Natural Selections would like to say a special thank you and farewell to our Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Baker, who successfully defended her thesis at The Rockefeller University in March. Sarah joined the editorial board as a Copy Editor in the fall of 2017 and became Editor-in-Chief in February of 2019. A prolific author, Sarah regularly contributed articles to Natural Selections in addition to her roles on the editorial board. We have benefited tremendously from Sarah’s leadership and the culture she created at Natural Selections. While we are sad to see her go, we wish Sarah all the best in her future endeavors and thank her for her service.
Natural Selections Editorial Board
At 5 p.m. on March 18th, 2020, The Rockefeller University shut down its campus due to the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on the New York City area. A reduced staff maintained the most essential operations, such as security and power, while the vast majority of research was halted. Only research directly related to COVID-19 was permitted to continue. Four days later, Governor Cuomo issued an executive “New York State on PAUSE” order closing all non-essential businesses and canceling all non-essential gatherings in the state.
For more than two months, the majority of Rockefeller employees and researchers have stayed home in various levels of isolation and quarantine. Our collective efforts to stem the spread of the virus appear to have had an impact. The Regional Monitoring Dashboard, which evaluates COVID-19 spread and pandemic readiness, shows that nine of New York’s ten regions have met the requirements to begin phased reopening. Even though New York City has not yet satisfied the requirements for reopening, it is hard to keep ourselves from projecting into the future and imagining what a new normal will look like for Rockefeller.
On May 4th and 5th, Rockefeller University President Rick Lifton hosted a virtual Town Hall for students and postdocs to discuss the campus shutdown and address questions from the community. While there are few specifics regarding exactly how or when Rockefeller will reopen, Lifton was able to speak to some common concerns. Natural Selections also reached out to others in the administration for comment.
How has the shutdown affected Rockefeller University?
In the midst of the shutdown, a small cohort of Rockefeller scientists have continued their benchwork. These scientists are studying COVID-19, in keeping with Rockefeller’s long-standing tradition of conducting “science for the benefit of humanity.” Although, according to Lifton, there are only about 125 individual researchers physically working on campus, they represent twenty laboratories studying everything from COVID-19 prophylaxis and therapeutics to understanding the course of infection and disease severity.
However, for many scientists, the Rockefeller University shutdown dramatically decreased the amount of research being done. Core facilities are closed and non-COVID-19 bench experiments are prohibited. Graduate students have expressed concerns that the shutdown may impede their progress, delaying their ability to meet milestones for a timely graduation. Lifton addressed these concerns, expressing that the expectations for progress have been adjusted. Sid Strickland, Rockefeller’s Dean of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies, has echoed these sentiments, encouraging students to contact the Dean’s Office to discuss any issues they may have. While there is no blanket policy, it is understood that individual circumstances will vary, and students would not necessarily be expected to meet the same deadlines as were established before the pandemic. “One of the great attributes of Rockefeller is that we are a small institution that can deal with issues on an individual basis,” Strickland said. “We know all of the students personally and care deeply about their well-being. If anything is concerning any student, please reach out to us anytime.”
Researchers expressed similar concerns regarding the need for extensions in fellowships granted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the Town Hall with students, Lifton said there was a precedent for this kind of support—in 2008 after the financial crisis, billions of dollars were set aside to help NIH funding recipients. Lifton and others in the Rockefeller administration are now advocating for funds to be similarly allocated.
When should Rockefeller reopen?
Before reopening Rockefeller, Lifton said, we would need evidence of a recovering city. This is in line with Governor Cuomo’s orders that regions are to remain shut down until they have met the seven metrics for reopening according to the Regional Monitoring Dashboard. At the time of this writing, New York City had met four of the seven metrics for reopening, with our hospital and ICU capacity still below 30%. The expectation is that New York City will meet the requirements to begin reopening in the first half of June. Rockefeller will begin restarting non-COVID-19 research activities on June 1st.
The newly formed Rockefeller University Research Restart Committee will evaluate the conditions at Rockefeller and determine exactly how to proceed with a phased-reopening of campus. Strategies for reducing risk to employees include staggering work hours, establishing laboratory capacities, and/or encouraging remote work where possible. While the details of each phase of reopening are unclear, we know that it will not be an immediate return to pre-pandemic operations. Reopening will be incremental, guided by the changing conditions and information.
How will we keep the Rockefeller community safe once we reopen?
Frequent testing of all Rockefeller employees for SARS-CoV-2 would be essential for maintaining the safety of Rockefeller employees as asymptomatic carriers can spread COVID-19. In his Town Hall meetings, Lifton emphasized the need to identify emerging infections, trace contacts, and isolate those affected in order to keep the campus healthy. The university currently has an Abbott point of care instrument and an on-campus test site on the tennis courts. Although testing is currently low-throughput, an aspirational goal is to eventually be able to test all Rockefeller employees twice per week.
