Arts & Sciences and COVID-19

Nothing is typical about 2020. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Arts & Sciences students, faculty, and staff have risen to meet unprecedented challenges with creativity and resilience. Here are some of their stories and perspectives.

See You Soon, Arts & Sciences!

We're excited to welcome our students back for the Fall 2020 semester. Although the coming months will look and feel a bit different than usual, our faculty are ready for the challenge of finding new ways to adapt, connect, and create the WashU experience — virtually and in person. We can’t wait to see you!

Art as Response

Life/Lines in Challenging Times

Throughout April, the Center for the Humanities extended a daily invitation for anyone and everyone to create a poem. Hundreds signed up for the daily prompt of five words, with lists provided by professors, local poets, and even Chancellor Andrew Martin.

Read the Poems

Beyond Boundaries Podcast

Beyond Boundaries, the interdisciplinary, innovative study program for WashU undergraduates, adapted to the challenges of COVID-19 by producing a series of podcasts that took a deep dive into the very best of the program: the students and collaborative faculty; students’ creative work; and interdisciplinary courses.

Learn More from the Source

Musical Postcards

Though public performances have been canceled, you can still experience the artistry of students and faculty through the Musical Postcards video series.

Listen to a Musical Postcard

First-Year Writers Celebrated

Emerging Voices, a spring event hosted by the College Writing program, has long been an outlet for first-year expression. This year, students share their writing from home in a video compilation.

Hear Original Student Work

Quick takes: How has your work changed in response to the pandemic?


Ana Babus and SangMok Lee, Economics

In this age of coronavirus, with vaccine experimentation moving at historic pace to the clinical trials phase, the ideal inoculation policy would emphasize age more than work-exposure risk, according to a study involving WashU economists. Ana Babus and SangMok Lee, assistant professors of economics, and their team estimated age-based and work-based infection risks. That’s how they emerged at the conclusion that age meant more than occupation in their study on "The Optimal Allocation of Covid-19 Vaccines." Furthermore, they discovered that designating some occupations as essential doesn’t affect optimal vaccine allocation unless a stay-at-home order also is in effect.

Read more in "Nurses over drivers? Elderly over youth? … Who gets vaccinated first?"


Caitlyn Collins, Sociology

When COVID-19 forced schools and daycares to shut down and millions of Americans to transition to working from home, some suggested the pandemic might equalize certain aspects of gender equality as men increased their household contributions. Four months later, however, new research from Collins, assistant professor of sociology, finds early evidence that the pandemic has exacerbated — not improved — the gender gap in work hours, which could have enduring consequences for working mothers. "Our findings indicate mothers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and may face long-term employment penalties as a consequence," said Collins.

Read more in "Mothers' paid work suffers during pandemic, study finds."


Paula Harper, Music

Harper, a postdoctoral fellow in musicology, launched the online colloquium “Music Scholarship at a Distance” from her St. Louis apartment. The process of moving a conference online may seem daunting, but Harper and her colleagues pivoted to the new reality with shocking speed. "We started thinking through logistics, brainstorming possible platforms and formats, etc. In two hours, we had a set of planning docs; two hours after that, we were sending around a Google signup sheet; and two days later, I made a website and a recurring Zoom meeting... It’s been such a joyful endeavor, providing enrichment and structure to my weekdays."

Read more in "Conferences canceled, musicologists turn to Zoom."


Ginger Marcus, East Asian Languages and Cultures

Learning the Japanese language as a college student is difficult, even under normal circumstances. Mastering the language and the nuances of its cultural context during the COVID-19 pandemic, through remote learning, is especially challenging. But Ginger Marcus, professor of the practice of Japanese language, and her students met the task head on, devising methods to continue practicing the language and exploring its nuances through online tools. Marcus uses a teaching strategy called "performed culture" to help students learn a new language. "I always tell the students that our classes are more like a drama class that you find in the performing arts department than your typical language class where you have to fill in worksheets or work closely with text," she said. Performing culture through Zoom requires flexibility and creativity in the use of classroom tools.

Read more in "Overcoming the challenges of virtual language instruction."


Steven G. Krantz, Mathematics and Statistics

Krantz, professor of mathematics and statistics, has turned his focus to modeling COVID-19 in hopes that better predictions can help lessen transmission and save lives. Krantz and a collaborator at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University prepared five publications in six weeks last spring aimed at improving a variety of projections about the novel coronavirus. Their latest study predicts the number of hospitalizations that could occur for people over age 65 with one or a combination of three underlying conditions: hypertension, cardiovascular disease and lung disease. Researchers estimate that there are 13 million such individuals in the United States who need to be protected against COVID-19 to reduce a large number of hospitalizations and associated deaths.

