Coronavirus pandemic reminds us that global challenges are best solved through rigorous scholarly experimentation, innovation

Over the past few weeks, Norwich University faculty have used their areas of expertise as frameworks to deliver perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic and its unprecedented crisis. What unites these voices is their emphasis on the power of research to shed light on today’s challenges and to formulate potential solutions to global problems. As teacher-scholars engaging students in research, it is more crucial than ever that Norwich University stand by its commitment to supporting faculty research and innovative curriculum development to prepare students to find novel solutions to the world’s new challenges.

The academic research community in the United States is no stranger to upheaval from global challenges and disasters. Although these dramatic events, including World War II, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, or the current COVID-19 pandemic, cause massive disruptions in scholarly agendas and projects, opportunities for innovation and discovery emerge with every challenge, highlighting the resilience and creativity of the scholarly community across disciplines.

Dr. Karen Hinkle

During World War II, the emerging and critical partnership between government and university research that fueled the war effort directly set the stage for the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. The National Science Foundation now provides 27% ($8.3 billion/year) of the federal budget that supports basic science research in academia with the mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, sparked new fields of study in cybersecurity, forensics, biodefense and counterterrorism and prompted the government to focus billions of research dollars across multiple agencies (the Homeland Security and Energy departments, the National Institutes of Health, etc.) to better prepare the nation for such threats.

Dr. Amy Woodbury Tease

The current COVID-19 pandemic has again prompted the federal government and private foundations to pivot research dollars toward understanding and containing the virus, providing funding for scholars to contribute their expertise to help address this global crisis. Among the more obvious agencies that have refocused funding on scientific discoveries related to COVID-19 (NSF, NIH, Health and Human Services), several private foundations are funding research in the social sciences and humanities, including for projects examining COVID-19-related impacts on education (Spencer Foundation, Stevens Initiative) and on social, political, economic and psychological dimensions in society (Russell Sage Foundation). There’s no doubt that these investments in research across academic disciplines and subsequent scholarly contributions from academic scholars will better position American society to survive and thrive beyond this crisis.

Dr. Lea Williams

As many in the academic research community have pivoted their efforts to better understand this virus and its impacts on all facets of society, scholars at Norwich University have also readjusted and responded to these unprecedented circumstances with enthusiasm, creativity, innovation and flexibility. Nowhere is this more evident than among our undergraduate researchers.  

Undergraduate research prepares graduates for life, work and citizenship. It is traditionally collaborative and hands-on: students work in laboratories, visit archives and travel to collect data. But aspiring scholars now contend with the barriers of institutional closures, travel restrictions and social distancing. How can we maintain the impact of undergraduate research when we cannot physically engage with the subjects and spaces it depends upon? 

We must encourage flexibility to support students through the process of inquiry and discovery. For example, one of our Summer Research Fellows will examine samples in her basement using a borrowed microscope, which will allow her to complete her proposed project outside of the lab. We also must create spaces for students to share their work. On a national scale, we have seen the emergence of virtual research showcases, including Norwich’s own Celebration of Excellence in Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, which showcased over 50 undergraduate research projects on Norwich’s website.

Redefining scholarship

The Council on Undergraduate Research compiled a list of resources for undergraduate researchers, including online archives, opportunities for collaboration, and webinars on conducting research in virtual environments. As we redefine what scholarship looks like during this pandemic, we must include alternative pathways and possibilities for research. It is crucial to mentor undergraduate research during this time, as the skills our students develop through these experiences are the same skills that are needed in a crisis. Undergraduate research demands critical thinking, data collection, innovation and collaboration, but it also involves planning, patience, empathy and understanding. We must cultivate student scholars by giving them opportunities to wrestle with uncertainty. What better time than now to do this?

The faculty research in the series shows that using reason, creativity, sound research and data-driven findings to respond to the pandemic’s threats is the only way to protect the public health and rebuild our society.

As undergraduate researchers are contending with the upheaval caused by the pandemic, so are their faculty mentors. Plans years in the making have been disrupted or revised as faculty have responded to the fallout of the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Min Li, associate professor in the School of Justice Studies and Sociology, was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to China for the 2020-21 academic year for her project to develop a tool to “test the cultural sensitivity of the measures among Chinese children with cerebral palsy.” Given the uncertainty of the course of the pandemic, the Fulbright has been pushed ahead to January 2021 and her goal of “strengthen(ing) cross-cultural comparative studies and improv(ing) the quality of life among children with neurological disorders at global level” is on hold.

Notwithstanding these kinds of setbacks, faculty have adapted to find innovative ways to continue their research and to develop new pedagogies. The faculty who contributed to the Perspectives Project: COVID-19 series are representative of the faculty at Norwich: dedicated to teaching; invested in high-impact practices such as experiential learning and mentoring undergraduate research; and committed to research as a tool for answering the difficult questions confronting us today. Through the lenses of the humanities, arts, sciences and mathematics, they strive to contextualize today’s pandemic and to provide frameworks for understanding the questions that now beset us.

In uncertain times, it is easy to look for quick solutions and to give in to fear and divisiveness. Instead, the array of faculty research in the series shows that using reason, creativity, sound research and data-driven findings to respond to the threats posed by the pandemic is the only way to find workable solutions to protecting the public health and rebuild our society. In our roles in the Office of Academic Research, we are proud of the work our colleagues are doing and remain dedicated to our mission to support Norwich faculty and students in their efforts to carry out original research, scholarship and creative projects.

Dr. Karen Hinkle is a Dana Professor of biology, associate provost for research and chief research officer at Norwich University; Dr. Lea Williams is an English professor, chair of the English and Communications department and a faculty development coordinator at Norwich University; Dr. Amy Woodbury Tease is an associate professor of English, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Undergraduate Research Program director at Norwich University.

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