In addition to testing, preventative measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and diligent hygiene will be necessary to provide a safe work environment. Lifton said the university will insist on social distancing and has already mandated mask-wearing in all areas, with the exception of private offices occupied by a single person. The Office of Research Support has issued safety guidelines to Heads of Laboratories, each of whom will designate a Research Restart Officer within the laboratory responsible for safety training and enforcement. Amy Wilkerson, Associate Vice President of the Office of Research Support, said that in addition to oversight by the Research Restart Officer, “Security, Plant Operations, and [Laboratory Safety and Environmental Health] personnel, who are regularly in the labs to provide service and support, will also report non-compliance. Failure to comply will result in loss of access to campus.” However, Wilkerson said, “Everyone will be responsible for working safely.” Unsafe working conditions can be reported directly to the relevant supervisor or by emailing email@example.com.
A common concern is how we can maintain six feet between one another in spaces designed to facilitate interactions. The River Campus, for example, is designed so that researchers must walk through multiple laboratories in order to reach their individual workspaces, with laboratory benches and desks clustered together within each laboratory. Even in the older buildings, laboratory bays often position researchers back to back, and common areas feature couches and group seating areas. While these designs were appreciated in the time before COVID-19, they may require some reworking to fit with the new social distancing model.
Alex Kogan, Associate Vice President of Plant Operations, is working with the Rockefeller administration to address these concerns. “There are many means to reduce risk,” Kogan said, including establishing laboratory capacities and staggering work hours to ensure social distancing. And while laboratories are inherently enclosed spaces, Kogan assured us that Rockefeller’s laboratories are supplied with 100% outside air, exchanged eight to twelve times per hour. Kogan also said that Rockefeller is “looking into spreading out common space furniture, limiting the number of people in break rooms, conference rooms, etc.” But, according to Kogan, the most important factor in ensuring employee safety will be community compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines issued by the university.
What does Rockefeller’s future look like?
Over the past two months, there has been a massive transition to remote work and virtual meetings. Everything from weekly group meetings, to the Friday Lecture Series, to Rockefeller’s convocation are being held virtually. Although the Zoom format may be a little impersonal to some, it has allowed for continued scientific communication during the shutdown and made some seminars more accessible to our community. While working from home and virtual meetings may have been rare in the past, we expect these will become part of the new normal for many at Rockefeller, even as in-person seminars return. Todd Wells, Lead Media and Design Support Specialist of Rockefeller’s Information Technology Department, spoke with Natural Selections about continuing to offer remote options after the campus reopens. Wells said that “both Caspary and Carson Family Auditoriums are equipped with integrated camera systems that are Zoom and webcast ready, as are many of the conference rooms, especially on the River Campus,” and there are plans to similarly upgrade other campus meeting rooms. “We have already broadcast many events in both formats, even before the lockdown, and we expect this to become much more common as we continue to adapt how we host events in response to the pandemic.”
While teleconferencing and remote work can help to reduce the spread of the virus, working from home can be challenging for employees with families, especially those with children. Without childcare, working from home or even returning to work may be untenable. Lifton acknowledged that reopening the Child and Family Center (CFC) would be imperative for allowing employees with families to return to work, but there are significant challenges: the CFC typically follows the public school system, which is closed for the remainder of the academic year. In addition, many CFC teachers have their own children to care for, and no childcare available to them. While unresolved, the issue of childcare at Rockefeller is at the forefront of the administration’s mind.
Very little is certain, and nearly everything is subject to change. Every day we have more information about how COVID-19 is affecting our community, and best practices shift with our understanding of the disease. Communication will be critical for ensuring a safe return to research and a healthy future. Rockefeller has demonstrated its commitment to communicating with the campus community, and we are hopeful that the university will continue to prioritise our collective safety as we reopen our campus.
Gretchen M. Michelfeld
Heading into June, many of us in the Tri-I community are still working from home, grappling with the uncertainty of tomorrow’s news, the loneliness of quarantine, or the frustrations of too much family togetherness. Our pets continue to be comforting companions.
As a Patient Representative at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), David Jay Smith Chang works from home four days a week. His two dogs, eight-year-old Maxwell (who is half Pomeranian, half Pekingese) and Reno Sweeney (a five-year-old Pekingese) have become role models, reminding him how important it is to stay grounded.
“They are present in the moment, enjoying where they are, fearless,” Chang told me. “The amount of emotional support they give me is incalculable. They are willing to provide love 24/7.”
Chang’s colleague, Karen Wexler, the Associate Director of Patient Relations at MSKCC, finds that seven-year-old Daisy (a domestic shorthair “tuxedo” cat) makes it much easier to work from home.
“Although she has disconnected me from more than a few calls by walking on my keyboard or playing hockey with my iPhone, she usually gets settled into the morning workflow after a nice tear around the apartment and a light breakfast,” Wexler said.
Daisy can also be a considerate colleague. According to Wexler, “Recognizing the confidential nature of her mother’s work, Daisy is great about taking some time on her own. She will sometimes stay in bed until 2 p.m. So dedicated, that one!” Daisy is also great at helping Wexler choose which “work from home” overalls to wear each day and whether or not to employ the Oxford comma in her letter-writing.
On a more serious note, Wexler credits Daisy with helping her feel human during this time of social distancing. “I live alone [and] my partner is isolated in Los Angeles, so Daisy’s presence is essential to my feeling another breathing being next to me.”