Read more in "Mathematical model predicts COVID-19 hospitalizations for those with underlying conditions."


John E. McCarthy, Mathematics and Statistics

McCarthy, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Mathematics and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, helped develop a mathematical model that assesses the risk of attending a public sporting event. The methodology McCarthy and his team devised was risk = hazard x exposure. "I’m a big believer in simple models," he said. "They’re much more transparent and much more robust." The result was an algorithm that came up with a total risk score for the event. An event with a score of 120, for example, would be twice as risky as one with a score of 60. With this new tool in hand, McCarthy said, teams can measure mitigation strategies and make reasonable, well-informed pitches to their state and local officials month-by-month as the COVID-19 infection rate waxes and wanes in their areas.

Read more in "Take me back to the ballgame — and other sports venues."


Krista Milich, Anthropology

Milich, assistant professor of biological anthropology and an expert on zoonotic diseases, designed and taught the three-week summer immersion course, "The Pandemic: Science and Society." "I knew that every student who enrolled would help create a safer community on campus this semester," Milich said. "The course was designed in a way to give them practical information about the virus, show them the suffering of others in the community and help them strategize ways to follow safety measures and take care of their mental health while creating connections with each other. I am heartened that our students not only learned those lessons, they are sharing them with others. The entire university is benefitting from their knowledge." As envisioned by Feng Sheng Hu, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences, the innovative course was unique in two ways — it featured not just Arts & Sciences faculty, but experts from across disciplines and across the country, and it welcomed students from all schools.

Read more in "COVID-19 course moved beyond the science to explore virus’s impact on society."


Gary Patti, Chemistry

Patti, the Michael and Tana Powell Associate Professor of Chemistry, is channeling his expertise in metabolomics to help understand this disease. Metabolomics is the large-scale analysis of the thousands of small molecules produced in biochemical reactions that power living cells. Patti is widely recognized as a pioneer in this field, and the resources and expertise in his lab are powerful tools for studying how the virus interacts with cells to cause disease. His group aims to understand some of the factors that determine whether a patient will remain asymptomatic or require intensive care and ultimately succumb to the disease. Clues about these factors, Patti's team believes, may be found in patients' metabolomes. They are analyzing inactivated COVID-19 patient samples and clinical data from multiple hospitals around the country, as well as samples from mice. In the future, their findings could help predict disease outcomes and guide treatment options. 

Read more in "Patti Lab awarded NIH grant for COVID-19 research."


E.A. Quinn, Anthropology

Scientists have launched a number of human milk and lactation studies to determine if SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted to infants through human milk. Quinn, associate professor of biological anthropology, and other researchers wrote a new perspective article making the case for human milk studies co-created with the people whose milk is under investigation — and where study findings are interpreted in the context of real-life choices and experiences. "It is not easy to conduct human milk research during a pandemic," said Quinn. "Yet, despite the consistent lack of quality evidence for transmission of viral RNA from breast milk, some leaders are pushing ahead by altering public health and clinical practice guidance."

Read more in "COVID-19 human milk studies  should continue without stopping breastfeeding, researchers say."


Maggie Schlarman, Biology

In March, Schlarman moved her upper-level Microbiology Lab of 48 seniors online. She, like all instructors, did this in seven business days. Although the students are no longer doing experiments as originally intended, they are designing experiments, interpreting results, and writing about their results in lab reports. The move required a mental shift for Schlarman, in addition to a quick change in curriculum. “I realized I need to think about the person who loves to talk to people all the time, the independent person who is again living with parents, or the person sharing a computer with two other siblings. They are all having a really hard time with this,” expressed Schlarman.

Read more in "Seniors trade pipettes for Zoom in their last semester of college."


Allen Wang, Arts & Sciences Computing

As a senior technical support specialist, Wang used to visit the offices of faculty and staff to troubleshoot IT issues. In March, he suddenly found himself at the front of the classroom, leading in-person and virtual training sessions about Zoom for faculty and staff. “It was challenging for me since I’m not a trainer or public speaker,” Wang said. “I got this Zoom trainer assignment and needed to prepare the materials and be ready to train clients within three days.” Wang watched his recorded training videos after each session to improve his method and make his material easier to digest. “It was my honor to train the clients to use the basic Zoom meeting and help them to get going,” he said.

Read more in "Arts & Sciences staff come together to support remote teaching transition."


Arts & Sciences Experts in the News