Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to experiences in October that I’ve been missing for a year and a half. Meeting students in person. Talking to colleagues over coffee where both cups have been poured from the same pot. Yet in one way, there’s an element of breadth from the lockdown that I’ll miss, and will try and find ways to maintain.
During the lockdown of summer of 2020, and then the first few months of 2021, I had a wonderful window to find out more about how the University’s researchers were coping with the pandemic – and bringing to fruition an astonishing number of projects in every conceivable area. I was asked by the Public Affairs Directorate to host “Oxford at Home,” an online, bite-size taste of the University’s research, explained for a general audience by the researchers themselves.
Every Friday lunchtime, I got to hear and ask and host questions about the work of some of Oxford’s most interesting minds. Comparisons would be hard because the work was so varied, but there were plenty of talks that raised our eyes above the COVID horizon in unexpected ways.
Emma Smith told us how Shakespeare engaged with the plague in his plays: a reminder that this is not the first (or last) time that disease has shaped society. Benjamin Fernando gave us the latest insights on seismology on Mars, and Becky Smethurst showed us how to stargaze from a city balcony – a welcome reminder of the wider universe at a time when going outside the front door was a trial. And we had some sneak previews – Sudhir Hazareesingh talked about the epic life of the 18th-century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture just a few months before his biography of Toussaint won the 2021 Wolfson Prize, the UK’s most prestigious history award.
And on every topic, we were flooded with questions. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that some quite expert queries came in from someone who said he was a high school student in Bangladesh – but it was a reminder quite how wide Oxford’s reputation goes.
I was very aware that behind the polished presentations, there was a huge amount of work – every aspect of research has become harder because of the pandemic. But in the course of those two seasons of hosting Oxford at Home, I’ve learned more about the University’s breadth and range than in any previous year.
When the pandemic lifts, I hope I’ll be able to pick up some of those threads – whether on carnivorous plants at the Botanic Garden or on astonishing manuscripts at the Bodleian – and find out more.
Both seasons of Oxford at Home are online at https://www.ox.ac.uk/coronavirus/oxford-home.
Oxford at Home & COVID Conversations livestreams were shortlisted for the UK Social Media Awards 2021: https://uksocialmediaawards.com/2021-shortlist/.