Students Imagine Life After COVID-19

June 25, 2020
Illustration of young people wearing masks and looking towards the sun.

Earlier this month, we asked faculty members from a variety of disciplines to imagine how the world will look in 6-12 months, with or without a vaccine. For another take on what the future may hold for us in a post COVID-19 world, the Center for Science and Society reached out to students across Columbia University. As part of a generation of young adults who have grown up in an era of rapid technological advances and significant political and social change -- and who were working and studying in NYC until the virus uprooted their lives -- we were eager to hear their perspectives.

Reflected below are responses from undergraduate and graduate students in science and engineering, the social sciences, public health, and humanities. 

Sara Jane Samuel is a PhD Candidate in Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. 

One of the most impressive facets of the COVID-19 pandemic is its global reach. Beyond altering the movement of globetrotters, COVID-19 exposes the interconnectedness of our increasingly globalized world. As religious pilgrimages are limited, visa processing curtailed, and contributions to intergovernmental organizations are contested, the myriad realities of our increasingly globalized world are exposed in novel ways.

On a local level, I suspect the current pandemic has made all of us in New York and other infectious epicenters acutely aware of our geography. I am certainly much more appreciative of our local green spaces and access to outdoor recreation after many months of largely indoor living. Though on its face an apolitical problem for urban planners, access to safe outdoor space and the injustices of over-policing mean that a breath of fresh air is beyond the reach of too many. As the health benefits of outdoor activity cannot be overstated, I hope our collective life after COVID-19 reexamines issues of justice, recreation, and urbanism. 

Finally, as a scholar of history and public health, I think it is especially important to point out the immense potential of the ongoing biotechnological revolution. The race for a COVID-19 vaccine shows it is possible to produce biomedical therapies at unprecedented rates. It is my fervent hope that these technologies are shared not to bolster a vision of public health rooted in a technological ethos, but in recognition that global health security demands international cooperation and that health is a human right.

Jocelyn Chen is an Undergraduate Student in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University. 

As a biomedical engineering major, I have felt a lot of growth and change in my life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During these past months, the Black Lives Matter movement within the field of science became a discussion topic (my lab has two new Slack channels dedicated to this, next to #research and #articles). During a lab meeting dedicated to Black Lives Matter discussions, we reflected on the lack of black applicants to our lab at all levels, that there is only one black professor in the biomedical engineering (BME) department, and, most importantly, the privilege required to work in the field of BME, which relies on years of experience and opportunities that cost a lot of money. Looking into the future, I hope my lab and I can do more to ameliorate this issue in the STEM world and stick with our efforts to make the biomedical engineering community at Columbia more supportive and inclusive.

Devon Golaszewski is a PhD Candidate in African History at Columbia University. 

Over the past months, African scientists, engineers, and doctors have been developing new tools to address COVID-19; in Senegal, as an example, this includes the use of robotics to deliver food and medications to hospitalized patients, and the development of at-home diagnostic tests and 3-D printed ventilators, both of which cost significantly less than existing alternatives. Some of these inventions are necessary precisely because of the decimation of infrastructure and material resources for health services in Africa. As of April, the country of Senegal had 20 ventilators, compared to several thousand in the city of New York. And, as we have learned, the cost of ventilators can be prohibitively high even in the United States. 

Yet these various projects also reflect a long, if often unacknowledged, history of technical, scientific, and medical innovation by Africans. Beyond the importance of African communities and landscapes as the subject of medical and scientific research, African technical knowledge has deeply shaped global science and medicine. African miners guided geological exploration for gold mines. African botanical knowledge determined the focus of pharmacological research into the active properties of certain plants. African doctors and public health practitioners developed new ways of treating malnutrition via nutrition rehabilitation programs. While it is devastatingly clear that COVID-19 impacts different communities to different extents, it is also a global issue. What can we all learn from the innovations and new ideas of health proposed by African intellectuals, medical practitioners, and communities? Can inexpensive ventilators be a model not only for Senegal but for New York? Could a home test using saliva antigens be used in rural Montana as well as in Tambacounda? What can we learn if we focus on African innovation not just historically, but as it is occurring?

Ariana Novo is an Undergraduate Student in Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia University. She is also a Center for Science and Society Work Study Administrative Assistant.

My mother is a Spanish professor at a college back home. Over these past few months inside, I have worked with her to incorporate new remote teaching styles for her classes such as using video-sharing platforms for students to practice the language. We spent hours reviewing software applications she could use and watched her students respond to them positively. The main complaint I heard from teachers like my mother and students in universities around the world is that the educational experience worsens when one is disconnected from their professors and peers. For that reason, while I do believe instructors will continue to incorporate online teaching tools to increase accessibility and convenience of their classes, I also believe that in-person instruction will become more valuable and less taken for granted. I imagine this disconnection we’ve had to face will cause students and professors in the next 6-12 months to increase their engagement with each other, whether that be in class, office hours, or extracurricular activities. 

Boyuan Chen is an Undergraduate Student in Chemical Engineering at Columbia University. 