Ainslie Durnin of Rockefeller University’s Development Office feels lucky to be sheltering in place with her five-year-old lop-eared rabbit, Charlie.
“Charlie loves that I am home all day every day,” Durnin said. “Every morning we sit on the floor together. I have a cup of coffee while he enjoys lots of treats and cuddles. He loves Life cereal and will sit on my lap while he munches his breakfast. For much of the day he naps, moving from one favorite spot to another, but whenever I emerge from my office for a break, he will follow me around the house.”
Durnin pointed out that Charlie can be a bit of a demanding coworker. “If my attention is not forthcoming, he will go into his bunny house and throw a temper-tantrum, scratching and throwing his food dish around to make lots of noise. He actually did this in the middle of my husband’s virtual thesis defense a few weeks ago!” But mostly Charlie is “sweet, funny, and quirky, and he fills our home with love and joy.”
Bernard Langs, also of the Rockefeller University Development Office, said his one-year-old calico cat, Pippa, is overjoyed to have the whole family home with her all day.
“My wife and I are working from home remotely, and my daughter is finishing her final college semester via Zoom classes,” Langs told me. “Pippa roams from one of us to another while her much older “sister” Roberta sleeps all day.
As we wait to find out when Rockefeller and her sister institutions will fully reopen, Natural Selections would love to hear from more of you about working from home with your pets. Feel free to contact Gretchen M. Michelfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your stories and photos.
Exercise is critically important for physical and mental health because it helps stave off diseases related to obesity and reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, there is reason to believe that exercise might also protect against infectious diseases. In fact, a 2010 study showed that near-daily aerobic activity and the perception of being physically fit significantly reduced the frequency and severity of respiratory infections in both men and women during a twelve-week study period. Although we don’t know whether physical activity can help protect us against SARS-CoV-2 specifically, studies in exercise immunology, a relatively new but increasingly important area of scientific research, show that exercise may give your immune system a significant boost.
Short bouts (under sixty minutes) of moderate and vigorous exercise, such as walking, running, or cycling, may enhance the activity of innate immune cells, such as macrophages and natural killer cells. Macrophages help the body fight infection by engulfing and destroying invading pathogens (e.g., viruses and bacteria). Macrophages also secrete molecules that promote the activation of natural killer cells which can detect and kill infected cells to stop the infection from spreading.
In addition, aerobic exercise can help orchestrate the adaptive immune response by mobilizing two main types of lymphocytes: T-cells and B-cells. T-cells kill infected cells and use messenger molecules, known as cytokines, to increase the overall activation of the immune system. T-cells can also directly activate B-cells, which help us fight off bacteria and viruses by producing antibodies that “tag” invaders and help other immune cells eliminate them. In the short run, exercise may enhance immunosurveillance by recirculating immune cells found within various tissues and organs in the body, such as the lymph nodes and spleen, back into the bloodstream. In the long run, regular exercise may help ward off infection by redistributing immune cells to the organs favored by viruses and bacteria, such as mucosal membranes and the lungs.
Early-stage research shows that exercise may also promote defense against infectious diseases by increasing the production of antioxidants. Our bodies produce an antioxidant molecule known as extracellular superoxide dismutase (EcSOD), which breaks down free radicals that damage cell membranes, proteins, and DNA. Elevated EcSOD in blood and vital organs, including the lungs, may protect against acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a common and often lethal complication of COVID-19.
Finally, exercise may boost your immune system indirectly, by reducing stress and improving sleep. In fact, aerobic exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can interfere with our immune system’s ability to fight infection. Regular exercise can also help normalize disrupted sleep, which is crucial for the proper function of immune cells.
If you reside in New York City, you might not be able to get back to your gym or your favorite fitness class for a while, but there are several excellent alternatives that can help you stay fit and boost your immune defenses while social distancing:
Walk, run, or cycle responsibly. If you are an avid runner, continue to enjoy this solitary form of exercise, but take precautions, such as wearing a face covering and staying at least six feet away from other people in parks and on sidewalks. If wearing a surgical mask or a thick cloth mask while running is uncomfortable, consider investing in moisture-wicking multifunctional headwear. If you are new to running, make sure to start easy (several apps, including Nike Run Club and 5K Runner: Couch to 5K might help) and choose the right pair of running shoes to avoid injuries. Finally, if running is too hard on your joints, a brisk walk or a bike ride will offer similar benefits as long as you practice social distancing.
Replace a stair stepping machine with actual stairs. If your building or street has a mostly-empty staircase, fire up your legs and glutes by walking or jogging up and down the stairs,giving yourself a thirty second break between circuits. Mix it up by doing additional exercises such as calf raises, squats, or seesaw lunges at the top of each flight.
Do bodyweight exercises at home. With a little bit of space and some imagination, you can reach your fitness goals even during a pandemic. Follow workout classes on YouTube or Instagram Live, take advantage of Nike’s promotion that allows you to access Nike Training Club Premium for free, or start a fun exercise challenge with your friends. Rockefeller’s own Tim Blanchard offers strength/cardio classes via Zoom (you can also access Tim’s classes on YouTube). If mountain climbers and burpees aren’t your thing, you can get your heart rate up by joining TikTok dance challenges. Who knows, you might even become the right kind of viral!
