A Community Copes

Photo: Ben Patton, ’03

In March, the campus community—along with the rest of California and many other states—began taking social-distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. All instruction became virtual. Undergraduates left campus housing unless they had no choice but to stay. Graduate students whose research labs were shuttered worried about making progress toward their degrees. Traditional commencement exercises were called off. Around the world, alumni saw their lives and work similarly upended. Even as the ground felt like it was shifting beneath them, a few made time to share their concerns, their coping strategies and the ways they had found to be helpful.

The Senior

Paul Phan, ’20, is set to graduate in June. He plans to return to campus in the fall to work as a course assistant.

“I kind of wanted to go home because it was stressful staying on campus. People were anxious. But now that I’m back home in Baltimore, it’s pretty isolating. Things are starting to hit a lot more now. 

My friends are all processing in different ways. But we understand that it’s best for public health concerns. My concentration in human biology is global health and infectious disease, so what’s going on right now is what I want to study. So I understand the reasons why it needs to happen, but it’s hard to process. It’s kind of a sad way to end Stanford.”

The Instructor

Teaching professor of mechanical engineering David Beach, ’68, MA ’72, uses Stanford’s Product Realization Lab to integrate making and learning.

“To teach courses where students are doing hands-on making without any access to the laboratory has been challenging and scary. We think we’re pioneers in this area, in the idea that you learn better if you’re making things. And if you don’t have a tool set, how are you going to do that? 

We have the challenge of radically rewriting the courses in such a way that they offer good educational value to students in the absence of laboratory facilities. One of the ideas is that it will look more like the practice of engineering in the real world. The students will ship their design digitally somewhere else, and it will get made there and returned to them for testing and evaluation. It very unfortunately does not include their getting tacit knowledge by having intimate contact with core materials and tools. But it is a valuable thing to do. 

The students have been amazingly resilient. Their online presentations have been filled with wonderful insights and good organization and communication skills. I couldn’t be more impressed.”

The Overseas Hopeful

Cynthia Jia, ’21, was to spend spring quarter in Florence, followed by an internship in Zurich. Instead, she headed home to Michigan, where she isolated herself from her parents for two weeks out of caution.

“It was a pretty huge decision for me to go overseas. I’ve never been to Europe before. But as I thought about it more, I started getting excited.

Things just devolved pretty rapidly. I guess a tiny part of me is relieved because I’m still scared of traveling and change. But I was so excited to be able to push myself. 

I’m diabetic. I would need to take six months of supplies to Europe. It was something that was stressing me out. Now, well, I guess I’m worried about my health in other ways. I’m most concerned right now about the well-being of my family and friends. Right now there’s just a lot on my mind. It’s a general sense of confusion and disappointment and concern. I feel like no one can really say that things are going be fine, because we don’t know.”

The Family in Milan

Josh, ’01, and Amanda Kahn Fried, ’03, were at the beginning of a seven-month sabbatical in Milan with their two daughters when northern Italy was put on lockdown. The family returned to California shortly after this interview. Read our full interview with the Frieds.

Josh: “The thing that’s been really weird is the gradual loss of freedoms. I think if it had been sudden lockdown—you can’t leave your apartment building—that actually might have been easier to swallow in some ways. Because you’d know that they’re taking the most direct action possible. You’d know that it’s going to be over as quickly as possible.  

If a politician had come out and said, ‘Italy. We’re a very social people. Kiss, kiss; hug, hug; everybody hangs out with Grandma and Grandpa; family dinner Sunday night. This is going to be really painful, but we’re going to put the country on lockdown for two weeks or four weeks, and at the end of that everything’s going to be better,’ I think a lot of people could have swallowed it. But it was the hemming and hawing, and a lot of politicians just not wanting to disturb the cultural norms and Italy’s way of life.”

The Mapmaker

Zaya Battogtokh, ’21, built trackcorona.live with her high school friends from Arlington, Va. Their site, which launched in February and updates every 20 minutes, was among the first to aggregate COVID-19 data from numerous countries. 

“It’s crazy to work on it one day, then come back the next to see that five new countries have people that are affected. We have about 70,000 unique visitors a day.

It was a side project, for sure. But, you know, some Stanford professors have reached out to me, saying, ‘This is really cool what you’re doing with this; I hope you pursue a career in medicine or data science.’ And that’s something I’m definitely thinking about more because I think this type of visualization is important. It’s important for people to see data in an easy-to-digest format.”

The Adviser

Assistant professor of bioengineering and of genetics Polly Fordyce, PhD ’07, had to close her lab, suspending the experiments of more than a dozen grad students and postdocs.

