The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a wave of panic and distress as universities close, students are dislocated, careers are disrupted, and professors scramble to cover their teaching and research obligations. The pressure is compounded by more personal concerns—feelings of social isolation, coping with family and friends who are seriously ill or at-risk, and struggling to juggle child care during school closures. I’m a professor in New York City—a COVID-19 hotspot—and I’ve spent much of the past week sorting through how I should respond.
I started by canceling talks and conferences, rescheduling guest speakers, and shifting my teaching to reach 300 students online. I put an end to my lab meeting, which is usually attended by up to 20 students and postdocs, and instead invited my core lab group—one postdoc and four Ph.D. students—to a small meeting to map our way through the impending crisis.
The night before the meeting, an overwhelming feeling of anxiety from the looming pandemic finally hit me. I could feel the full pressure of the situation bearing down and could barely sleep. The following morning, I pulled myself out of bed at 4 a.m. and drafted an agenda for the meeting.
First, I wanted to talk about basic elements of physical safety and mental well-being. We needed to take care of our basic needs before we could address any of our professional challenges. Second, I wanted to draft contingency research plans that would allow us to adapt to the situation. Some of our work on human psychology involves experiments with human subjects, so we needed to figure out what we could reasonably (and ethically) accomplish. Third, I wanted to put our heads together and brainstorm how we might study COVID-19 and help the situation, in our own small way.