Painter as Cinema: Gerhard Richter and Never Look Away
One of the difficult processes of being solidly past sixty years of age has been the near-weekly grieving for the passing away of cherished, long-time film, television, and music personalities. Many of my favorite musicians are over seventy years old, and although they are leaving our common “stage,” there are many recent recording artists whom I respect that can at least partially fill the void left by their absence. It was only when I decided to write this article about one of the world’s greatest living artists, Gerhard Richter, that I realized that within the genre of the arts, the number of genius painters has dwindled down at breakneck speed to a handful of survivors. And as for a new generation carrying the creative torch, I can’t think of a single talent anywhere close to their level of accomplishment.
I tend to read a limited amount about the personal life of contemporary painters outside of books and articles. I try to focus more on the works themselves in the context of art history. In some ways, the mystery of living American legends such as Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), and Frank Stella (b. 1936) might be diminished in my eyes, should I read details on what they do day-to-day for amusement or how they fare as family men (think the disappointment of knowing about Picasso’s personal traumas).
Two of the best living painters are German and both have made it a point at times to starkly depict subjects centered around their country’s horrific Nazi history and the avoidance by everyday people of individual responsibility for crimes against humanity.
Each time I have viewed a large, multi-faceted work by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), I have been stunned and awakened to a world not quite recognizable, but in some way tangible while horrifically unreal. His many dark textures and use of thick substances in his choice of paints and other materials literally jump off his canvases and emerge far beyond the emotional, colorful gobs of tortured oils used by van Gogh. As you take in Kiefer’s ordered madness, you realize that the overload is systematically planned, and that he is as strong in personality as an artist can be and could never conceivably end up like poor Vincent. In February 2020, The New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy feature on Kiefer, where the famous and eccentric Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard met up with him on several occasions to learn his working process while attempting to discover the motivations of his soul. Knausgaard reports back to his readers about this mission and highly personal quest to draw back the wizard’s curtain of Kiefer’s private incentives and succeeds in exposing the character strengths and perplexing weaknesses of the artist. Kiefer is presented as a confident, eccentric genius but with flaws that at times render him callous and vacant.
In my opinion, the world’s greatest living artist is Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Richter gives interviews from time to time for the Wall Street Journal about art and life, and I look forward to them, few as they are. Richter has had an interesting career, making his name with early monochromatic, photorealistic paintings that dig to the core of the beholder in an unfathomable manner. He later moved on to paint everything from color charts to large abstract canvases and even turned to using electric lights in his works. My favorite paintings are his early large photorealism depictions of scenes and portraits from family snapshots, and his Forty-eight Portraits (1971-1972) series where with the precision of early twentieth century official academic portraiture and a palette of black and white tones, he created representations of well-known writers and composers such as Kafka and Mahler. Richter’s early work also featured slightly blurred canvases showing candles that seem to slowly waver on viewing. His Woman With an Umbrella is a portrait of the grieving Jackie Kennedy, composed in a startlingly different way than Warhol depicted her in his many silkscreen pieces.
Although I enjoy and revel in Richter’s magical, photorealistic work, there has always been a lurking disturbance in each painting that I never truly attempted to understand or define until I viewed the fifteen works at the Museum of Modern Art that make up October 18, 1977. MoMA’s website notes that the paintings “evoke fragments from the lives and deaths of the Baader-Meinhof group and reflect Richter’s distrust of painting’s ability to accurately represent the world, a recurring subject of his work.” One cannot view these images of a terrorist group, three of whom were found dead in their jail cells on the series’ title date, and ignore their unsettling underpinnings. Richter may consider himself the artist of removal, yet by choosing such a controversial subject and presenting it in such eerie fashion, he makes an absolute statement. But what exactly is that statement and how much meaning does the viewer bring to it from their own heart and mind? That has always been an interesting aspect of looking at art, but in this case, the mere looking at it in a museum setting seems to evoke collusion in an undefined societal crime.
In 2018, the movie Never Look Away, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and said to be based on the life of Gerhard Richter, was released. Prior to viewing it, I read a piece in The New Yorker about how the filmmaker approached Richter to loosely base the young protagonist’s life on the German’s early travails. Richter at first eagerly cooperated only to suddenly lose interest and become very angry about the project. That said, the movie is a great one, an extraordinary personal journey of a young painter painstakingly discovering his identity, vision, technique, and philosophy, which turns out to be a purposeful avoidance of philosophy. Never Look Away is emotionally wrenching and an up-close trip through Cold War Germany as the nation both accepts and hides from its responsibility for Nazi atrocities.
In the movie, the artist-to-be, Kurt Barnert (portrayed as a young man by Kurt Schilling), is of a very young age during the years of Nazi rule. In the opening sequence, his eccentric aunt, the young and beautiful Elisabeth, brings him to a museum where a curator leads visitors through an exhibition featuring one of the surveys of what the National Socialists pronounced “degenerate art.” To the surprise of the little boy, his aunt confides in a gay, laughing secret that she admires the paintings, going against the official party line.
