Guy on buoy in water
School of Oceanography ‘Afloat’ Challenge.

A flip of a crepe, a picture of a pet, home experiments testing the best pretzel topping…these are just a few of examples of how people in the UW School of Oceanography are trying to keep the feeling of community afloat. Like nearly all of us, the school went from in-person interaction with colleagues, classmates and professors to virtual interaction in the blink of an eye. It has been an adjustment for sure, but our oceanographers have made the switch quite swimmingly. No rough waters here! 

A three-pronged approach was implemented to keep the Oceanography community connected, even from afar. The most public-facing element utilizes the School of Oceanography website and Instagram moderated by the “Afloat” team made up of Oceanography undergraduate Lauren Bayne and lab staff Anna Boyar. Each week, a theme is picked, photos are taken and then sent in to the web team as a tag on Instagram or emailed in. First, we drooled over photo submissions from the soft pretzel challenge (including a roommate collaboration with the Department of Atmospheric Sciences) and the crepe challenge (check out that crepe made to look like the Oceanography logo!), then we met everyone’s “coworkers” in the pet/plant challenge and imagined going on walks together through photos taken from neighborhood walks – including pictures of spring buds, chirping birds or even strange rodents. Last week’s challenge returns to the kitchen with submissions of pizza, while oceanographers showed off their poetry this week. Two ongoing stories also live on the Oceanography website: one about how labs are adjusting to remote work and another showcasing home offices.

“This has been a really lovely project to work on. I feel pretty lucky that part of my job right now is thinking of ways to keep people connected. This period has made it clear how much we need to rely on each other, and I’m really glad to be helping facilitate that,” says Boyar.

Acting as a middle ground,  Oceanography utilizes the online platform Slack, which has channels shared across the entire School and private channels for sub-groups within the community. The intent with Slack was to mimic the interactions typically occurring in a classroom or walking through the hallways, so channels are a mix of serious and fun. People have a space to discuss things like baking, Pokémon Go and updates from the R/V Thomas G. Thompson. Undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs and lab staff have their own private channels to talk about the harder aspects of life in a secure, supportive setting. 

“As someone who is a member of this community,” says Boyar, “it’s really great to see postings on Slack or for the challenges and be reminded that people outside of my house still exist!”

Finally, the Oceanography intranet is accessible only to faculty, post-docs, grad students and staff. Emerging topics are talked about in a forum-like “discussion” space, and it also serves as an archive. 

There was already a “First Friday” happy hour in place before the pandemic hit, but it has now expanded to also include other Fridays of the month beyond the first one. The School’s IT director, Eric Lundquist, is a part owner in Burke-Gilman Brewing and led a virtual tour of the facility followed by a happy hour. 

“We are very fortunate to have input of both an undergraduate and a recent graduate who work as lab staff. The web/afloat team also interfaces with our grad student group ARGO, and a couple of our post-docs. All of these contributions help to assure that we maintain multiple perspectives in our work,” says academic specialist Tansy Clay Burns.

Efforts like these can only be done – and done well – when communities work together and bring in multiple perspectives to create a shared vision and bring a concept to life. This work could not have been done without the help of faculty, post-docs, admin staff, lab staff and undergraduate and graduate students! There are many ships — but the best ship is partnership.