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A Faculty Perspective on How 2020 Will Change Us

2020’s competing headlines of a global pandemic, an economic downturn and a reinvigorated movement for racial and social equality all have broad implications, with every field of study dealing not only with current outcomes, but also with long-range impacts. We asked 10 Stony Brook faculty how the year’s events have already affected their disciplines, what other challenges they’re facing and what they need to do to meet those challenges in the next five years.

AFRICANA STUDIES

Zebulon V. Miletsky, Photo by John Fitzgerald

Zebulon Miletsky, associate professor, Department of Africana Studies

While it is true COVID-19 has affected us with a rapidity that feels like it must be unprecedented, it is not without precedent. We know that the influenza pandemic of 1918 decimated communities, and much like that time, there was a great deal of activism that followed it. The truth is that we find ourselves at a profound crossroads as a nation today. Many are speaking actively of a new Civil War, and the violence that accompanied the conflicts in Charlottesville and other places speak to this reality. It is how America responds to this new American dilemma that will decide our fate as a nation. Because my field is Africana studies, this is not merely an academic question for us. Africana studies is an interdisciplinary field that produces scholarship that centers the experiences of people of African descent on the continent of Africa and in the African diaspora. The dual commitments to intellectual innovation through the production of scholarship and an emphasis on social justice and the practical implications of academic research are rooted in the intellectual tradition of the Black studies movement in the 1960s. To achieve these objectives, my colleagues and I have focused our academic and instructional activities on the histories, sociology, philosophy, literatures, politics, anthropology, religions and experiences of people of African heritage within a global context. In so doing, we do not limit our concerns to people of color exclusively, but rather place them in larger global and regional contexts. 

The mandate that the current global Black uprising presents to Africana studies — and what we need to do to move forward — is educating the larger Stony Brook community about ways to incorporate the current movement into their curricula and classrooms. Because Africana studies was born of the movement, it is really in our DNA. In addition to scholarship and various internal and external research talks, the current plans include restructuring our undergraduate and graduate programs for not only COVID-19 and distance learning, but also the current revolution in thinking. Cultivating critical thinking skills in students is an essential contribution of our department, given that the material covered transcends disciplines and provides students with the opportunity to actively challenge normative conceptual and epistemological assumptions. This presents an exciting opportunity for the work that we do.

AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS

Matthew Lerner

Matthew Lerner, associate professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, & Pediatrics, Department of Psychology; research director of The Autism Initiative

The most obvious way the pandemic affected our work is that we couldn’t see clients in person and, of course, in my lab and really, in my field social interaction is the big focus. For kids on the spectrum, the core challenge is in social interaction, and all of a sudden we as a society are trying to be incredibly cautious and anxious and limited about social opportunities. This has had pretty vast implications for the autism community. Further, research has obviously gotten extraordinarily more difficult to conduct in a way that we can safely and comfortably bring people into the lab. We’ve invested in making our lab a safe and sanitary place for our clients to come to, but there are important questions about how we do that in a way that maintains the integrity of the research. The gold standard diagnostic instrument for autism, for instance, is the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), which requires sustained, in-person back-and-forth interaction. We’re one of the main places on Long Island that people come to get evaluated for autism because we have more people who are trained to the highest levels of reliability in administering the ADOS. But how do you do a valid ADOS with someone who is wearing a mask when the core aspects involve evaluating things like facial expressions and reciprocal back-and-forth social interaction? So those are the kinds of barriers my field is really struggling with right now.

Another change is how we interpret all of the data that come from this period of time. Every study that takes place from this past March to some indeterminate time in the future needs to have a big asterisk next to it because there are innumerable ways that things can be affected, ranging from studying social interaction to intervention and treatment studies that were paused. Another way the field is changing is that this is going to encourage us to be more creative with our methodologies and the kinds of questions that we ask and the way we ask them. For example, web-based and app-based data collection technologies are already being more widely used, and I expect this will continue even after COVID becomes more well-controlled.