Elisabeth proves to be clinically manic and loses herself to madness. The film shifts to the institution where she is held at the mercy of cold-hearted physicians who are triaging patients to be transported to camps for extermination, selecting those they believe to fail mental and physical Nazi standards for German citizenship. Elisabeth makes a last tearful plea for clemency to a doctor in his private office, who is visibly both moved and horrified by her burst of raw honesty. After she is taken from his office, we see this cruel man hastily sign the medical papers that will lead to her death.
The subsequent story is partially but not entirely true to Richter’s life and that of one of his wives. After the war, the physician conceals his past behavior and escapes punishment for complicity with the Reich. By the 1950s, he is living as a reputable and respected doctor. Ironically, the Richter-character, Barnert, falls in love and marries the doctor’s daughter without a clue that his father-in-law doomed his aunt to death in the camps. The doctor proves to be as brutal and calculatingly cruel with his own daughter and Barnert as when he was a Nazi collaborator.
Early in their careers, both Richter and Kiefer painted as subjects or put photos on display of Nazis in casual poses, shocking the German establishment of the 1950s and 1960s with their honest portrayal of local, familial pride in the Reich. In Never Look Away, Richter’s character eventually reaches the eureka moment of discovery of the photorealistic style and we watch his first solo exhibition that ends up launching his long career as a successful artist. In addition, when his father-in-law drops by his studio to see the photographically-based paintings, he is shocked to see portraits of the long dead Aunt Elisabeth, recalling how he’d signed off to have her murdered as she desperately asked him to think of her as a daughter and as a growing young woman like those of his own family. Neither painter nor doctor know any details of the other’s ties to this woman. In addition, Barnert based these large paintings on personal photographs from the 1930s of the medical institution where his aunt was held and his father-in-law worked. His father-in-law can’t fathom how these people came to be the subject of his son-in-law’s art. Finally, this beast of a man appears to understand the horrific things he has done and continues to do to his own family and we watch with satisfaction as this previously unflappable doctor stumbles unhinged and physically unbalanced from the studio.
Toward the conclusion of the movie, we finally hear words from Banert at his solo exhibit’s press conference that sum up what some of us have learned to be the real Richter’s attitude towards painting: The artist, by definition, is not in control of their own work and can give no meaning to their creations—there’s no point or reason to debate otherwise. Never Look Away does not make the viewer ponder art and life in the same way Richter’s paintings do. It makes a louder and broader statement, and the viewer cannot retreat from it like one can in a museum, strolling from canvas to canvas and then out the door to the sidewalk. This film and its powerful sequences remain in the mind for days after viewing, eventually lodging in the unconscious where it simmers and ponders in continual background revelation. I, for one, think that is a good thing.
Quarantine is a wonderful time to get caught up on your “to be read” stack. However, some of us have felt culturally adrift since the shutdown in New York, wanting to take the opportunity to engage with good stories but feeling dissatisfied with what’s on the shelf. Here, I go through some book recommendations for very specific quarantine moods, many with which I have had first hand experience. Each of these books is available as an e-book or audiobook from the New York Public Library through Overdrive—or you can buy them from The Bookstore at the End of the World, an organization that supports booksellers who have been furloughed or laid off since the shutdown (you can learn more about the parent site Bookshop.org here). So without further ado, do you:
Want a book where not a lot happens and everyone is pretty much okay?
Barbara Pym, sometimes called the Jane Austen of the twentieth century, relies almost entirely on small town cattiness to propel her books forward. Many of her protagonists are aging women who are somewhat comfortable in the beginning and still mostly comfortable at the end. In Some Tame Gazelle, the lives of two spinster sisters are turned upside down when a new reverend comes to town. It is about as eventful as it sounds, but in a good way (I promise)!
Of course, you could always return to the master herself and give Austen’s Emma a read.
Want a grabby mystery to transport you away?
Very early in quarantine I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish In the Woods by Tana French. The first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, this book centers around Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the gruesome murder of a twelve-year-old girl. The novel walks that fine line between mystery and thriller, with plenty of creepy vibes and intrigue. It felt good, at that point, to have my adrenaline pumping over an entirely fictional situation. Come for the escape, stay for the dead-on portrait of fragile masculinity.
Want to escape into rich people problems?
In Snobs, written by The Right Honourable Lord Julian Fellowes of West Stafford (writer and creator of Downton Abbey, if that tells you anything), thoroughly middle-class Edith Lavery meets and is engaged to Charles, Earl Broughton. Is it love, or is it social climbing? Fellowes uses his insider knowledge to create a novel of old money, new money, and their grip on social power to this day.
Want to stare, stone-faced, into the eye of the storm?
Of course, the first place to look is Jennifer Einstein’s “Quarantine Don’t Reads”—go forth and engage, masochist. My personal pick for an absolutely too close to home read would be The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. This sizable book goes through the 1918 flu in excruciating detail, from the basic biological factors that made it possible to how society’s reaction changed its progression. It makes me shiver just thinking about it.
