Pandemic Reflections of a Chemist, Professor, and Mom (All in One)

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It has been a challenging year, and as colleagues of mine have pointed out in recent posts on this blog, we are starting to see a light grow brighter at the end of the tunnel. As a scientist, many of my friends and family have asked my opinion on things this past year. I try to arm them with any facts I know to help them make decisions, but I've had a lot of my own questions. What has the past year been like? What do I talk about with my students? What have I learned? Here is a bit of my story.

What Have I Learned From Living in a Pandemic?

The fear of the unknown is real. I remember talking with my husband a little more than one year ago and trying to decide what was right for our family. Should we leave our 4 year old in daycare? Should my husband stay and work in a job where no one really believed in the risks of COVID-19? Would the U.S. federal government make informed decisions to keep us safe?" Flash forward a year, we spent two months at our cottage in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where COVID is all but non-existent, I taught remotely for Luther, and my daughter started kindergarten in Canada. We were very lucky to have options.

Knowledge is Power

Once we saw the first six months of the pandemic unfold and learned more about how the disease was spread and how we could mitigate the risks, I relaxed. The Decorah school system was doing an excellent job, as was Luther in weighing the risks and rewards and proceeding with caution but leading with courage, so we returned to Decorah.

As I continue to teach, I try and make sure my students (majors and non-majors alike) are armed with any knowledge they need to make decisions. I hear students wondering if the vaccine is safe, is being infected with COVID-19 even in a small dose safe? So we talk about mRNA and the amazing new technology that means you are not being infected with the virus. Others wonder if it could possibly be safe, since it was developed in a year, so I explain how I read about the seven (or more) years scientists have been working on mRNA vaccines for coronaviruses (BTW—I had the same question last fall, so I looked into it).

Knowledge is power, and learning how to get knowledge gives you power. We have these conversations though they do not fit the topic of organic or general chemistry, and I try to demonstrate leading courageously by being willing to research and discuss areas that are not my main field of expertise.

Science Is Collaborative, Life is Better When We Work Together

As I have these conversations with my students I also try to point out how yes, this was certainly “a race” to find medicine and a vaccine, but there isn’t one winner. The world wins when many companies that have numerous scientists all come together for the common good to produce a successful product (a drug to treat the disease and vaccines to prevent it).

Government labs teamed with industrial partners when it was clear a coronavirus was behind this pandemic that was sweeping the world (yes, even before it was declared a “pandemic”). The U.S. is only able to increase our vaccination rate as fast as we are because we have three vaccines that are being produced and made available.

If Pfizer had “won” and that was the end, how many of us would be vaccinated? Merck was one company that was in the “race” for the vaccine. In January it became clear that their drug would not be successful, so did they quit caring about COVID? No, they are retro-fitting some of their production lines to help manufacture Johnson and Johnson’s one dose vaccine to help end the pandemic, as well as continuing research on drugs to treat those infected. They stepped in to help with another company’s product even when theirs was unsuccessful. No one in science is successful on their own, and in the past year, most breakthroughs in COVID research have come from global or at least cross-border collaborations. In all aspects of life, we need to learn to mimic this and work collaboratively, for the greater good.

I encourage my students to ask questions, to discuss, research and think for themselves. The pandemic has challenged us all in so many ways. Now it’s time for us to learn from the stories of science that come from living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hard work pays off (it took years of research to develop these vaccines), collaboration is key, patience is a virtue (stay the course with mitigation, respect science, and you will get your vaccine soon if you have not yet been so fortunate), arm yourself with knowledge and then live a full life enjoying all this great earth and its people have to share with you. I hope the brighter days ahead can bring peace to all the pain many have endured over the past year. I look forward to seeing and gathering with many friends, students and families old and new in the year ahead!

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  • April 12 2021 at 12:20 pm
    Jenni Watson

    A glimpse of the greater good through science. Thank you for sharing your reflections!

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