Eavesdrop on Experts, a podcast about stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
Dr Mark Quigley is an Associate Professor of Active Tectonics and Geomorphology in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Geology has enabled Mark to work all over the world but his most recent research has focused on the impacts of the 2010-2012 Canterbury earthquake sequence on Christchurch and the surrounding area of the South Island of New Zealand.
Mark says that his experience in Christchurch has many parallels to the current COVID-19 crisis, and the lessons learned there can inspire us to think about innovative ways in which universities, academics and researchers might respond.
He sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
How have viruses in the past, or pandemics in the past, been manifested in earth science? Are they present somehow in the fossil records?
Yeah. Well, it’s a fringe field in some ways, or I guess we could call it an emerging field. But certainly there are research teams around the world that look for evidence for past viruses in the geological record, in fossils, through mutations or through changes in fossil structure. So they can’t see evidence of the viruses themselves, but they can see evidence in the fossils that viruses have been around for long periods of time. So one of the recent studies I came across said that, look, we’ve seen evidence for these ancient viruses, fossil evidence for them, in rocks that are from the Palaeozoic, so 550 to 450 million years old. I think it’s - they call them these intra-organism viral elements. So the idea that I think is important to help contextualise all of our experiences on earth is we’ve just been part of this planet’s history for a second. We’ve - we’re a blink on the radar of our long-term history on the planet. Viruses have been around for a very, very long time and so we - it just helps us contextualise this cohabitation with all of our planet’s animals and species, and that includes viruses as well.
So viruses in the past have wiped out certain animals?
They’ve created mutations. They’ve created changes in fossil structure and things like that that specialists can use as proxies for the existence of viruses at that time.
What can we learn from earthquake disasters that help us with the COVID-19 environment currently? I know you’ve been involved in the Canterbury earthquake scenarios.
Well, there’s a whole bunch of things. The first thing that we can think about is that everyone on the planet, we’re all a product of our experiences, so we all perceive things differently. We have different, shall we say, risk perceptions and different risk thresholds and different behaviours, different ways of thinking about things. Because this COVID-19 emergence is a global problem, you have to conceptualise that globally. All of a sudden we have something that every human on the planet is co-invested in. That kind of thing happens for a lot of natural disasters at a more local or regional level. They’re incredibly complex. Everyone’s perceptions of things are different.
I think one of the most useful comparatives, I think, in terms of comparing what’s happening to us all as a planet at the moment compared to things that have happened on a more local or regional scale is that there have been many major disasters in earth history, earthquakes that have killed hundreds of thousands of people, even in terms of the HIV cumulative fatalities in the US. We’re talking about something that’s killed 675,000 Americans, compared to the numbers at the moment that are coming out of the US. So it’s useful to - a lot of people look at things like these forward-looking mathematical models of the impacts of COVID-19 and you can look at that from so many different perspectives and experiences.
One earth science perspective may be let’s look at these numbers in terms of some other major natural disasters that have occurred around the world and then let’s think about things like the relative domestic media coverage of the COVID-19 versus, for example, the Haiti earthquake, which killed 316,000 people in a matter of seconds, or lesser known events like the tropical cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, which in 2008 killed 140,000 people. It’s just a different way of thinking about what we’re perceiving on the local and regional levels compared to events that occur overseas. I think the key message there is that a lot of - in a lot of places around the world, people are forced to deal with extreme events with much more regularity. What I’m talking about, regular earthquakes and floods and other types of natural disasters, disease, epidemics, all these sorts of things that kill tens to hundreds of thousands of their citizens all the time. So it just helps us just get a more global perspective on the challenges that we’re seeing come through at the moment. It’s really important, I think, to see what lessons that we learn from these past events may be applicable to our current situation.
Mark, can you share some case studies with us?
Well, I think one of the things that’s most relevant to us in the university context is the lead-up to the university closure and then the closure itself, the operational things that our leaders at the university have had to deal with, and have done a very good job at dealing with. For me, I think one of the interesting things was comparing it to my own experiences in Christchurch from 2010 and 2011, where the University of Canterbury, my host university, was shut down three different times, one time for only a week, but a second time for a full month and then a third time for another week. In thinking about the impacts of that, really what was happening was we were all in our offices and then it was like a giant reached down and shook our building to bits and within a few minutes we had to grab what we thought we might need for the next month or indefinite amount of time and get out of the building. Then that was it. Through all that, you had to try to keep your teaching curriculum going as best you could. In one instance, students had exams that were scheduled for the next week and so students had to cope with this massive change. All of a sudden they couldn't come to campus and they had makeshift places where you were holding exams and all that sort of stuff.
