By Anjali Anand

On March 12, 2020, UChicago leadership announced that the University would be moving to remote learning for the entire spring quarter. Just over two weeks later, campus access was restricted to all but essential personnel. Looking back on these announcements from the vantage point of early fall, remembering the pre-Zoom time – one without remote learning, remote research, and remote check-ins with colleagues and friends – can itself feel remote and distant.

In response to the suspension of campus activities, the Division moved quickly along two lines to address the unprecedented disruption that COVID-19 had brought to academic and intellectual life in the Division. Under the umbrella of the Social Science Research Center (SSRC), researchers were brought together, first, to discuss possible applications of their work in addressing COVID-19-related challenges; and second, to brainstorm around how best to support each other in the transition to remote research.

One of the main channels through which researchers in the social sciences responded to questions surrounding coronavirus and its impact on society and politics was through the COVID-19 Research Discussion Series, which held its first session on April 17. Faculty spanning disciplines from economics to comparative human development came together to address emerging questions about the virus, including speed of transmission, the costs to the economy of long shutdowns, the effects of isolation on health and wellness, and the effectiveness of various policy interventions.

Leslie Kay, Professor of Psychology, knew early on that her lab’s work on the human olfactory system would be relevant to COVID-19 related medical research. She was one of the first participants in the research discussion series.

“My first thought was that if the virus invades the olfactory sensory epithelium it can easily cross into the brain. This is a known vulnerability of the nervous system,” she notes. “These same connections and pathways are implicated in neurodegenerative processes associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s dementias - where early degeneration is seen in the olfactory system. This said to me that with the numbers of infected people, we could have a public health disaster a couple of decades from now.”

By participating in the research discussion series, Kay also met other potential collaborators pivoting to COVID-19 research, including colleagues in the social sciences as well as in the Biological Sciences Division (BSD). Kay’s collaborators in BSD have recently received additional funding to study the brains of deceased COVID-19 patients and to locate the exact pathways that the virus may traverse between olfactory cells and brain cells, a project in which she is a key participant.

In addition, scholars in SSD also came together for various Remote Research Methods workshops to establish best practices and guidelines for data collection at a distance. SSRC’s leadership has been critical in connecting scholars to online forums like the Remote Archival Research Workshop and in disseminating resources and information related to grant applications and other sources of funding.

In disciplines where research with human subjects was disrupted due to the pandemic, researchers in psychology, sociology, and the School of Social Service Administration thought more closely about how to continue their work in the new environment through a June workshop.

Molly Gibian, Research Manager of the Developmental Investigations of Behavior and Strategy Lab, describes that even prior to the pandemic, investigators were considering moving their studies online. However, due to steady rates of in-person recruitment and participation, this transition wasn’t yet necessary.

With the onset of pandemic-related shutdowns, she and her colleagues “charged full steam ahead” to move their studies online.

“We created completely novel studies that were tailored to the interface. We also brainstormed and investigated new channels of recruitment for families across the country to get involved, including collaboration with researchers at other institutions. Although our labs were some of the first in the department to evolve and start running online, other labs across campus, such as at Booth, were starting similar initiatives,” she says. 

Gibian notes that the transition to online behavioral studies has been a collaborative effort. Graduate students and undergraduate research assistants are trained to help study participants with varying levels of technological fluency to complete pre- and post-study surveys, to communicate regularly with participants over phone and email, and make the most of design and visual aids within screen sharing environments to systematize the experience of participation in a remote study.

Researchers’ efforts have been complemented by unexpected side effects of the pandemic. “Originally, we worried that participants wouldn't feel as comfortable expressing their opinions to someone on a screen,” Gibian says. “But we've seen just the opposite - since they are in their own homes, it's not such a sterile laboratory environment, and they are eager to talk to someone new. An unexpected consequence is that we are collecting data much more quickly now.”

As a result, researchers in psychology are innovating new ways of administering studies, such as formatting certain studies to be done remotely by a participant even without the participation of an investigator. The online platform will likely be a permanent feature of research in the department, even after researchers return to campus and in-person studies are resumed.

Even researchers who don’t normally work with human subjects, and instead collect data from textual sources, have found their work disrupted by the inability to travel to either domestic or foreign archives. Austin Carson, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, participated in the Remote Archival Research Workshop in May with historians and historically oriented social scientists. This discussion aimed to help faculty and graduate students think about how to modify research designs and data collection strategies in response to the travel restrictions.

Summarizing the problems historically-oriented researchers face, Carson notes: “Most of the conversation has been about logistics. Due to COVID-19, archives are closed. Air travel is very complicated, if available at all. In-person archival work is simply impractical right now.”

Carson, whose own work has long relied on digital archives, felt that it was important for researchers to recognize how much important research could be done remotely.

“Back when I was a grad student with little grant money, I found that there were troves of underutilized archival material in various databases and hosted by various websites,” he says. “A silver lining of COVID-19 is having to improvise and stumbling onto a resource or a document you wouldn't otherwise have found. Students and faculty may find out that alternatives to the classic ‘visit archive, immerse yourself’ scenario are just fine or even better in some cases.” 

Researchers engaged in historical work, which is usually a solitary enterprise, have relied in particular on communicating with colleagues to share information and best practices. “I really appreciated the opportunity to talk to colleagues in other departments who tend to engage different archives and ask different research questions of those materials,” Carson says of the May workshop. “I was pleasantly surprised to hear that some of the other scholars keep tabs with the archivist professional community. They pointed Zoom attendees to websites that include a bunch of details on how archivists themselves are trying to work around COVID-19 complications.”

Even as the Division, and the University as a whole, took steps to preserve academic and intellectual community, faculty, students, and staff also responded with their own innovations in a variety of quintessential UChicago settings.

Faculty in the Committee on International Relations (CIR), for example, organized a variety of “town hall” style meetings to give their students a forum for discussion of both personal and professional issues during spring and summer quarters. Basil Bastaki, a CIR graduate and now in the first year of a PhD program at Yale, is grateful that faculty organized this kind of response to the isolation of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Bastaki is also a regular participant in the Workshop on International Politics, which moved to an online format during summer quarter. He describes that the workshop changed both in format and tone to accommodate anxious and isolated participants, especially by providing a much more supportive and collegial environment than usual.

“In a way, because we had to be intentional about community-building, we may have come out of this year with stronger bonds than cohorts in normal years,” Bastaki says about his peers in CIR, many of whom participated in these online workshops and forums. This sentiment is echoed by students, faculty, and staff across the Social Sciences, who have had to innovate ways of building and sustaining intellectual community under extraordinary conditions.