By Lisa Marshall

Principal investigators
Jane Gruber; Kevin Krizek; José Ramón Lizárraga; Roy Parker

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How lessons learned under lockdown could lead to a brighter future

Imagine a future in which scientific progress moves lightning fast, with experts from diverse fields and distant lands joining forces to solve global problems in months, not years.

With some streets transformed to their historic multipurpose intent, cyclists, pedestrians, electric vehicles—even diners—would safely share them, yielding healthier air and communities.

Thoughtfully designed digital tools would help keep more students engaged, whether in a classroom or at home.

And mental health would be acknowledged as something as critical as physical health.

Despite its undeniably tragic consequences, the COVID-19 pandemic opened a window into these possibilities, delivering lessons that could pave the way toward a brighter future.

“COVID changed us, forcing us to cross boundaries that prior to the pandemic seemed impenetrable,” said CU Boulder Provost Russ Moore, a professor of integrative physiology, pointing to the swift, cross-campus response to the virus. “My greatest hope is that this spirit of collaboration lasts.”

We asked CU scholars about the lessons they have learned and how they’re using them to effect change.

Fast-tracking discovery

Roy Parker, director, BioFrontiers Institute

Parker has worked with virologists to develop new saliva-based COVID-19 tests, with computer scientists to model vaccination distribution strategies, with civil engineers to craft a wastewater surveillance system, and with an olfaction expert to explore a new diagnostic based on sense of smell. The research was shared publicly via online portals known as preprint servers, inviting peer review and collaboration, and shaping public policy long before traditional journal publication would have been possible.

Parker intends to continue to encourage the use of preprint servers (as well as conventional peer-reviewed journals) to share research swiftly and circumvent silos between disciplines. 

“The pace of science sped up during COVID, and we are now looking at other ways to continue the valuable synergies that emerged.”

Illuminating mental health

June Gruber, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience

Gruber has led a national call to action to “flatten the mental health curve” by boosting support for treatment and research. Midlockdown, she notes, U.S. adults were eight times more likely to experience mental distress than prepandemic, with one-third experiencing significant anxiety or depression. Unable to physically spend time with loved ones or counselors, they had to seek help in different forms, including telehealth and peer-led support groups.

The pandemic, Gruber said, revealed the inadequacies of the “old mental health order” and forced a conversation about problems that are often stigmatized.

“With mental health challenges amplified, we were pressed to confront the mental health crisis and catalyze overdue changes in how we research and treat psychopathology. The revolution is overdue.”

Reimagining streets

Kevin Krizek, professor of environmental design

Cities from Boulder to Paris repurposed their empty streets, turning space historically reserved for vehicles into bike lanes, pedestrian shopping routes and outdoor restaurant seating. “Almost overnight, the purpose of streets changed,” Krizek said, noting that before the late 1920s, streets were a center for commerce and socialization. He said that while cars and highways have their place (particularly for longer trips), about half of car trips cover less than 4 miles, and thousands of U.S. jobs can be reached in 20 minutes on a bike. He’s now calling for transportation planners to continue the outside-the-box thinking that emerged amid the pandemic.

“This was an ‘aha moment’ for many people. They were thinking, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of space in streets that is a valuable resource that we can better leverage to solve some of the current problems that are plaguing society.’”

Recalibrating education

José Ramón Lizárraga, assistant professor of learning sciences

News stories abounded with observations about the downsides of online K–12 education, including the lack of internet access required for students to participate. While acknowledging these pitfalls, Lizárraga also saw a different view. The teachers he trains were able to tutor students in other countries. And here at home, some students who never raised their hand or spoke up during in-person class found new ways to engage and collaborate online. He believes it’s time to rethink what meaningful participation really looks like, whether in class or remote. And he hopes that the promise of digital technology illuminated during the pandemic can be incorporated into all types of learning.

“One of my biggest hopes is that we can begin to saturate our learning spaces with different kinds of learning and not completely pivot away from using digital tools and back entirely to analog. Not all learning needs to take place in person. And when we are in person, we should make it meaningful.”