Also, this was in 2010/2011. The digital communication technology wasn’t at the level that it is at the moment and so a variety of different types of approaches had to be rapidly dreamt up, solutions such as how do we make sure that the assessment of students is fair given the change in parameters, given that the university has been closed for a month and a half intermittently over this time? How do we ensure that our research students are not being disadvantaged by these closures? How do we ensure that our academics are able to continue their performance and continue to do research and to try to - instead of just being in a response phase or being in a stage where you’re just reeling from the effects, how can we encourage our scientists, encouraging our universities to lead the narrative, to drive the response, to make sure that we’re on the front foot through all this?
So those were the experiences I had in Christchurch, and jeez, they’re so analogous to what’s happening here from a whole bunch of levels, from trying to think about how to assess students fairly, how to deal with postgraduate student scholarships and all these sorts of things, the continuity of our education at both levels, and certainly trying to get our academics, our colleagues to see opportunity in this crisis. Because my experience is that these things can really push us in two different trajectories.
One trajectory that a lot of us might go in is that this is just - it’s just overwhelming. There’s just so much information out there. There’s highly specialised medical research, for example. There’s statistical models. There’s all this scientific data at one hand, then there’s just a swamping of the media with really, really complex problems with no clear solutions, like how to keep economies running whilst practicing social distancing, how to equip our hospitals, how to equip us with the things we need to stay safe, all these huge problems. I think the effect that that has on a lot of people is they go, wow, this is really, really hard. This is so complex. There’s so many wicked problems that have arisen from this. You almost can’t deal with it. It almost becomes just so much noise and, in a sense, negative energy that you can withdraw from that. That may have implications for your happiness and your mental health, but also how productive you are as an academic at the university.
I think for that, my advice has been to - whether they're students or my research team or my colleagues, is it’s not really about your day-to-day at the moment. It’s not really about how productive you are today relative to yesterday or how happy or sad you were about the state of the world based on what media you read or whatever. It’s about managing your long-term trajectory. I think that was something that - the Canterbury earthquakes, a lot of people think of an earthquake as a one-off example, but that earthquake sequence went on for a year and a half. At any time we could be sitting in our university or at home and just have this strong shaking come and just completely disrupt our world.
I think for us it was like, yeah, there’s these challenges, there’s these stimuli that are impacting on us all the time, but we have to manage our long-term trajectory. Managing that to make sure that you’re not going downhill, that you’re not descending into a really negative place. So that’s one type.
Then the other type of response that some people have - and I happen to be one of these people, whether for better or worse, is that these events energise you. They empower you. They force you to dig deep and to try your best to think of how you fit into this world, even though I’m not a medical researcher. I love data and I love looking at projections and trying to understand statistical nuances and forward-looking models and all the rest of it, but I do see a way for earth scientists to contribute to this narrative. I think for me, my response is, I’m going to go hard for the next month or so to try to generate as much of a positive impact as I can of whatever scale it eventuates, whether I can contribute to university discussions from an operational point of view, whether I can have discussions with students to help them manage their anxiety, things like, is the university going to look out for me or not? Does the university have my best interests? Well, of course it does, but not all students are able to see that straightaway. So helping to ease some of those anxieties and to say, look, there are things that you can do things about. There are things that you are going to worry about, but some of those things you needn’t worry at this particular stage. You can relax from that a little bit.
So I’d say my experience in Christchurch, in those first months and even going on for a year, it was just - I just dropped everything and just gave myself to that experience. I was in a fortunate position. I didn’t have kids like I do at the moment. But I see similar opportunities here. I think that this is one of these incredibly rare lifetime events. If you dig deep as an academic into some of the more fringe intellectual components where you think you might offer some commentary, it might have a positive impact in ways that you perhaps didn’t even see possible at the onset. I think we owe it to our institutions and to ourselves to do our best to try to try to contribute.
How does an earth sciences department at a university operate? Does everyone do remote sensing from now on since you - [laughs] because I can’t imagine how you’re going to do your research.