CONSERVATION

Russ Miittermeier, 
Photo courtesy of Russell A. Mittermeier

Russell Mittermeier, adjunct professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences and most recent SBU winner of the Indianapolis Prize; chief conservation officer, Global Wildlife Conservation; chair, International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Primates Specialist Group

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first epidemic or zoonotic [animal to human] disease that we have encountered, nor is it likely to be the last. They are terrible when they happen, but scientifically we should be able to come up with solutions and get such outbreaks under control. Things like this always have some long-lasting impact, but we are a resilient species and we will be able to readapt with some likely changes, such as the way in which we work. In order to prevent future outbreaks — to the extent possible — we really need to pay much closer attention to the natural world and get much more serious about climate change and biodiversity conservation. Failure to do so could eventually be disastrous for our species and the rest of life on Earth.

I’m most concerned about the erosion of our planet’s biodiversity and its life support systems that we depend on. I’ve worked in biodiversity hot spots like Madagascar and the Atlantic forest region of Brazil that are really under enormous stress and where we are at great risk of losing a major portion of the species that exist on this planet. A lot of the areas that we’re protecting depend heavily on ecotourism, whether it’s East African safaris or primate watching in Madagascar or Rwanda, and a lot of the conservation efforts are heavily dependent on the resources that come in through people visiting these sites that are completely shut down now because of the pandemic. That’s a really serious problem, and in some of the places where we work we are having to provide bridging funds to the local communities to make sure that they make it through this period. When you don’t have tourism, the bad elements emerge like the poachers, loggers and others you can kind of keep under control when things are going well.

I don’t mean in any way to minimize the incredibly important issues that we are now confronting on a daily basis, such as social inequality and economic instability. My only message is that if we don’t ensure a healthy living planet for the future, these and other issues are sure to get worse. That said, I’m an optimist, and I believe that if we all work together for meaningful change on many different fronts, we will succeed.

ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION

Lilliana Davalos, Photo by 
John Griffin/Stony Brook University

Liliana Dávalos, professor, Department of Ecology and Evolution

We are dealing with a zoonotic disease. We don’t actually know with great precision the events that have led to this virus jumping over to the human population and we don’t understand the exact timing. But we do know that in this pandemic, inflammation is contributing to human deaths. Yet the entire family of proteins that promote inflammation in mammals is missing from the bat genomes. The evolution of the genomes of bats is telling us a story of interactions with viruses over millions and millions of years, some of which are never encountered by other mammals. If we understand how those genomic changes in the bat are operating in real time, we will actually have a window toward treatments that we still don’t know about. So, we’re trying to determine what are the mechanisms that enable bats to withstand the circulation of these viruses.

In the future of my field, we’re going to see a transformation in which the basic biology of bats will become really interesting to people who have not cared for bats until now. It’s my hope that the pandemic, which  is causing  tremendous disruption in our social and economic worlds, will help people to see that this aspect of biology is incomprehensible without evolutionary biology and ecology. We’re going to have to realize that virology includes a lot of evolutionary biology and already includes some ecology, and we’re going to have to work a lot closer together if we want to understand this disease, especially if we want to prevent it. Prevention means that we cannot think of this biomedical aspect as being divorced from the realities of ecology and evolution. It turns out that investing in human health also means understanding the ecology and evolution of wild populations.

JOB MARKET

David Wiczer, 
Photo by Laura Desplans Bago

David Wiczer, assistant professor, Department of Economics

I’ve been looking at how we see the labor market adjusting to the current crisis. My first bold prediction would be that the recovery won’t be complete in five years. Given the size of the displacement that happened, I think that unemployment will still be high for people who lost long-standing employment relationships in March 2020. I don’t think they will have regained their footing, particularly in human-to-human interaction jobs like retail, entertainment, hospitality and leisure. Often these are people who have less formal education and have a difficult time making back the ground that they lose when these massive job losses happen. Then you have industries like concerts, airline travel and retail that have become more automated, and those jobs won’t come back either.

One difficulty, and also opportunity, for economists is how we will get data about the matching process between companies’ job openings and people looking for jobs. We’ve relied on government data sources like the Job Openings and Labor Force Turnover Survey. But we’re also incorporating new data sources. We look at the job vacancy boards and various machine learning techniques to infer what’s a real job opening and what’s not. We’ve also been using Google Trends and Google AdWords to get a measure of job searches. Looking at the way that people actually utilize the Internet to find jobs is potentially a much more flexible and accurate way of measuring people’s job searches, and you can get it right away. The problem is that I would like to be able to compare 2020 to 1980, which was another extremely high unemployment point, and of course, you can’t exactly do that. So hopefully in five years we’ve gotten smarter about how to do so.

