The COVID-19 pandemic has been uniquely disruptive to social, economic, and educational frameworks, bringing about sweeping changes, both temporary measures to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances as well as permanent changes in the way people work and learn. As part of this NSF-supported Geoscience COVID-19 Impacts study (Award #2029570), we conducted 40 oral history interviews to capture the rich experiential fabric of geoscientists as they navigated impacts to work and research activities and implemented strategies for overcoming pandemic-related challenges, fostered and discovered new opportunities for work and research that arose as a result of changes brought about by the pandemic. The oral histories include the experiences of geoscience employers, academic departments, academic faculty, recent geoscience graduates, post-doctoral fellows, non-academic geoscientists, and K-12 educators. Oral history contributors were provided the option to publicly release their transcripts to the study’s project website, and 16 contributors agreed to do so. Oral histories are particularly useful for providing insight into changes within organizations and communities which is particularly challenging to get at through traditional surveying techniques. The oral histories collected in this project focused on the interviewees’ experiences related to impacts to their work and research activities, including strategies for overcoming pandemic-related challenges, and new opportunities for work and research that arose from the pandemic. For employers and departments, we added an additional focus on how they navigated restrictions and revenue setbacks in order to ensure operational continuity.

Major themes highlighted in the oral histories include:

The shift to online instruction

The rapid shift from in-person instruction to online learning resulted in a steep learning curve for many faculty. Faculty had to quickly learn new platforms, redesign course materials for the online environment, as well as strategize and implement activities to effectively engage students. As institutions began to allow in-person instruction again, faculty were often required to manage multiple modes of instruction, juggling in-person, hybrid and online modes.

Impacts to work and research activities

Disruption to lab and field research activities, ranging from termination of activities to restricted access to sites and facilities, caused delays in project timelines due to the extended amount of time that was required to collect and process data. Where projects were delayed, researchers where possible, pivoted their focus to literature review, analyzing existing data sets, or modeling data. In addition to facility and site restrictions, supply chains disruptions for research supplies and materials also impacted work and research activities, whether that be due to delays in shipping or items not being available.

Impacts to business and departmental operations

In order to maintain as much operational continuity as possible, businesses and departments shifted to remote work and learning, providing support for employees in terms of equipment, supplies, and in some cases financial support to set up home work spaces. Other support included offering flexibility in work hours, investment in remote work infrastructure, and training on online platforms. Departments also altered the promotion and tenure guidelines for faculty, and adjusted degree program requirements for students.

New opportunities for growth

The pandemic provided new opportunities for growth for individuals as well as businesses and academic departments, including reconfiguration of work and learning environments to include remote work and online instruction with increased flexibility for work and learning schedules. Other opportunities included improved networking and collaboration via online platforms, development of programming and other software skills, and gaining proficiency with collaborating via online platforms. While businesses were re-thinking their physical office footprint and workplace policies, the pandemic provided employees with the opportunity to evaluate whether or not remote working environments were beneficial for them or not. In some cases, employees reported being highly productive with remote work environments, whereas in other cases employees reported being more productive when working in the office.

Browse the study’s public oral history archive