Need a fat book that will take you to the end of this madness (and possibly beyond)?
I will not pretend to have read The Power Broker by Robert Caro, but if there was ever a time to tackle this 1,300-page biography of the man who shaped modern New York, it would be now.
Have trouble concentrating these days?
Two words—go short. The essay collection I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott will give you a lot of bang for your buck, fitting very big questions about aging and identity into very snackable essays. Philpott deftly puts into words the elusive feeling of not quite fitting into your own life, which is more relatable now than ever.
Miss New York?
The longer I sit inside, the more I find myself returning to Newbury Medal winning From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Yes, it is a children’s book. But who, at this point, doesn’t want to run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? You say adolescent, I say wish fulfillment at its finest.
E.B. White is one of those essayists who has always made the pretty routine into the quite beautiful. I think now more than ever people will appreciate his depiction of the small dramas of small-farm life. Highly observant and quite funny, his essays might make you look at your neighborhood wildlife with changed eyes.
Want to be productive… but REALLY want to figure out how your self worth got completely tied up in your productivity and the value added to our messed up late capitalist society?
One third art criticism, one third nature writing, one third manifesto, How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell is so much more than a self-help book. Although the tone is frequently academic, How to do Nothing made me think differently about how I value my own time, and how I am complicit in my own commodification. I think we all need a reminder sometimes that capitalism and big tech are not necessarily on our side.
Also, a quick sidebar? There is no moral imperative for you to read in quarantine. A compelling book and a good TV show are equals in my mind. I’ve even started reading cookbooks in bed. It’s very relaxing, and it totally counts!
My brother, apparently, has become a baker. The girl who sat two rows behind me in second grade just planted her first veggie garden. The first alto in my high school Concert Choir now makes soap. And Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. What, exactly, is wrong with just curling up with a good book? Nothing! But I polled my friends about this and, just for now, you might want to avoid any of these good books: If, perchance, you DO decide to read these (or others), consider buying them from an independent bookstore; they can use the business. See https://cornerbookstorenyc.com/ or https://bookshop.org/shop/nycbooksellers (ebooks).
• Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
• World War Z, by Max Brooks
• The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier
• Walk to End of World, by Suzy McKee Charnas
• Pandemic, by Robin Cook
• Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton
• The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time, by John Kelly
• The Stand, by Stephen King
• Severance, by Ling Ma
• The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
• The Last Man, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
• Station Eleven, by Emily St. J. Mandel
• The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
You don’t have to avoid all post-apocalyptic novels. I found Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon to be rather hopeful.
This month, Nick Didkovsky, Bioinformatics Group Supervisor in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at The Rockefeller University, announced the release of CHORD’s third album CHORD III. Didkovsky plays guitar, composes, and produces music in this electric guitar duo. Described as “heavy, deep listening,” this album is an experience that “draws the listener further into the expansive chasms of sound that were excavated by [CHORD’s] first two releases.” Check out CHORD III online. Didkovsky’s band Doctor Nerve is also celebrating the release of their album LOUD, mixed by Nik Chinboukas (producer/engineer for Testament and Metal Allegiance) and mastered by Thomas Dimuzio. LOUD features eleven bonus tracks and is available online for $7.
Gretchen M. Michelfeld of The Rockefeller University’s Office of General Counsel is excited to announce the availability of her film As Good As You for streaming on Amazon Prime and EPIX. Michelfeld was the screenwriter and executive producer for As Good As You, a serious comedy that follows writer Jo (Laura Heisler) in the aftermath of her wife’s untimely death. Jo is on a quest to have a child by in vitro fertilization using her deceased wife’s brother, Jamie (Bryan Dechart) as a sperm donor, and things get complicated. Checkout the trailer or watch As Good As You for free with Amazon Prime.
Chris Marhula of the MacKinnon laboratory completed the Brooklyn Half Marathon Virtual Race. With outdoor events cancelled for public safety, the New York Road Runners transitioned to virtual events. Runners can participate remotely, while observing social distancing guidelines, and submit their miles using the Strava fitness app. On Saturday, May 2nd, Marhula completed the 13.1 miles necessary to finish the Brooklyn Half Marathon.
Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the release of his new song “Grow Old Along With Me and Other Songs of Hope” on SoundCloud. Drawing on themes of hope and inspiration, Langs acts as musician, vocalist, and composer for this medley of songs featuring the work of John Lennon, The Beatles, and World Party. You can listen to Langs’ composition here.
Email Megan E. Kelley at email@example.com to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!
Inside Iran: Holy City of Yazd
After spending a night in the Varzaneh Desert in Iran with Hamidreza and his father, I was ready to head east. Because Varzaneh is a small desert town and does not have a bus stop, I decided to hitchhike from the nearest highway. It must have been a peculiar sight for the Iranians as they saw me with my 40L backpack standing at the highway to stop a car, as there is no hitchhiking culture in Iran. Luckily, a father and son picked me up and dropped me off at the nearest city called Na’in. There, two nice police officers at the highway checkpoint tried to stop a bus for me so that I could hop on to Yazd. They were curious about my background and the sneakers I was wearing. We chatted about sneaker brands and their police car while waiting for the bus—cars and sneakers are surely the lingua franca across the globe.
