Maimuna S. Majumder
The participants sorted themselves into groups, settled on eight different projects, and got to work. They kept at it for 54 hours; shockingly, no one quit. Many of their studies will soon be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. One team, made up of epidemiologists and computer programmers, decided to perform a meta-analysis of clinical and epidemiological parameters associated with Covid-19, then develop an interactive online interface to visualize their results. A tool like this can help public health decisionmakers predict where the disease will go next, and it makes the same knowledge accessible to the general public.
This kind of cross-institutional, almost cross-cultural, work is very much at odds with academia’s usual way of doing things. Prior to the pandemic, it was rare that any of us ventured outside the bubble of our own universities and hospitals. Over the decades, this siloed approach to research has shaped the way science gets done—and who gets to do it. The system tends to favor the career advancement of those who belong to a select few institutions over all others, irrespective of the depth of their skills or training. A growing body of literature suggests that underrepresented minorities are less likely to attend prestigious universities, even when they are equally qualified to do so. As a result, scientific research suffers from a lack of diversity—despite the fact that deeply diverse teams appear to produce better solutions to problems.
Academia divides researchers in other ways too. Most of us are used to working mostly, if not exclusively, with others in our fields. But as Tenley Brownwright, a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State and member of the volunteer network, puts it, “very few topics exist in a vacuum.” Brownwright is a spatial epidemiologist, which means that she primarily studies how health varies with geography, but she regularly works with theoretical biologists and clinicians. “It’s very easy to get stuck in our niche as researchers,” she says.
But the pandemic is a problem that crosses disciplines. It requires devising plans to reopen the economy while being mindful of public health, or developing strategies to distribute antiviral drugs and vaccines while making sure they’re affordable. By forcing public health researchers out from behind the walls of their home institutions and into fully virtual workspaces, the pandemic has in many ways enabled the kind of collaboration that science needs most.
Since our first hackathon, the volunteer network has grown to nearly 100 people, with 23 active research projects. One team is analyzing text extracted from hundreds of thousands of news articles to better characterize the quality of the US media’s pandemic coverage. Another is sifting through millions of tweets to understand how public sentiment toward face masks has shifted since early April, when the CDC recommended that everyone wear them. Without question, the diversity of the network, across disciplines and institutions but demographically too, has been a tremendous boon to the formulation and investigation of problems that really matter.
The research hasn’t been without its challenges. Chief among them is work-life balance—a goal that, as millions of us are now discovering, becomes uniquely elusive when one’s home becomes one’s full-time office. People’s pets and children often chime in with indecipherable key-smashes on Slack, or clamor in the background of Zoom meetings; none of us think it’s strange anymore to email a colleague at 1 o’clock in the morning. Among the volunteers, we enforce regular breaks during work sprints to encourage some semblance of normalcy. Unless you’re careful, Brownwright says, “time is unstructured and feels endless.”
Since March, a sense of camaraderie—even friendship—has materialized among the researchers. Whenever there’s a juicy announcement on the coronavirus front, they react on Slack with a sea of Kermit-sipping-tea GIFs. They shower each other in a set of custom emoji, the most popular of which is a French cartoon chicken called Piu Piu. They swoon over an image of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in his youth. (“Foxy Fauci,” my husband calls it.)