My 2020, even more than usual, divides into service, teaching, and research.
I helped lead the Law School’s first-in-history move to offer a fully online semester, spending most of my summer/fall setting up the infrastructure for this move and helping colleagues get ready. It has been challenging but also an amazing moment of esprit de corps and learning from colleagues at the Ed School and other Harvard Schools in unprecedented ways.
In my own teaching, my biggest insight has been the extent to which a big piece of my teaching at Harvard is not just “intellectual labor” but also “emotional labor.” The first-year law students I taught this fall feel much more like family to me than ever before. Whether it was family members getting sick from COVID or fears about the direction of this country, I feel like we all went through something profound that has created a bond quite different from just about any other teaching experience I have had.
I would score research 70 percent very positive and 30 percent disillusionment. The positive has been that my field, bioethics and health law, really took center stage, and I and many others were able to get ideas/views from the world of academic thinking to the world of policy implementation in a speed that would ordinarily be impossible. I think, for example, of the way with colleagues we translated an academic article from JAMA to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, to actual legislation in a time frame of weeks, not years. Whether it was writing and talking about ventilator shortages, “immunity passports,” mask mandates, or using digital apps to do disease surveillance, the world was looking to us for answers (or at least to frame the right questions), and we were ready. I have also been very happy to the extent at which COVID-19 has led to increased recognition of racial and other disparities in health care access.
The 30 percent disillusionment has had two main reasons: first, the way in which medical misinformation dominated the year and became weaponized. The second is the extent to which COVID-19 presented a missed opportunity for discussions of global justice, for example the way discourse on vaccines and other interventions has focused so heavily only on within-nation just distribution.
Lastly, I am aware that as a healthy person without children I have been in a privileged place and face obligations to do more for the University community.
Associate Professor of Epidemiology
By any measure of human health or well-being, this year has been catastrophic. The pandemic has laid bare national and global inequalities that we knew existed but have systematically failed to address: Patterns of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. have confirmed that as a matter of policy and practice, our society does not care about poor people, incarcerated people, or people of color — Black people in particular. Furthermore, pandemic policies have been shaped by social networks of powerful people and by the “Old Boys Club” — which as far as I can tell remains robust and unrepentant — rather than by the most knowledgeable experts.
For me, these realizations have brought sadness and anger, but also clarity. The fact is that we were not ready for this pandemic, and we will not be ready for the next one unless we fundamentally rethink how we do science, how we make public health policy, and how we structure our societies. This terrible year could either be a catalyst for a new approach to health systems and applied research or a depressing continuation of the status quo that will undoubtedly fail to protect us against future pandemics. I will fight for the former, but I fear the latter.
Everyone is tired, of course, but for women and underrepresented minorities in science, the headwinds we have been fighting our whole careers became gale-force winds in 2020. As a single mother of two children, I have struggled with remote School and with living far away from my family, so I cannot imagine how this year must have been for working single mothers without my many privileges.
Yet in spite of everything, 2020 was not without light. The pace of science has been truly astonishing, with the delivery of the first effective vaccines less than a year after the virus emerged. I have been lucky to work with great scientists, old and new friends and Centers for Communicable Disease Dynamics alumni, on COVID-19 projects that I hope will make a small difference. My own lab group — scattered around world but connected by Zoom — has worked with dedication, compassion, and rigor to produce policy-relevant science, and they are a continuing source of pride and appreciation. I have been able to spend more time with my children, and I adopted a puppy from a shelter in Puerto Rico (her name is Ruth Bader Ginsburg).
Most of all, a network of family and friends has kept me going, over Zoom or outside and 6 feet away: the WhatsApp group of mothers who are also academics, my parents and sisters, my children, my nanny and her husband, my HSPH collaborators, and my friends. In the words of poet Adrienne Rich, they are the ones “among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors,” and throughout this awful year they have given me hope that we will get through this and find ways to change our institutions and societies for the better.