Derek Hoffman, originally from Buffalo, New York, is a researcher in the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences. He has earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geology. His research focuses on the evolution of the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe (tectonically speaking), how the mineral titanite is formed, and how chemicals found in fossils can tell us more about them. Hoffman has also spent the last ten years managing the department’s isotope geochemistry lab, which like many other research labs on campus, has been affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Tell me a little bit more about your research—why is it important?
We’re figuring out how the planet works! Earth is this abstract, “blue marble” that has so much going on inside of it and we still know so little about it. We have more pictures of the surface of Mars than of our own ocean floor, so there’s always more to do.
What is it like to do research in a university setting?
On one hand, we’re working with the experts that define our fields of study. Also, in our department at least, we have access to a wide array of instruments, so we can answer almost any research question you can come up with. On the other hand, we’re at the mercy of grant funding. There have been some lean years where grants do not get funded and we have to get creative on how to keep the lab up and running.
Has the implementation of social distancing affected your workflow/research?
The labs on campus are largely shut down. I still go in every other day to monitor equipment, but we’re no longer receiving samples from outside researchers to process. Most days, I would meet with our principal investigator in the morning to discuss which projects needed our focus—not so much anymore. I also can’t receive shipments of new chemicals that are important for everyday tasks in the lab.
Do you see any long-term impacts on your research because of the pandemic?
A big part of our research is getting out into the field and getting our noses right on the rocks so that we can see relationships between different rock units in nature. Our lab had a big trip to the Carpathians planned for late May or early June, followed by a trip to look at the ophiolites (old pieces of the ocean floor now stuck on the continents) in Cyprus. Now, those plans are suddenly very nebulous. I also personally spend some time digging up dinosaur fossils during the summer and as of now those trips have been called off.
What about scientific research in general?
I’m most worried about how this will affect collaborations. Nobody can do science alone—it’s simply too big of a task for any one person. Our lab usually performs somewhere in the range of six thousand geochemical analyses every year. If other researchers can’t go into the field and collect new rock samples, then we don’t get new work here in our lab. If that pipeline of samples is reduced to a trickle or closed entirely, then the amount of new knowledge being generated is going to be similarly stifled. We’ve also been working with the University of Bucharest to build new lab facilities over there in Romania. It’s likely that those facilities are also going to sit idle.
That’s a lot of bad news. Have you found any silver lining?
A positive impact is that it looks like more people can work remotely than we thought before. That means that people who may have been struggling to work and take care of their families may have some more solid options to continue their work in the future.
How do you feel about how the U.S. is handling things?
At the federal level, the communication has been nothing short of confusing. The president says one thing and then the experts come in and correct him. Unfortunately, the president is getting the airtime, so the public ends up working off bad information. On top of that, the people at the top were warned about the severity of the situation, but they were more concerned with how it might affect their election chances. So, they tried to downplay how bad it could be, when we could have been getting ahead of the virus.
Is there anything you think we could have done differently?
I like to have the mindset that every little bit helps. When a crisis reaches the global level like this one has, it’s the responsibility of everybody to do their part and help. The response by the United States has largely been a “too little, too late” situation, where the steps that we implemented to mitigate the spread of the virus should have been put into place weeks ago, or even months ago, at a national scale. Instead, we now need to rely on mayors and governors to take the necessary precautions when action from the federal government is lacking.
What are your thoughts about how the science/research community is communicating right now?
We’ve done what we can, but the problem with scientists is that by and large, we’re pretty poor communicators. We speak in a different way than the public does, and it either isn’t well received or is misunderstood. Part of the problem is that to become a scientist, you pretty much talk exclusively with other scientists, because they’re curious people by nature and they want to know what you’re working on. The flip side is that you end up always being “on.” When you try to discuss science with other scientists, you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about. It’s kind of like going to a country where the people speak a language you kind of know, but where you aren’t fully fluent. You’re constantly wondering if what you just said is correct.
Do you think that the communication surrounding the coronavirus situation is representative of science communication as a whole?
In part, yes. Scientists communicate information by writing scientific papers, which are hard to read. I have to do it to stay relevant and up to date in the field, and most days I have to force myself to read at least one lengthy paper. Outside of the “popular science” papers, which are maybe five pages long, we usually have to commit to a 17-page, 30-page, sometimes 70-page monster. Those take an incredible amount of mental fortitude to get through, let alone process and synthesize. These papers aren’t going to be suitable for the majority of people that aren’t trained to read them, so the results get distilled down to a headline, which in a medium often driven by money, can unfortunately be sensationalized for the sake of getting people to read it.