or maybe even preferred, working remotely, to be back in-residence next semester. We have, however, received the message loud and clear from the vast majority of our students that they want to be back on campus; they miss the social aspects of being in college, they want to see people in person, especially each other in person, and there is a lot of excitement. There will of course be some folks who, for a variety of reasons, are not yet comfortable coming back to campus. There will be some online options for those students, but for the most part, the plan is for UNH classes to be in person for the Fall semester.

LetPub: Generally speaking, what are the primary factors that control a university’s decision to allow in-person instruction and research? How quickly can in-person teaching change to remote instruction?

Dr. Licciardi: The health and safety of the community are first and foremost, so that is the main question: Are we safe? We want to provide the experience that our students are telling us they want, but we are not going to place them in jeopardy. We will be back in person and on campus in the Fall only if it is and remains safe.

LetPub: That makes sense. Now that your schedule has begun returning to pre-pandemic status, what are your priorities?

Dr. Licciardi: I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do. It was inevitably difficult to maintain a normal level of productivity this past year in terms of research, and that definitely impacted me and my students. For example, one of my graduate students had to change her project quite drastically because she could not do the field work we had originally planned on. As such, my priorities are to my students, to make sure they can maintain an appropriate timeline for graduation and successfully position themselves for whatever comes next. Regarding other research that I’m conducting with colleagues outside of UNH, I intend to ramp up to higher levels of productivity to keep those projects moving forward.

LetPub: What about teaching? Do you foresee any changes for Fall 2021?

Dr. Licciardi: As far as teaching goes, I am excited to be teaching in person again. With that said, I think there were some good things that came out of teaching remotely. In particular, the experience forced all of us faculty and instructors to reexamine and reevaluate the ways that we teach. The experience was, in a way, an inspiration for many of us to develop new strategies to teach our classes as effectively as possible. I hope that a lot of this work is going to bear fruit when we are back in person in the Fall, especially if we can now teach more effectively and offer an improved experience for our students.

LetPub: So earlier you mentioned your research involves both field work and lab work. Regarding lab work, I have heard many researchers are dealing with supply issues and long waits for data. Is this your experience?

Dr. Licciardi: Oh yes, supply chain issues have been a very big problem for those who depend on labs to get their work done. In the very early days of the pandemic, my lab donated gloves and masks because of the severe shortage for healthcare workers, which was the priority at that time. However, when it came time to replace those materials, it took a very long time, simply because those items were no longer readily available. This issue relates not just to PPE but also to the chemicals and lab supplies that we, and others, work with, as well as field equipment, really everything. Nearly everything has been affected by supply chain shortages.

LetPub: I know many early career scientists are stressed they will not be able to start or return to the certain level of productivity expected or required. Do you have any insight on this topic?

Dr. Licciardi: Regarding challenges for early career scientists, I have witnessed this firsthand with a postdoctoral colleague I hired to join my group at UNH. Her two-year post-doc is ending now, and her time here was essentially dominated by restrictions related to COVID-19, making it difficult for her to make headway on research, publications, and lab work. There’s no doubt that the stress felt by more senior researchers was even more acute for early career scientists or students who are trying to establish themselves, look for jobs, stay on track toward tenure decisions, and basically do everything they can to position themselves for success in an environment that was not conducive to making academic headway.

LetPub: Do you think that opportunities for students and/or early career researchers will bounce back to pre-pandemic status quickly, or do you think the “return to normal” will take some time?

Dr. Licciardi: I think it is going to take some time, but I suspect opportunities will rebound. From what I have been told by colleagues who are actively searching for jobs, it has been very difficult and more competitive than ever to find and secure positions. Even before the pandemic, it seems there were more qualified people than available jobs, especially at the PhD level.

LetPub: What about the financial impacts of COVID-19? Finances must be tied to job availability.

Dr. Licciardi: Yes, of course. The financial impact of COVID-19 is enormous, particularly at the university level, and many academic institutions are not in a good place as a result. To address these issues, many universities initiated hiring freezes. Not only has there been historically a shortage of jobs for qualified people, but this problem became exacerbated during the pandemic due to the implementation of hiring freezes. This translates to fewer new jobs in academia; and it also means that retiring faculty are not getting replaced. Those hiring searches are now starting to come back, which is great, but it is going to be very gradual, and it is tied to the financial recovery of the institutions.

LetPub: Since we are on the topic of finances, do you have any insight about changes to the availability of funding opportunities? This is a concern for most academics.

Dr. Licciardi: Well, there are a few components here to think about. One is for investigators who are already funded. Those scientists had money in the bank so-to-speak, but could not get some of their research done because they were not able to travel, complete lab work, etc. From my experience, funding agencies and sponsors are well aware of these various issues, and they have been very accommodating in approving project extensions to allow researchers more time to finish their funded work.

In terms of getting new grants funded, particularly in the United States, a major role is played by government-controlled budget levels to various agencies, and if these funds are increased, they should ripple through and allow researchers to have higher success rates for submitted proposals. Overall, I am hopeful there will be a decent amount of available funding in the near future, but again, it will take time to recover to a pre-pandemic level of research productivity for a whole variety of reasons.