MENTAL HEALTH AND PSYCHIATRY

Erin Dainer
, Photo by Jeanne Neville/Stony Brook University

Erin Dainer, MD, director, Outpatient Adult Psychiatric Services, Telepsychiatry and Integrated Care, Stony Brook Medicine

Psychiatry has changed dramatically in the last several months as a result of the expansion of telehealth. Because of telepsychiatry, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and therapy providers are now able to provide more care to more people. Previously some of my patients had difficulty arriving to their appointments. Now they can be seen in the comfort of their home and are more likely to reach out for help as a result. Patients can also be seen on short notice. As a field, we will be able to be nimble in providing care to our patients when they are most vulnerable and need treatment the most. At the same time, as a result of COVID-19, more people are reporting depression or anxiety symptoms, as well as suicidality. While telehealth can greatly improve access, we also need to utilize new models of care, such as the collaborative care model, whereby a case manager receives referrals from a primary care physician to address a variety of patient needs. Unfortunately, prior to COVID-19, we had a shortage of 6,000 psychiatrists. Now with an increased need for behavioral health treatment, we are at a great disadvantage unless we utilize population health models of care (defined as the health outcomes of a group of individuals). We need to encourage the utilization of case management services and brief goal-directed therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and/or anxiety, and we must work alongside our primary care colleagues to make sure that all patients have the opportunity to receive care, whether in their primary care clinic in consultation with a psychiatrist or within a specialty mental health clinic.

MUSIC

Erika Honisch

Erika Honisch, associate professor of Music History and Theory Music, Department of Music

I find myself looking at the 17th century, a time of political upheaval and devastating disease outbreaks the world over, and what came out of it—and finding hope in that history. Out of that century came incredible musical developments: innovative acoustic experiments, the formation of the Baroque style in Europe, music-theoretical investigations at the court of the Kangxi Emperor in China, the cultivation of Hindustani classical music by north Indian elites. It will be interesting to see what kinds of music emerge this year and in the next few years. The coincidence of the movement for racial justice and the pandemic has accelerated processes already underway: efforts to make our discipline more inclusive of different musical traditions. The pandemic has given us an opportunity — as we move our classes online and rebuild our syllabi from scratch — to reconsider everything: to think about why we teach the music we teach and to move towards “decolonizing,” which is to say, adopting a perspective on music-making that does not assume a framework of “the West and the rest,” but rather is as rich and variegated as our classrooms, reaching beyond the narrow bounds of a single tradition. Our doctoral performance students are collaborating with composers. If our orchestra can’t meet in person, why not commission new music for the clarinet, the bassoon, the cello or violin? Why not capitalize on the virtual format to do what isn’t possible in live settings? For scholars, why not collaborate across borders, putting together our individual pieces of knowledge to build a larger picture of a historical moment, or a more complex answer to old historical problems?

Another positive change is that scholarly conferences, which have long been crucial meeting places for humanities scholars to test-drive ideas and get caught up on new methodologies or frameworks of interpretation, have moved online. What we didn’t necessarily acknowledge was that those spaces were exclusive: leaving out scholars with limited research funds and especially scholars with disabilities. Going forward, embracing this move online means embracing a conference modality that is far more inclusive in terms of class and disability than ever before.

POLITICAL SCIENCE

Leonie Huddy, 
Sam Levitan Photography

Leonie Huddy, professor, Department of Political Science

As a field, political science responds to ongoing political events. There has been a rapid uptick in research on public reactions to the COVID pandemic, continuing a rich line of research into the political effects of natural and man-made disasters. Undoubtedly, the pandemic will stimulate additional research into how anxiety works to motivate self-protective behaviors, such as wearing masks and social isolation. In addition, it will give a boost to research that studies the effects of altruism and empathy on considerate personal behavior and support for community-minded policies, such as expanded public health funding, protections for the elderly in nursing homes, and the provisions of government-funded unemployment and health benefits. The pandemic will also stimulate renewed interest in the relationship between states and the federal government. In recent years, states have differed in their willingness to accept federal subsidies included in programs such as Obamacare. The problems created by a patchwork of state policies that provide differing levels of health insurance coverage or unemployment insurance have become glaringly apparent during the pandemic. Undoubtedly greater research attention will be paid in the next five years to the varying powers of the state and federal government and the legal intricacies of stronger federally mandated social welfare benefits.