I arrived at Yazd in the afternoon. This place probably has the essences of the middle eastern cities you imagine—it has well-preserved mud bricks, a bright blue mosque, and iconic wind-catchers. I barely saw anyone on the street on my way to the Amir Chakhmaq Complex, most likely due to the extreme heat and the fact that the tea houses seemed to be closed due to Ramadan as well. Though Yazd is not considered to be a religious city like Mashhad or Qom, it is definitely conservative and traditional. I noticed more women wearing traditional chadors as I walked down the street, adding a unique atmosphere to the city. After all, the word Yazd does mean “holy.” At twilight, the city came back to life once again. Rooftop cafes were popular spots among locals and tourists. People gathered around to share stories while sipping on drinks. Sekanjabin is a good summer drink to try if you don’t know what to get. It is one of the oldest Iranian drinks, made of honey, vinegar, and cucumber.
A few weeks ago, I earned the opportunity to defend my thesis, the terminal task in receiving my Ph.D. While everyone’s path is different, the journey for me has been a rollercoaster of both academic and emotional development, and I’d like to reflect on what the process has taught me.
It’s okay to feel lost at times.
I started my graduate school journey knowing that I wanted to study neuroscience, but I had very little experience in the field. Most of my research as an undergraduate was done in a physical inorganic chemistry lab, so I lacked the basic textbook knowledge of the neuroscience field. Getting up-to-speed was daunting, and it felt like many of my colleagues came into graduate school with a much better understanding of these fundamental concepts than I had. I spent my evenings those first couple of months reading textbooks and watching videos online. I wish I had known that what I would learn in the lab in the process of doing research was going to be more valuable than any chapter of a textbook that I had read.
Graduate school can feel lonely, but you are not alone.
Moving to a new city and starting at a new institution where you don’t know anyone can feel overwhelming. You lose the camaraderie that naturally develops in high school and college when your whole class is studying for the same test and seeing each other regularly. The pressures of graduate school can add another dimension to feelings of isolation. While you interact with lab members and collaborators, the process of working on a Ph.D. is largely supposed to be your own—your own project, your own body of work. Everyone feels imposter syndrome at one time or another (or maybe even constantly). Once I realized that everyone else was also going through their own unique challenges, or maybe even many of the same ones I was, I stopped thinking of graduate school as a solitary pursuit. I began to reach out to others. Daily coffee breaks with friends and colleagues to talk about our highs and lows became crucial to building a sense of community.
Self-care is important.
Graduate school is full of pressure, either self-imposed or loaded on by mentors, competitors, and colleagues. For some, this may develop into feelings of having to constantly be in the lab to be productive. But as I have seen both with myself and classmates, this oftentimes leads to burnout. The rest of life does not stop just because you are now a graduate student. Make time to cook yourself a good meal and spend time with your friends and significant other. And don’t be afraid to make time for yourself. For me, I was most productive in the lab around the time that I became involved in more groups on campus and began training for a triathlon. My busier schedule meant that everything I did each day in the lab was more structured, as I needed to make the time for the things I enjoyed outside of the lab. Growth in graduate school is not limited to cognitive and academic growth, but can expand to other aspects of your life, as well. During the course of my Ph.D., some of my new experiences included travelling to three new countries, learning how to play volleyball better than I ever had in high school, teaching myself how to knit, and rekindling my love of reading and writing. I would encourage any other student to expand on an old hobby or something they have always wanted to do simultaneously with progressing on their thesis project.
Thank your people.
Getting good grades in high school and college largely comes from your own study habits and hard work. In graduate school, success not only comes from effort, but also from the insights and advice of colleagues and the support system that gets you through those hard days. Thank the people who help you along the way. And ask for help when you need it. Although no one in my family is in science, they have remained steadfast in their support of all my pursuits. My friends, both at Rockefeller and outside of the university, are the people who lift me up just by being there. Small gestures can show your support system that you are grateful.
You will find a new way to see the world.
It is impossible to complete a Ph.D. without learning something along the way. I have a new appreciation for the complexity of the dysregulation of immune processes that happen in Alzheimer’s disease, the topic of my thesis project. I learned new methodologies and improved my ability to critically evaluate both my own experiments and those published in the scientific literature. But more than that, I have a newfound admiration for the process of science—this deeper understanding could only happen by being a part of the process myself.
I came into my Ph.D. having no career plan in mind, but came out the other end realizing the strengths I could pull together to have a successful career in medical communications. I recognized that my favorite parts of the Ph.D. were the times when I was writing and critically evaluating data—developing my thesis research proposal, working on grants, and authoring papers. I feel lucky that these experiences prepared me for an internship and new career at a medical education company.
Beyond my professional growth, the process of graduate school has made me more confident in speaking up, fighting for what I care about, and being resilient when things do not go as planned. Despite beginning my Ph.D. with so much uncertainty and doubt, I have only become increasingly happy that I followed through with this pursuit. To any new graduate students out there, hang in there. The path is certainly a winding one with many peaks and valleys along the way. But try to savor the journey and keep moving forward. The trek will set you up to better face challenges for the rest of your life.