Yeah, okay. Well, so that’s a good question. It’s interesting because it’s got so many different elements. So let’s talk about it first from the perspective of the undergraduate student. I think what has happened is that the earth science academics have worked their butts off to ensure an almost seamless transition into virtual teaching, remote teaching. Lectures are being delivered, practicals are being run as best they can and the world is going on. I think there are certain things that are really challenging, field trips for one. So geology is all about field trips. Students love going on field trips. Well, we’ve had to cancel a lot of those and we may have to cancel more going forward. How do we get students to look down the microscope at rocks? How do we get students to look at hand samples of rocks remotely, all these kinds of things?
These are challenges, but they’re not unsurmountable by any means, as far as I’m concerned. There’s ways of showing students photographs you might take from a microscope and sending them around and, what sort of minerals are you seeing in there? All that sort of stuff. Regarding hand samples, oh, there’s a variety of things. You could get students to try and find an outcrop close to their house and go and have a look at that and just see what rocks are there. You could just get them to look at rocks virtually, sending around a little video of you looking at the rock and identifying minerals, all that sort of stuff. So from a pedagogical point of view, you have to change. You have to adapt, for sure, but a lot of that stuff is firmly in place.
From a graduate researcher point of view, postdocs and all that sort of stuff, a lot of these students have been disadvantaged for a variety of reasons. They can’t go to present their work at conferences. They can’t go out when they were planning to, to do fieldwork, all that sort of stuff. But with all these students, I think there’s also an element of, you can use this time to write up the research you’ve already done, which you don’t need to be at the university to do that. You could use this to attend virtual conferences. There’s lots of virtual conferences going on. You could use this to think about other, shall we say, non-traditional ways of communicating your research, through social media, making your own videos, whatever it might be.
The bottom line is a lot of the contemporary earth scientists, their research space is so much on the computer that you can do all sorts of things remotely through this challenge. From an academic’s point of view, look, most academics I know have got five or 10 papers or something that they’ve always wanted to write or they were working on whatever it might be. So I think what you’ll find is that this is a time for a lot of people to just shut things down from the fieldwork point of view. So just focus on getting up to speed, getting stuff done that you always wanted to do.
One could make the argument - and I think it would possibly be a bit controversial, but this is from the point of view of taking stock, reducing our global footprint, just getting up to speed with the research that we need to publish, but which we haven’t - this is our time window to try to do those sort of things. So I think there’s a lot of optimistic views that you could have about this of just forcing us to shut down and reflect internally. I think one of the other things that’s interesting is that a lot of these major science bodies, collections, people that run conferences and all the rest of it, are making a lot more material virtually accessible and free. So people spend thousands of dollars going to these earth science conferences around the world, and a lot of earth scientists are really cognisant of this predicament as we’re environmentalists. We’re earth advocates on one hand, yet we spend thousands of dollars and spout out lots of emissions when we travel across to the US or to Europe to attend conferences, stay in hotels, just to give our 15-minute talk and meet a few colleagues and all the rest of it.
So I think we can use this opportunity to stimulate alternatives going forward. It might be - also, as I’ve said, there will be opportunities here to better engage the underprivileged countries around the world with things like scientific conferences and meetings through this. If they are able to access virtual connections, it might be that they can go to these conferences virtually that they never were able to afford through their own challenges that they might face. So, for example, can we use this opportunity to better engage parts of Africa, for example, in major conferences like the American Geophysical Union Conference and the Geological Society of America conference? Of course we can. We can try. Now, I think that that might be one of the few positive outcomes that might come out of this.
Mark, what’s your advice to junior or senior academics out there who are university lecturers?
Seeing opportunity in the challenge, I think. That’s one of the things. Academics love solving problems. That’s what we do for a living, but sometimes the types of problems that we see as being most prominent in situations like this may be outside our field of expertise. But as academics, as critics and conscience of society, as analysers of data, as science communicators with diverse perspectives, we have the potential and the power and the expertise to contribute meaningfully, even if we’re not health scientists. From the point of view of things that earth scientists can do at the moment, in the current environment, include things like monitoring urban pollution levels through particulates, CO2 levels and so on in our urban centres and how they’ve changed as a result of the shutdown. I think this is a really fascinating field. We’re seeing major changes in urban pollution levels because factories aren’t running or because people aren’t driving their cars and there’s just a reduction in activity.I think it shows us what life could be like if we were able to somehow slow down the various inefficiencies that we have in our busy cities, like everybody driving their cars to work every day and emitting so much.
