Online viewers at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

Being a Distinguished Lecturer during the Pandemic Times

In February 2020 I received a very kind email from Alberto Vitale Brovarone (Chair of the Training and Outreach Committee of the European Association of Geochemistry) inviting me to be the EAG Distinguished Lecturer 2020. A Distinguished Lecturer travels to institutions in Eastern and Central Europe to give talks at the end of the calendar year, usually during October-November, for one week or 10 days. That was the original plan. Then the coronavirus pandemic began… and the rest is an ongoing Groundhog Day style history.

I am lucky to work in an institution (Trinity College Dublin) where all the online teaching infrastructure was already in place years before the coronavirus pandemic. When the first lockdown started, all the lecturers instantaneously moved —surprisingly quickly and smoothly— to full online teaching, without delays. At the same time, it became obvious that the only safe strategy to deliver the EAG Distinguished Lecture Program talks would be by running them online. All the talks were moved to 2021. I designed four talks about crystallisation, calcium carbonates, synchrotron experiments and rare-earth carbonates, which were given in November 2021. I am delighted to see how well the process worked with the excellent support given by Alberto Vitale and Nadia Malaspina (EAG Training and Outreach Committee) and Marie Aude Hulshoff (EAG Chief Operating Officer).

I must confess that I do not dislike online talks or conferences. In fact, I like them quite a lot. They save energy, time, and money, especially to many people who do not have time for long trips or cannot afford travelling — it is easier for postgraduate students to attend. And honestly, I believe that, from now on, the ideal way to give invited lectures by academics will be by using online tools. My experience as the EAG Distinguished Lecturer summarises why I see more pros than cons in this approach: (1) I was able to reach a larger audience, people working everywhere in Europe, Australia or America. Some of them connected at late hours at night from home. (2) After giving my talks, I got LOADS of questions, most of them written via the chat tool. There is no doubt that this chat option made things much easier for those students who were afraid of asking questions in public. (3) Lectures were very easily recorded, so anybody anywhere can watch them anytime. (4) Pre-pandemic conferences and talks had large carbon footprints, so moving them online helps a lot to decarbonize conference travel. (5) And, of course, online talks are safer, preventing the spread of COVID-19. There are no health and safety risks or limitations in terms of space or number of attendees.

Online viewers at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
Diagram summarizing the crystallization pathways of pure calcite as a function of starting supersaturation.

The world has changed, probably forever… or at least for a long time. As usual. This pandemic is not the first and will not be the last (and worst) one, but we need to keep in mind that science and technology has given us useful tools to adapt and move forward. Isaac Asimov nailed it when he predicted in 1983 that “The immediate effect of intensifying computerisation will be, of course, to change utterly our work habits”. I remember that decades ago it was not as easy as today to find information (technical books and documents). Today this can be done at home with a few clicks — and this is an enormous advantage that we should use, because we will need a literate population to face future challenges and solve very complex problems. I believe we should use adversity as an opportunity to spread science to the public, now more than ever. Curiosity is immune to pandemics and fear.

By Juan Diego Rodriguez-Blanco, Trinity College Dublin

2021 EAG Distinguished Lecturer