Director’s Blog 8/16/20

Director’s Blog August 16, 2020

By Ian Billick, PhD

Miracles, Heroes, and Lessons

With no reported infections in Gothic and the end of summer fast upon us, we are almost ready to declare victory.  Despite the reduction in research activity, I feel good about how much research happened, particularly in terms of early career scientists and long-term research projects.

Between expenditure cuts, a full undergrad program, and $250,000 from the payroll protection program, we expect a small year-end deficit at worst.  NSF is funding a 3 bedroom, year-round cabin with integrated research space next to Crystal, and with an anticipated $1+ million in proceeds from the Gothic conservation easement, RMBL continues to be strong financially.

Given the viral and economic turmoil, the success with the research and education programs and the continued financial robustness of RMBL feels like a minor miracle.

The list of heroes that made this happen is quite long, but I will name a few.  First, my hat goes off to Dr. Rosemary Smith.  She, Dr. Jennifer Reithel, and Dr. Jimmy Lee completely redesigned the undergrad research program this spring.  About 75% of NSF-funded undergrad biology research programs were canceled and our program is quite large, so the RMBL program really mattered nationally.  Furthermore, the program was very important to keeping a number of RMBL research programs going.  I know you worked your butt off Rosemary, and we appreciate your flexibility, creativity, and leadership!

Director of Administration Brett Biebuyck and Administrative Coordinator Katie Harper learned their jobs on the fly while completely re-inventing operations.  Gothic was safe, welcoming, and effectively run.  Kay Cook and the dining hall staff completely reimagined Gothic dining!  Serving food to so many is never easy, but feeding field scientists in the age of covid19 was a whole new level of complicated.

I have to give a shout out to Rick Horn, Greta Holdcraft, and Rick Reavis with the Visitor’s Center.  With no onsite retail sales (though you can now order RMBL swag online at<>), they cheerfully and quickly refocused their jobs to managing the public and picking up/delivering mail and groceries for the scientists and students.  Furthermore, they went out of their way to connect to Gothic residents, particularly newcomers.  Thank you Brett, Katie, Kay, Rick, Rick, and Greta.  Under the sage and thoughtful direction of Chief Operating Officer Kelly Sudderth, you all kept RMBL safe while building community!

We are still thinking through the lessons of summer 2020, and we’d like to hear your thoughts.  But I’ll throw out some thoughts for consideration.  First, zoom is here to stay; we can make it easier for distant scientists to engage with RMBL, including seminars, the undergrad program, and discussions with board members.  While the priority will always be on bringing students to Gothic, there may be a role for distance learning that I never imagined.

Second, the education program (undergrad, high school, and even younger programs), has been more important to research than I could have imagined.  Multiple research programs benefited from the presence of young scientists, some of whom began getting engaged with RMBL science even before high school.

Finally, I learned that we can be successful despite the virus.  Even if there is no widely available vaccine, by the summer of 2021 we will know a great deal more about how to test for, manage the transmission of, and treat, covid19.  Given what we learned about how to operate with the virus this summer, on very short notice and despite limited knowledge, the summer of 2021 will be that much better.

As always, feel free to send me your thoughts, feedback, and/or ideas for future blogs.  We will be starting our evaluation of summer 2020 soon, and identifying improvements for 2021, so this is a perfect time for feedback.  For those of you still around, let’s connect in person if you have the time and interest.  Stay healthy and enjoy fall!