Even if the virus is contained by social distancing or before a vaccine is available (as in the case of the 2003 SARS outbreak), both academia and the medical industry will still race to find a long-term solution. New vaccination and treatment methods will still be reported on the news frequently. 

If a vaccine is required to eliminate the virus, the process would take a longer period of time due to the inevitable debate on vaccine nationalism. The two countries leading in vaccine development are China and the United States. Given the current animosity between the two nations, it is questionable whether universal accessibility to vaccines will be achieved easily.

Either way, one can only hope that vaccine research will receive more attention, since it is often regarded as unprofitable and inconsequential in the absence of a deadly global virus.

Sarika Khanwilkar is a PhD Candidate in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. In 2018, along with Pooja Choksi, she received a Center for Science and Society Seed Grant

Every year for the past 5 years, I have traveled to central India to measure trees, count birds, or ask questions to learn how people live near forests. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this year had been no different; until the pandemic continued to worsen and I returned on a repatriation flight from India to the U.S. before international travel became impractical. I’m not sure when I will be able to go to central India again.
International field research is a critical part of many scientific disciplines and fully dependent on the former freedom, reliability, and safety of travel in addition to the trust of local scientists and people who are hosting researchers, providing expertise, collecting data with and for researchers, or allowing researchers to extract data from them or their land. The COVID-19 pandemic could transform the way field researchers travel and build relationships. I can imagine more sustainable and thoughtful travel plans, perhaps completing fieldwork in longer but less frequent trips. I also imagine a future without a place for parachute science, an outdated scientific approach to research that de-centers local perspectives and knowledge. Exploitative data collection and lack of acknowledgment will no longer be compatible with new travel limitations. Building trust with local people and organizations and truly inclusive and equitable collaborations will be important to maintain the privilege to conduct international research. Field researchers will need to invest more in the places and with people where they want to do their research.

Ben Mylius is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University. In 2017 and 2018, he received Center for Science and Society Seed Grants. 

The term 'crisis', famously, comes from medicine - it's a name for the inflection point in a disease, after which the patient either starts to recover, or goes downhill and dies. For me, this captures something of the febrile nature of the current moment: like moments of great transition throughout history, the meaning of the current pandemic isn't given to us in advance. It's something we make, individually and collectively - and we can already see groups stepping up to 'use' (or perhaps, abuse) the situation before us to advance their own contingent goals. In politics, we see this in terms of the ways that the pandemic has vastly accelerated conversations around everything from access to voting, to the balance between life and work; from the return of ugly forms of nationalism, to care and solidarity across many different lines; from opportunities to green the economy, to the imperative to return to some (I think, illusory) 'pre-pandemic normal' whatever the human cost. My hope is that the hopeful projects are those that gain the upper hand: that we're able to see movement towards initiatives that unite us, rather than dividing us; which look for commonalities, rather than differences; and which appropriately recognize the human and ecological elements of crises like these, and work towards genuine, thoughtful, and compassionate forms of resilience-building moving forward. 

Kennedi Wade is an Undergraduate Student in Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University. 

The world and college life after COVID-19 6-12 months from now will be very different from the beginning of my freshman year. I believe I am blessed to have been able to experience perhaps the last normal academic semester for a long time. The overcrowded parties, double and suite dorm rooms, and holidays at JJ’s [dining hall] that we loved so much last year will be unrecognizable when we return. I fear for the fate of the beautiful campus community that I saw everyday with new social distancing plans. I fear that people will become distrusting of other people who appear sick and sneeze in public, our once carefree campus becoming a very anxiety-filled, unfamiliar space. Although I know these plans will be put in place for the sake of our safety and I will understand and respect them, I'm going to truly miss the free flowing atmosphere and life that I took for granted.

Jason Wang is an Undergraduate Student in Biological Science and President of Columbia Science Review. 

Staying scientifically informed during this pandemic is critical, but with the multitude of information sources out there, it can sometimes feel overwhelming and impersonal. What’s more, with politics, mass media, and social media clamoring for our attention everywhere we look, many people are starting to see science as untrustworthy at a time when we need to build trust and unity more than anything else. To help remedy this, our team at the Columbia Science Review has created a new website: the COVID-19 Public Hub.

Our hope is that this site can serve as a perpetual “relief effort” for the information overload caused by the pandemic, since widespread scientific understanding is a necessary first step towards a future of strong public health and collaborative unity. Developed in partnership with the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research at Columbia, our site presents COVID-19 information that is concise, engaging and accessible for people of all backgrounds without compromising scientific rigor. Highlights of the site include informative interviews with leading Columbia researchers (including Dr. David Ho and Dr. Jeffrey Shaman), a Q&A forum screened by experts, frontline stories from essential workers, distillations of research symposia, and resources that anyone can use to get involved in relief efforts.

We should not need to wait for a catastrophic pandemic to prove to us how essential science is and has always been. Now, more than ever, is the time to get informed and stay engaged. We hope that members of the public will visit our site regularly and we welcome questions, comments and feedback!

Students facing the age of coronavirus are in a unique situation as they witness how society will change as they progress through their education and into an uncertain job market. Regardless of the circumstances, hope seems to prevail as students predict their future of life in a world altered by COVID-19.