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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences

Earth Science Blogs

Earth Science in the time of Covid-19

How has lockdown affected our department of Earth Sciences? In this first blog post, we take a look at how staff and students have been affected by this difficult time, what challenges they face, and how they have been coping.

We are not essential workers. That is important to say upfront. The discussion of the challenges that this situation has presented for our ongoing productivity is cast starkly against the challenges that essential workers face. Those essential workers have it much harder than we do right now. Nevertheless, we hope that these reflections are valuable to those in situations similar to ours and we hope that this could feed into the ongoing discussions about methods of coping with lockdown.

A diary from lockdown

We have all taken different trajectories since the lockdown and isolation began. Here’s a diary of a typical morning in the life of Associate Professor Rich Brown. This is an account of the highlights of Rich’s Friday 24th April:

05:30 – The day starts normal enough. I make breakfast and entertain the kids for 3 hours, until it is clear that they need letting out (literally like puppies!).

08:30 – Thirty minutes of blowing bubbles for two children to swipe at with plastic swords in the morning sunshine.

09:00 – Back inside for an attempt at home learning (reality: a maths-based internet cartoon, but it is recommended by school, so….). Make the kids a picnic lunch, wait for my wife to finish working so she can take them out to plant apocalypse-proofing vegetables in the allotment.

12:30 – Get down to some work.

13:30 – I need to deliver tea and toys to the allotment.

13.38 – I realise I forgot to bring a baby doll as requested by my daughter. I run back home.

13.45 – Back out to the allotment, but in doing so I manage to lock myself out of our flat. This wasn’t an ordinary locking out (forgotten keys, etc). This was a weird put-the-latch-button-down-(why?)-while-the-latch-is-out-and-then-when-the-door-doesn’t-shut-force-it-to-shut type lock-out (really, WHY?). Now the latch is down, the door is locked and it won’t open from the outside. Why did I do this? Really, who knows? My head is constantly full of a thousand things to remember and deal with and my days are a haze of repeatedly interrupted work, attention-seeking children, and general chaos. I have a Teams meeting at 14:00 with fourteen colleagues. It takes 5 minutes to find 4G and I cancel the meeting.

This is not an unusual start to a day.


Our research groups continue to meet weekly via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. These meetings keep spirits high and some sense of normality in the time of Covid-19. This screenshot is from a new ‘Alumni series’ of seminars run by our @Durham_Volc group – here pictured includes Dr Heather Handley and Dr Alex Burton-Johnson, both of whom did their PhD research at Durham University.

Adjusting expectations

We all have had to develop our own ways of coping with our work life through this lockdown.

For all of us motivation can be low. The break of routine, the blurring of home-life and work or study, the background anxiety associated with some existential uncertainty, and the lack of appropriate resources and equipment, all conspire to bring down the levels of what we can reasonably do with our days now.

We also have to acknowledge the persistent background anxiety associated with the on-going uncertainty that we are all feeling to some extent. We are all dealing with the consequences of simply not knowing how this will impact our studies and our wider work in the longer-term. For undergraduate and postgraduate students, being unable to come into the department and use resources, easily chat informally with each other and with teaching staff, or use the Bill Bryson library, can mean that it’s especially difficult to get into the rhythm of study. For our post-docs on temporary contracts, if this time means lower productivity, or if new jobs become scarce, delayed, or non-existent, then that could add significantly to the mental burdens of post-doctoral life. Similarly, for all staff on temporary contracts, the not-knowing what is to come, is hard.

For our department members with children of school age, the new expectations of home-schooling has been a full time job. Chris Saville is Assistant Professor in our department, and when asked if he had any tips for keeping up with some semblance of normal operation at home, he replied,

“I’d love to talk about this, unfortunately in my case, this phrase represents a massive misunderstanding of homeworking while attempting to home-school a 7 and an 8 year-old.”

This is stark reminder that this is not normal, that we are not ‘working from home’, and are instead working as best we can in the midst of a global emergency. This is also that essential reminder that we cannot retain the normal expectations of ourselves that we held pre-Covid. And, of course, this reminds us how variable the effects of Covid have been – the closure of schools has inevitably impacted our department members with childcare responsibilities disproportionately.

The extra burdens on our teaching and administrative staff to meet the demands of online teaching (and quickly) and the running of the department, all add new and time-consuming challenges for which we are not prepared. That challenge is being met through dedicated hard work, and students are responding patiently and supportively. Chris Saville reflects on the support and understanding from staff and students alike,

“I’m being pleasantly reminded how much I appreciate the staff and students of the Earth Sciences department. Students have been understanding that video conferences have to be from a bean-bag in the living room and are interrupted by me having to approve production of ‘Bear Battle’ cards. Staff have begun or ended message with acknowledgement of support for each other. When I’ve felt I’m replying to messages far too late and have failed the recipient, they’ve been unfailingly grateful for any advice. The ‘new normal’ seems far from normal, but with the people who make up the department, it does feel manageable (sometimes!).”

