Skip to content Skip to navigation

Maintaining a Sense of Purpose: A note from Woods Director Chris Field

Chris Field

L.A. Cicero
Mar 26, 2020


So much has changed since work began on our March newsletter (read it here). I hope this issue finds you and your loved ones safe and well. It feels a bit awkward to be communicating about anything unrelated to getting ahead of the novel coronavirus. But in another sense, it is uplifting. This month’s newsletter is one of millions of small demonstrations of our resilience as a global community, of our commitment to meeting new challenges without forgetting the importance of our longstanding work.

It is breathtaking to see how the coronavirus has changed the world and affected so many on a personal level. It has been especially moving for me personally to help graduate and undergraduate students work through their options for staying safe, helping family, and reorienting their work. While it is frustrating to postpone field research and face-to-face training, those of us at the Woods Institute are continuing – 100% online - with a full pallet of computer-based research, outreach, and training. I’m proud of the institute’s deep involvement with environment and public health research, especially in zoonotic diseases (diseases that pass from an animal to humans) in. 

Recent Woods-funded projects on environmental factors that influence the spread of dengue, schistosomiasis and diseases carried by bats have direct relevance to COVID-19. Many other lines of the institute’s research help build the understanding necessary for a healthy future. From co-hosting last year’s annual meeting of the Planetary Health Alliance to supporting research on food security and air and water quality, we see a healthy environment and healthy people as complementary parts of a single story.

As each of us makes our own contributions to flattening the curve on the novel coronavirus, it is worth reflecting on three lessons that are already clear, both for this pandemic and for a broadly beneficial sustainable future:

-       We are thoroughly connected as a global community. Whether through disease transmission, supply chains, or impacts of greenhouse gases, we need to work from the common understanding that we all share responsibility for our collective fate. 

-       Investments in prevention can pay very big dividends. It is stirring to see the global mobilization in response to COVID-19, but think of the potential of a small fraction of these resources invested in prevention through increased understanding, early warning and enhanced public health responses. Understanding the potential of prevention is a key priority across many environmental issues, from protecting species, to waterways.

-       The immense value of evidence-based natural and social science when the world is changing. There is no substitute for understanding underlying mechanisms, assembling those mechanisms into quantitative calculations, and exploring the consequences of alternative scenarios. If we emerge from this pandemic with a new world view, I hope it is a worldview that puts understanding and preparation for long-term challenges at its core.

Like you, I am struggling to get a picture of what comes next.  Are we looking at major disruptions for weeks, months or years?  When we eventually shift away from the singular focus on the pandemic, how different will the world be?  While I don’t know the answers to these questions, I am confident that the mission of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment will be even more important in coming years. If we want a sustainable future, we need the science to understand where we are headed, the analysis to understand our options and the innovation to build practical solutions. Today, we need to work together to get ahead of COVID-19. In the months and years to come, we need to keep that sense of purpose and apply it broadly.

Contact Information

Christine H. Black
Associate Director, Communications

Devon Ryan
Communications Manager

Rob Jordan
Editor / Senior Writer