“We’re thinking creatively about existing data sets we can analyze, reading more papers and deciding exactly how to set up experiments when they get back in lab, doing a paper on data that they weren’t going to write up. But it’s really destructive. Some people were about to do the last experiment they needed for a paper, or an experiment that would have given them months of data to analyze. And now they’re stalled.

Everyone in my lab wanted to help coronavirus efforts. It is a really delicate balance between thinking, ‘We all want to do something’ and ‘What can we do in a way that doesn’t endanger any students or postdocs or go against the spirit of the shelter-in-place order?’ There are some COVID-related experiments that we could do, and we ultimately decided not to pursue them now because I’m not convinced the results would come fast enough to change the course of the pandemic. We have funding to work on a lot of things that will remain a challenge six months from now, like cancer and other biomedical and engineering research.”

The Connector

Joy Zhang, ’10, MBA ’18, is a co-founder of Bay Area–based Mon Ami, which matches active companions with isolated senior citizens (another co-founder is Madeline Dangerfield-Cha, MBA ’18). With the outbreak of COVID-19, Mon Ami pivoted from in-person visits to a virtual program.

“It was really hard to hear, ‘My mom is alone and she really looked forward to these visits.’ And we have the technology to be able to do it anywhere, so we quickly made it a free volunteer phone bank. Anybody can sign up a senior loved one to receive calls. We have volunteers now from nine countries.

There are so many people who want to reach out and support someone. And, honestly, young people are isolated too. We’ve been hearing from the volunteers that it’s a nice way to break up the day. And it’s evolving—some seniors are using it because they want tech help! They’re trying to figure out the technology to stay connected. Having a college student or a young person to help them do that is a way to extend their capabilities.”

The Med Student

Lydia Tam, ’17, is a second-year medical student at Stanford. Typically, she and her classmates would begin hospital rotations in late spring. 

“The school has pulled third- and fourth-year students out of their rotations. Some people need these rotations to be able to graduate this year. But also some research has been showing that people in our 20s can be completely asymptomatic but are carriers. And so in order to not put our patients at risk, they’ve pulled out the students.

I hope that when I am a physician, I’ll be able to be on the front lines and actually be helpful. Meanwhile, I am personally involved in doing telephone wellness checks for primary care patients. 

The least that we can do as medical students is just to encourage our peers to do what they can to social distance and give people the correct information in an effective way.”

The Distance-Learning Exec

Sean Gorman, ’91, is COO of Seattle’s Panopto, a video platform that has become part of a trio of tools (the others are Zoom and Canvas) that universities around the world are using to enable online instruction.

“Typically it would take months for a university to implement a remote-learning solution. It’s happening in days now. And students are dramatically ramping up the amount of video they are consuming because it’s now the primary mechanism for getting instruction. 

We feel a sense of urgency as employees to—as fast as we can—set up universities and get them up and running. We’re definitely working around the clock to get that done, but it’s because this is what we were born to do and we can really help.”

The Scholar

Chris Yeh, ’18, MS ’19, had completed the first half of a yearlong Schwarzman Scholars program in China. After traveling for winter break, he and his cohort were unable to return to Tsinghua University, in Beijing.

“I really miss the feeling of being together with my cohort. One of the highlights of the program was that you live and study in the same building. Now, to accommodate differences in time zones, they have a professor in Beijing teaching online class from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. 

My grandparents are from China, and I speak Chinese, but I’ve never really spent much time on the mainland, so this was an opportunity for me to do that and to study more humanities, economics—also cultural stuff. I had gone to China with the intention of getting to know it better.”

The Infectious-Disease Doc

Sara Bhargava Vora, ’96, is an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where she has been preparing for pediatric COVID-19 cases and developing protocols.

“As neighboring adult hospitals are seeing an influx of patients, we are taking all pediatric patients in the region and have raised our age limits to allow other hospitals to have more capacity. There is certainly a lot of stress among my colleagues. People are working hard for their patients. At the same time, they are worried about themselves and their families, juggling childcare and education of their children, and learning new skills—like working outside of their specialty and providing telemedicine. 

I hope that we will be better prepared for the next pandemic on many dimensions: surveillance, response and capacity. I also have been really impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness of my colleagues. From our local hospital protocols up to the CDC and FDA, I hope we maintain this spirit of moving quickly in a time of need for research, new drugs, new vaccines and more flexible regulations.”


Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of Stanfordmag.org. Email her at summerm@stanford.edu.