LetPub: Can you comment on international funding opportunities?

Dr. Licciardi: I believe there are similar funding-based issues around the world. I have several ongoing collaborations with international colleagues, and their funding opportunities have also been severely impacted by shutdowns and deficits that have accumulated during the pandemic. But as with our situation domestically, I am optimistic that internationally-based funding agencies will eventually recover to pre-pandemic levels of research support.

LetPub: Let’s switch gears a little bit. I understand fieldwork is an essential aspect of your career. How has reopening affected your field work plans? Are there lingering challenges?

Dr. Licciardi: As I mentioned before, one of the major challenges during the pandemic was related to travel restrictions, which meant not being able to do field work in faraway locations. However, for me, there was a silver lining. Not being able to travel to many of my distant research sites actually inspired me to focus more on the local geology, and this has led to a lot of cool new research opportunities for my students. Local field work has been really fun, and I plan to continue that initiative with my research group.

The long delay in being able to return to the farther afield sites this past year has also really heightened the anticipation and excitement for resuming fieldwork again this summer. There are still restrictions and limitations, however, especially for international fieldwork. For example, I have ongoing research in Peru, but this work has been delayed for another year due to lingering COVID-19 concerns, border closures between countries, and other complications.

LetPub: Remote teaching or blended learning has become increasingly common in academia because of the pandemic. Looking forward, do you believe there will be a shift towards virtual learning at UNH? Throughout academia?

Dr. Licciardi: Well, maybe. It is important to remember that before the pandemic, there were already many universities and colleges that were either exclusively online or had extensive online course offerings; these institutions were in a position to thrive during the pandemic due to increased demand for online instruction. Even at a place like UNH that is dominated by in-person instruction, UNH did already have about 10% of their courses online, and there were ongoing discussions about potentially expanding online course offerings. I do think that we will see more online instruction in the future, and part of the reason is that certain courses work just as well or perhaps even better as remote learning experiences. There is also the issue of being as inclusive as possible in providing educational opportunities for students. It is generally less of a burden financially, logistically, and otherwise, to learn remotely. As such, I think UNH will continue to offer some courses remotely that were previously only taught in-person.

LetPub: All of that makes sense. Do you think students will be on board with these changes?

Dr. Licciardi: Interestingly, feedback from the students this past year revealed that the least well-received mode of instruction was the hybrid format, where part of the class is online, and part is in-person. Hybrid classes became confusing for students and difficult to organize for instructors, as the courses were essentially taught two different ways. Fully online or fully in-person seem to work better from both the faculty and student perspectives.

LetPub: Along similar lines, most researchers are anxious to attend conferences in person, but many organizations appear to be continuing with virtual or hybrid meetings. Do you think virtual meetings are here to stay?

Dr. Licciardi: I think that hybrid format conferences are definitely here to stay. There are a lot of advantages to being able to attend conferences remotely. I mentioned the inclusivity aspect earlier, and hybrid conferences allow many more researchers to attend a talk or present. Virtual attendees do not have to be burdened with the cost or time to travel to a conference to deliver their presentation. I am also a climate scientist, so I’m mindful that hybrid conferences have a much smaller carbon footprint when half the attendees do not have to board a plane and travel, and that’s a major positive outcome.

LetPub: I can definitely see the advantages, but what about networking in a virtual setting?

Dr. Licciardi: Yes, it is very difficult to effectively network with your colleagues if you are all in a virtual chat room; it’s just not the same conversational vibe as when you unexpectedly bump into people in the hallway, have pre-arranged in-person meetings, or decide to grab lunch with someone you haven’t seen in a long time. I think that face-to-face networking aspect is what many of us miss most about in-person conferences and why we are anxious to return to an in-person setting. Even so, I do think that there will be some conferences, including those that previously had no remote components, that will offer more and more virtual options in the future.

LetPub: I definitely agree. So only a couple more questions. In your opinion, what are some of the unknowns as we look ahead to the Fall 2021 semester? What do you believe are the primary concerns for faculty? For students?

Dr. Licciardi: I’d say it is impossible to predict the future trends regarding the pandemic, and those trends are going to dictate how this next year goes. Enrollments will be interesting to see; regardless of how the numbers turn out, I think it is going to be a challenge to continue to serve the needs of our students, at least in the near future. At UNH, we probably have several years ahead of us to rebuild our financial position to pre-pandemic levels. As a result, the rebuilding will affect academic programs, faculty hirings, staffing levels, student activities, facilities maintenance, campus renovations, and so many other things that keep a university vibrant.

LetPub: Final question, and one on a more upbeat note. What are you most excited for in the coming semester and academic year?

Dr. Licciardi: I am most excited to interact with students in person again in my courses, and to have most everyone back on campus! It will be refreshing to get back to the routine of coming into the office and seeing my colleagues as well as working with people more directly. I look forward to simply being able to feel like we have our community back.

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