Further, the protests for racial justice will also bring renewed research interest to the origins, maintenance and political effectiveness of protest action. The large number of people involved in the racial justice protests, especially young people, allows researchers to draw comparisons among similar people who do and do not protest to better understand who takes part. Political scientists will have enough protesters in national studies to better trace the voting patterns of protesters through the next several elections. This will help to understand whether protest action complements or occurs instead of electoral activity. Researchers will also be able to work with aggregate data to examine whether large protests led to a change in regional electoral patterns and legislative behavior. Political scientists have traditionally focused on voting behavior and legislative decision-making as key elements of political behavior. The recent and rapid shift in support for the Black Lives Matter movement will force political scientists to pay far greater attention than in the past to the role of protest activity in the democratic process.

SOCIOLOGY

Crystal Fleming, 
Photo by Diahann Williams

Crystal Fleming, professor, Department of Sociology and Africana Studies; author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Divide (Beacon Press, 2018) and Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France (Temple University Press, 2017)

Part of what people are reflecting about, shifting and changing in sociology is more attention to white supremacy, structural racism and the health consequences of racial inequality. This is because we’ve seen how COVID-19 in our country has been particularly hard for communities of color and Black communities, where the infection and death rates are higher. Although most of those who have died from COVID are white, as early as April, scholars of health and racial inequality shared reflections and empirical research about the structural dynamics of racism that explain the higher prevalence of COVID-19 in Black communities and communities of color. Indigenous communities have been really devastated. I think the work at the intersection of health and racial inequality is going to be even more prominent than it already had been over the last 20 years.

We’re going to continue to see an uptick in anti-racist mobilizations. What’s clear in the recent Black Lives Matter movement is that it’s been taken to the next level, where I think folks are working on institutionalizing some of the changes that advocates seek. Anti-racist mobilization and activism, both nationally and globally, are going to continue to expand and accelerate. One of the more unexpected transformations happening now that is going to have consequences for the next at least five years — and probably more — is the shift toward the prison abolition movement moving from the margins of progressive discourse more into the mainstream. That includes things like efforts to defund the police, but also for some activists to actually abolish policing and to support efforts to invest in education and social services in marginalized communities and find ways to protect our neighborhoods without relying on armed forces. One of the opportunities at this moment in terms of learning from scholarship on racism is getting clearer about how racism also harms white Americans. Accordingly, social scientists are also looking at how in different parts of the country racist politics have convinced some white Americans to support policies that are harmful for their own health and wellbeing.

WORLD ECONOMICS

Gabriel Mihalache

Gabriel Mihalache, assistant professor, Department of Economics

A warning flag going forward is that emerging-market governments face different limitations from their advanced economies counterparts. Emerging markets that were already prone to debt and default crises will find themselves unable to borrow to cover their urgent needs at palatable interest rates, and therefore they might decide to reduce the intensity of their lockdowns and income support programs, worsening both health and economic outcomes. Another concern has to do with the time it will take for these governments to resolve their new runup in external debt through repayments, rescheduling or even disorderly defaults. Even under the best-case scenario, where the health/pandemic dimension of the episode resolves quickly, countries may have to deal with the legacy of their lockdown and income support measures for many years to come, crippling their ability to react to potential future emergencies. We should expect a ramp-up in international financial assistance over the next few years, which may require additional support from the donors and members of organizations such as the IMF or the World Bank.

Faculty photos by Laura Desplans Bago, John Fitzgerald, John Griffin/Stony Brook University, Sam Levitan Photography, courtesy of Russell A. Mittermeier, Jeanne Neville/Stony Brook University and Diahann Williams

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