Director's Letter: The Lights Stayed On

Fall 2020

Tuck Hines in a navy suit, with white hair, mustache and glasses

We shut our doors, but we didn’t turn off the lights.

Closing the SERC campus this spring was one of the most painful decisions I ever had to make. We didn’t know, back in March, whether most of our staff would be teleworking for weeks or for months. We didn’t know how long working parents would need to balance educating their children and supporting their careers. We didn’t know that months later, with the pandemic still surging, America would be forced to reckon with the deadly reality of its racial injustice. We didn’t know when we would see our visitors or volunteers again.

OUR LIGHTS STAYED ON—in the courage of our facilities, maintenance and security staff. Working in smaller numbers, in fewer shifts per person, they kept things running so our essential experiments—mostly outdoors—could continue. We provided them the maximum protection possible to keep them safe on the job, and continued paying those who weren’t able to come to work.

OUR LIGHTS STAYED ON—in the creativity of our scientists. Some were able to return as essential employees, keeping our long-term projects on climate change and Bay wildlife alive. Others worked from home, reinventing experiments and unearthing new discoveries in archived data.

OUR LIGHTS STAYED ON—in the faces of our two dozen remote interns, whom we can see only by computer screen. The intern class of 2020 is finding new ways to do research off campus, through backyard experiments and advanced data crunching.

Left; Boy with hand-drawn river otter poster. Center: Two men with bandanas over their faces on a marsh. Right: Woman looking into microscope at desk.

Left to right: Charlie Schmidt shows a poster he created in SERC's virtual river otter class (Photo courtesy of the Schmidt family); father-son duo Gary and Andrew Peresta work on SERC's Global Change Research Wetland (Photo by Gary Peresta); marine biologist Linsey Haram analyzes samples from plastic pollution from her home (Photo courtesy of Linsey Haram).

OUR LIGHTS STAYED ON—in the ingenuity of our public engagement team. SERC’s education staff reimagined their programs, bringing hands-on science into homes all over the country. Our popular evening lecture series also went fully virtual, reaching more people than ever before.

OUR LIGHTS STAYED ON—in the enthusiasm of our volunteers. Unable to come to SERC in person, they’ve still helped inject new life into our education programs, online lectures and citizen science. I don’t know how we would have managed this transition without them.

There’s still a great deal I don’t know about what the future holds, for the duration of this pandemic and beyond. But one thing I have realized more powerfully through this crucible: We are not alone. I hope, wherever you are, that you also do not feel alone. The Smithsonian is still here, whether you’re looking for knowledge, inspiration or simply something beautiful to get you through the day. Our lights will stay on for you, however long the journey to recovery lasts.

-Anson "Tuck" Hines, director