Persis Drell is an acclaimed physicist and renowned educator. Our RADIUS staff recently sat down with Persis to hear her thoughts about our changing world.
What was most surprising for you in 2020?
First, I have to say that everything about the last six months has been surprising. If we have learned one thing in the last 6-9 months, we have learned how deeply interdependent we all are. That lesson in interdependence is something we can turn into a hope of a better society going forward—where we recognize how important it is that we not just focus on what is best for us individually or even for our own nation, but we really have to take a global approach to our future.
How has this period impacted education?
We've learned about some of the opportunities that online learning can offer, but we've also learned how online learning can magnify inequities among our students. We see this at the university level. Many of our students are dealing quite well with online learning. They miss their college friends. They miss the social life. They miss the lifelong connections that they would make in a dorm. But, their intellectual progress is quite positive. In fact, we see many students focusing even more on their studies because the distractions have been taken away. But that's only a segment of our population.
I worry a lot about the roughly 20% of our students who have more resource-constrained backgrounds. Those who are not able to find a quiet room to listen to their Zoom lectures and those without the time to put into their studies, because they're having to help with their family due to the loss of a job or the loss of care for younger children. I think we've learned pluses and we've learned minuses. But, it has magnified inequities. I think that's true at all levels of education.
What has changed for the good?
I think there was enormous resistance to the idea of telemedicine, both on the doctors’ part and on the patients’ part. And now, anyone who's jumped in and done it is saying, “Wow, it's so much easier to see my doctor. And I don't have to wait.” Certainly, there are still things where you need the in-person appointment, but that's an example of something that I think has just transformed and will continue to transform.
Are you hopeful about the future?
I absolutely have a sense of hope for the future. I recognize the challenges that we're seeing now. But, I also see the possibility that we come out of the current challenges with a renewed faith in science as being the source of solutions and a restored faith in institutions that are able to help society deal with challenges at this scale.
What makes you confident humanity will emerge stronger?
If I'm optimistic, I actually can see tremendous positive change coming out of this difficult, difficult year. I can see this is a time when our society really confronted a set of interconnected issues: Climate change, social justice or injustice, racism, health disparities and equities. It's a time when our society saw all of these things on very clear display, and we said, “We have to address this. We have to address this now. We cannot let this be our future.”
2020 could be the year when we really focused as a nation, as a world, on addressing the issues in front of us—recognizing that they're interrelated and recognizing that we will have to work on all of them to address any of them and that 2020 was the beginning of a beautiful future.
This conversation was edited for space and clarity.