Yale leaders talk about COVID-19: Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Szabó Gendler

Tamar Szabó Gendler
Tamar Szabó Gendler

This interview is part of a running series.

How are FAS faculty contributing to understanding and solving the COVID-19 crisis?

FAS faculty have played wide-ranging roles in illuminating and mitigating the COVID-19 situation with expertise from the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and engineering and applied sciences.

Among the FAS science and engineering faculty directly involved in COVID-19-related research efforts are Professor Anna Pyle (Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology), who has redeployed the DNA/RNA synthesizers in her lab for DNA primer synthesis that will provide materials to support COVID-19 testing, and Professor Karla Neugebauer (Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry), whose lab has teamed up with the lab of Nathan Grubaugh (Yale School of Public Health) to analyze the spread of coronavirus using long-read sequencing. The lab of Applied Physicist and Electrical Engineer Mark Reed, in conjunction with several others, is developing an early detection assay for portable real-time diagnostics, while the lab of Environmental Engineer Jordan Peccia is monitoring the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater in order to track the level and spread of the disease.  

In the social sciences and humanities, Economics professor Penny Goldberg, former chief economist at the World Bank, has demonstrated the importance of data science and network analysis in fighting the crisis. This includes the pathbreaking work of Sociologist Nicholas Christakis, director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, whose powerful March 5 lecture on the epidemic provides an overview of the network science behind “flattening the curve.” Providing historical context, Historian Frank Snowden’s comprehensive study of pandemics, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present” (Yale University Press, 2019), has been hailed as a number-one resource by the World Economic Forum.

These are just a few of the many examples of FAS faculty who are involved in direct and indirect ways in helping the world to understand and solve this crisis.

How have the FAS faculty been preparing for online teaching?

Across the FAS, the more than 1,000 faculty have mobilized in a matter of days to transform their classes using formats that help students continue learning, whether they are in New Haven or New Orleans or New Zealand. The effort has been staggering. Our colleagues at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning can attest to this: they have hosted daily workshops and help sessions, serving nearly 900 instructors, many of whom are FAS Faculty.

Faculty who are used to writing notes on a chalkboard are instead using digital whiteboards. Faculty teaching laboratory-based courses have made films using remote-controlled webcams to let students watch experiments up close. In the absence of access to the Yale library, faculty are taking advantage of the rich digital archival collections available through the Beinecke. At the Center for Language Study, over 230 faculty and graduate students participated in online practice sessions on running language classes using Zoom.

With the breakdown of boundaries between home and office, online teaching has provided unexpected forms of intimacy, both amusing and poignant. A wayward cat might wander across the screen during an explanation of Aristotle’s metaphysics; an aging relative might be visible in the background as a student or faculty member responds to a question. These unexpected glimpses of our shared humanity have produced moments of levity, camaraderie, and compassion.

Can you talk a little bit about the general mood among faculty?

This is a time of profound emotions: a time of mourning at the unraveling of anticipated futures, and a time of appreciation for the forging of unanticipated connections.

On the one hand, the comprehensiveness of the disruption is dizzying.

The suspension of on-campus activity has produced an abrupt and severe interruption of scholarship, a radical reconfiguration of teaching and mentoring, and a rending of the ordinary forms of community that sustain the campus. This has been undeniably painful for students, faculty and staff alike.

But it has also been a time of kindness, of forgiveness, of humility — a chance for us all to come together (albeit at a safe distance) — and to recommit to our common purpose. It already has become common practice in our many virtual meetings to end by sharing instances of gratitude, creativity, and collaboration. These examples are abundant, and each is a powerful reminder that Yale is at its best when we bring to bear not only our intellectual excellence but also our extraordinary capacity for humanity.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326