It's a time for us scientists to obtain data and communicate data around, well, this is what - if we’re able to somehow reduce our CO2 emissions, reduce our human activity, this is what positive outcomes could come. I think that’s really interesting. Then, again, as an earthquake scientist, I’ve been really fascinated by the fact that earthquakes are still going on at the moment and there are other seismic sources that are still going on at the moment, but there’s not the urban noise levels in the seismicity that we have to worry about. So, for example, we can study earthquakes now in urban environments with much more accuracy and precision than we ever would be able to because there’s just a lot less noise. There are fewer cars on the roads and fewer other sources of seismic noise.
In Christchurch, the city was shut down for months following the February earthquake. The conditions were different. We weren’t social distancing, of course, but we were able to go in there and map faults beneath the city, driving big trucks down these abandoned roads and shaking the ground and all the rest of it. There’s no way we would ever have been able to do that if the city was functioning. So there’s all these weird little opportunistic things that could come from a global shutdown in activity.
But I think there are a whole bunch of things that can be done and thought about in this perspective. Certainly from people’s personal perspective, how is this influencing you, your research? How are you operating your postgraduate research team given the limitations of COVID-19? How is your department responding to this? What sort of operational things are being done and can we innovate? Can we try - in the face of something that is affecting the entire globe, are we able to find novelty and innovation in some of the approaches we’re taking? Can we do things now that when the world is coming out of this are going to have a positive impact, even if it’s not directly related to COVID-19, perhaps things like creating a whole bunch of virtual material that will benefit your academic communities and your students going forward?
I think that it’s a very real question to ask. When we come through this, should universities return to the way things were, the way they were operating before, or not? We’re going to have this absolute mountain of virtual material. We have students that - look, to be frank, not all students have been overly interested in coming to lectures. Lecturer attendance at universities, particularly in Australia, has been a problem. Other parts of the world have experienced that problem as well. Perhaps our students don’t want to learn the way that we’re asking them to in the lecture format. Perhaps they prefer a more virtual experience, for a variety of reasons. They want to work, they want to stay at home, they don’t want to commute for one lecture. It may very well be that some of our major courses go to purely online courses at the end of this and that all of us upskill ourselves sufficiently to make sure the students feel engaged and part of something meaningful, even if they are at home on their computers. So I think there’s so much to do. I think it’s about, like I said, managing your day-to-day just from the perspective of a long-term trajectory and making sure that that long-term trajectory is happy and positive and productive.
Dr Mark Quigley, thank you so much.
Great. My pleasure.
Thank you to Dr Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Active Tectonics and Geomorphology in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. And thanks to our reporter Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on April 6, 2020. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Audio engineering by Arch Cuthbertson. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2020, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“A lot of people think of an earthquake as a one-off example, but [the after shocks from the 2010-2012 Canterbury earthquake] went on for a year and a half,” says Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Active Tectonics and Geomorphology in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
“At any time we could be sitting in our University or at home and just have this strong shaking come and just completely disrupt our world. Through all that, you had to try to keep your teaching curriculum going as best you could,” Professor Quigley says.
“Those were the experiences I had in Christchurch, and they’re so analogous to what’s happening now on a whole bunch of levels.”
Professor Quigley describes how people can use challenging times as an opportunity to stimulate new alternatives.
“There will be opportunities here to better engage the underprivileged countries around the world with things like scientific conferences and meetings through virtual connections... that they never were able to afford through their own challenges that they might face.”
“As an earthquake scientist, I’ve been really fascinated by the fact that earthquakes are still happening, but there’s not the usual urban noise levels like cars, so we can study them now in urban environments with much more accuracy and precision than we ever would be able to.”
He asks “can we try – in the face of something that is affecting the entire globe, to find novelty and innovation in some of the approaches we’re taking?”
“Perhaps things like creating virtual materials that will benefit your academic communities and your students going forward?”
Episode recorded: April 6, 2020.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Audio engineer: Arch Cuthbertson.
Co-production: Silvi Van-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner image: Shutterstock