Home Working

Images of home working from some of our staff. Top left: our Head of Department Andy Aplin pointing out his relief map of the Lake District at home during one of his weekly communications. Bottom left: Mark Allen social-distancing in his garden. Right: Geoff Nowell keeping an eye on some of our department geochemistry equipment remotely under the light of the moon!

Undergraduates students

To all of our current and potential undergraduate students: We hope that studying at home is working for you in some way. We are looking forward to continuing to share our passion for Earth Sciences and taking the next steps with you into the unknown.

To our final year undergraduate students: We are sorry that the end to your hard-won degree programs has been an unusual one. We are excited to celebrate your successes with you once lockdown is over and when graduation ceremonies are rescheduled.

To all of our mid-degree students, about to begin their second, third or fourth years: We are sorry that your studies have been disrupted. We hope that you are finding our rapid move to online teaching bearable and consistent with our usual high-standards. The middle of a degree is when our students are in the heart of their deep dive into the Earth sciences – a period of time where learning accelerates and we start to build that holistic, integrated view of our Earth. The introductory beginnings of understanding all start to come together as we advance closer to learning about active areas of research. It’s during this time that our mantra of ‘research-led teaching’ starts to become most effective and students get to glimpse what it is we don’t know yet, from their vantage point standing on the sum of knowledge that has come before. During this pandemic, we want our mid-degree students to gain these same insights, and construct their own understanding of our planet in just the same way as we always did. It’s our mission to work with our students to ensure this wonderful journey toward understanding is not compromised, and we look forward to continuing down that road with all of you.

To our incoming first year undergraduate students: We very much look forward to welcoming you in the new academic year in some form. We are working hard to make sure that whatever happens come September, that we’ll be ready to provide you with a rich experience of the Earth Sciences, delivered by our passionate staff.

While steps have been put in place to adjust our teaching provision, there are major challenges for undergraduate students, many of whom are struggling. We know that this time may disadvantage certain students more than others, and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Impacts on students with caring responsibilities, on those with disabilities or additional personal challenges, on those with pre-existing or new anxiety or mental health challenges, and access to and fluency with online materials, are all concerns we share. We will continue to work together with students to face these challenges as best we can.


Not everything that an Earth scientist does can be moved to a home-working situation. We Earth Scientists face specific additional challenges.

Earth Science is a discipline grounded in observations of our Earth – observations often made in the field, outdoors, and all over the world. This global pandemic has stopped fieldwork for our research staff and students, stopped fieldtrips for our undergraduate students, and displaced our science from these observational opportunities. While virtual fieldtrips and online resources are helpful and often produced brilliantly, there is general consensus that they are not always a replacement for learning opportunities in the field or hands-on with rocks and microscopes. We hope that we will be able to resume provision of teaching fieldtrips as soon as possible with the acknowledgment that this is simply an essential component of geology and Earth science training.

It is also clear that digital learning provides exciting opportunities for the future. While a global emergency is not necessarily the moment to innovate a curriculum, this forced experimentation with digital teaching techniques may well yield new innovations in our degree programs in the future.

Phoebe Sealth

The artistic endeavours of our post-graduate students in lockdown. Top left: watercolour on paper by Phoebe Sleath of the house in which she’s spending lockdown. Top right: pencil on paper of obsidian by Alice Paine. Bottom left: watercolour on paper of remembered fieldwork by Annabelle Foster. Bottom right: experiments with the iridescent photography of soap-water films by Rebecca Winstanley.

Research students and research projects

It is difficult to tell how continued lockdown may impact our research staff and students on temporary projects (such as an MSc, PhD or a short post-doc post). In the short term, projects can be partly or wholly redefined and new approaches can be suggested to make continued research and work possible. But, the uncertainty surrounding how long the partial or full lockdown situation may continue makes it impossible to create longer-term plans for research projects right now. Solutions to this problem may only emerge as more information about the state of the pandemic in the U.K. and worldwide arises, and is filtered through funding bodies and the university.

As well as fieldwork cancellations, the lockdown has stopped research students, research staff, and dissertation students from accessing laboratories. This can have serious knock-on effects for projects that rely on data and analyses collected in our laboratories. We have taken steps to gather information about the extent to which the lockdown has affected students, granted no-cost extensions to many research projects, and explored on a case-by-case basis the problems and strategies moving forward for each student. But inevitably, what research looks like in this time is not normal and not always clear.

What helps for some of us, is that our research groups have been meeting regularly via Zoom and Microsoft Teams – weekly reminders that we remain a close community who can support each other both professionally in our research endeavours, and also personally. But not all of our research students and staff fall neatly into a research group and not all attend weekly meetings. The research community in our department as a whole need to cast a wide net and support everyone. We will work to make sure no researcher s left out or left behind at this time.

Moving forward

This Blog represents a short vignette of life in lockdown for members of our department and provides us with a clear message: this is not normal. Remembering that we are all in different situations with individual challenges is important. Adjusting our expectations of ourselves and of others will help us to support each other, while meeting the new demands on us all.


Written by: Fabian Wadsworth, Paula Street, Rich Brown, Annabelle Foster, Lucy Jackson, Lauren Newbould, Phoebe Sleath, Chris Saville, Rebecca Winstanley, Andy Aplin.