Last Autumn my son and I rode the longest roller coaster in Europe, called the Ultimate. It’s a mile and a half ride that lasts a long seven minutes. It’s a graceful, wooden coaster set in a beautiful Yorkshire landscape of wooded countryside. The ride begins quite innocently with a lift hill followed by long smooth hills and bunny-hops.  

Then there is a second lift hill and a turn to the left toward the woods. Warning signs say: hang on. Indeed. Then it’s chaos. It becomes a metal coaster with rapid turns that jolt you left or right. You cannot close your eyes in terror because you must watch which direction you will be thrown to brace yourself.   

This is what 2020 has been like. 

There’s a moment in time when, like on the Ultimate, you realise that this will be much worse than imagined. That moment happened, for me, in February, at the Council meeting. I talked about the wonderful work the Imperial community was contributing to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

One of our Council members remarked that as a leader in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, shouldn’t we also be a leading university in emergency preparedness?

He was right, of course, and we began using our university’s greatest resource, our experts and their scientific evidence to guide our planning and decision making. We prepared for the worst, and our community pulled together to deal with the rapid changes and shutdown.

Everyone in our community has felt the effects of the pandemic in one way or another.

Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones or suffered the severe effects of the disease.

Others have suffered from the emotional strain brought on by the many uncertainties created by the virus.   

Some of the steps we had to take were difficult. We all are being challenged to do more with less. 

We have emerged from that first phase of the pandemic living with a new normal. Many of our colleagues have helped us make transformative changes to the ways we collaborate and teach.

Our multi-mode provision combines the best of remote learning with valuable time in-person talking to peers and professors, experimenting in laboratories, practicing in studios and gaining practical training. The pandemic has accelerated these changes, causing us to carefully define the question: what do we do with our precious time in person?

The pandemic has brought us together and shown us what we can do. We have seized opportunities and shared what we learn along the way. We have also risen to fulfil our new responsibilities to ensure safety and good health among our staff and students. Our safety guidance is important; read it and practice it. Our respect and protect principles rely on each of us to keep one another safe. 

We are inspired every day, by the ways our community has been helping one another to find solutions to the impacts of COVID-19 on our campuses, in the UK and globally. Advances in modelling, testing, treating and vaccinating are pivotal in the world’s battle against the pandemic.

In addition to all this work to address COVID-19, throughout the College we continue to pursue excellence in world-leading research and education and inspiring stories come from throughout the community every day. I think it is valuable to step back every so often and take the time to enjoy and celebrate our colleagues' accomplishments and successes. 

We begin our 113th academic year during one of the most unpredictable periods in the College’s and the country’s history. 

We don’t know when the crisis will end.  

We do know that science doesn’t stop, the need to educate future generations remains, and our mission is as important as ever.

Great institutions find ways of navigating difficult times.

We may be in for another loop on the Ultimate, nevertheless, we will continue to navigate the challenges of this pandemic with the vision, fortitude and strength of the great community that we are. 

Thank you for all that you do.

Professor Alice P. Gast
Imperial College London

7 October 2020