Gretchen M. Michelfeld
With some adorable exceptions, most of us do not bring our pets to work. We were used to coming home at the end of a long day to a cat clamoring to be fed or a dog dancing ecstatically at our return. The sudden change in work culture throughout the Tri-Institutional community has served to expand the work environment through videoconferencing (I just discovered that one of my bosses loves Monet and another likes antique cameras). At the same time, it’s hard to be trapped inside all day. We go a little stir crazy. And now we spend the whole day with our crazy pets, as well!
I interviewed members of the community to see just how working at home with pets is impacting their daily working lives:
“Yogi has definitely made it easier for me,” said Joyce Ng of the Office of Sponsored Programs Administration. “He is my emotional support pup in these uncertain times.” Yogi is Ng’s twelve year old Pomeranian, who is very happy to have her home with him all day. However, “He has definitely become more attached and needy.”
According to Adam Collier of the Leibowitz Lab, Yogi would appear to be the opposite of his cat Zelda.
“Zelda is an independent lady, so I always appreciate it when she lets me pet her,” Collier explained. “I think she is difficult to impress, but my talk of zebrafish piques her interest. At first, she seemed pretty confused with me being home all day and wondered why I’m in her house so much, but I think she has slowly gotten used to the idea of sharing her space with me.”
My own cat, Cleo, starts driving me crazy in the late afternoon.
Something about the way the late-day sun creates shadows right above my desk makes her bounce off the walls, and she insists on having her supper much earlier than she would normally get it when I’m out of the apartment all day. Collier says Zelda has never really been motivated by food or treats—just catnip. Cleo definitely does not need catnip! But in these difficult times, there is nothing like a purring little furball in my lap to calm my frayed nerves. Cleo is usually excellent company.
Anna Amelianchik of the Strickland Lab feels the same way about her cat, Mila.
“Mila has been in our family for nearly eleven years,” Amelianchik explained to me over email. “Last year, I brought her with me from Russia, and despite the many challenges of caring for a pet, she has been a source of great comfort because she is the only family I have around. She is not exactly needy or cuddly like other cats, but when I am visibly upset or very ill, she sits next to me looking all concerned. And in trying times like these, what else do you need other than knowing that someone cares for your well-being?”
Unlike Cleo, Mila makes Amelianchik’s apartment a peaceful place to work.
“Mila makes it much easier to be isolated alone in a tiny studio apartment. She doesn’t tend to disturb me much when I work, but a few times a day she wakes up from a nap and comes to me asking for pets. It always makes me smile, but also gives me a chance to unpeel my eyes from the screen and let them rest before returning to work.”
Isolating alone can be very lonely, but quarantining with other people presents a whole other set of challenges. The first few days that I was trying to both work from home and help my eleven year old son, Beckett with online schooling, we both got very frustrated. But by the end of the first week, Cleo helped him calm down and focus. Now it’s comforting to see him casually snuggling with her while he logs onto Google Classroom or reads a novel for his English Language Arts class. It’s good for both of our stress levels, and I get a lot more work done.
The Rout Lab’s Natalia Ketaren finds her cat, Little Kitty, to be a stress reliever as well, but her home sometimes has the same challenges that ours does!
“Little Kitty is definitely a stress reliever,” said Ketaren. “Pets are a calming presence and ours makes us laugh. She breaks up the work day. However, at times she goes completely wild and does circuits around the apartment. You have to put away your cups of tea or coffee to protect the electronics!”
What does Little Kitty think of Ketaren’s work?
“She sees my notebooks and papers as a bed. My laptop is both a bed and a chin scratcher. My pens are her toys. She often likes to be the center of attention. However, she will self-isolate somewhere where we can’t reach her to get some uninterrupted nap time.”
I think all of us working from home are pretty jealous of Little Kitty’s opportunities for uninterrupted nap time! We’ll just have to keep plugging away and make the best of a very strange situation. The thing is, our animals know nothing of this scary pandemic. They remind us of life’s simpler concerns and rewards.
In the past few weeks, as the world has been struggling to curtail the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing requirements and the fear and anxiety brought on by the disease has changed our relationship with food. Shortly after Governor Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order for New York State, New Yorkers crowded grocery stores to stock up on pantry items like beans and pasta, swapped takeout for home-cooked meals, and went on baking frenzies worthy of their own Netflix show. In addition, stress and anxiety induced changes in our eating habits, leading some people to overeat and others to decrease their food intake. If you have recently found yourself snacking more than usual and gorging on calorie-dense foods, you are not alone.
High-intensity, acute emotional states that promote the fight-or-flight response (e.g. extreme fear) suppress appetite and food intake. This neat evolutional perk ensured the survival of our species. However, in the case of moderate stress, about 40% of people actually respond by increasing their food intake. This behavior, often referred to as “emotional eating,” also causes some of us to reach for energy-dense and highly palatable foods, such as chocolate, sweet and savory pastries, pizza, burgers, French fries, and sausages. Emotional eating is understood to be a coping strategy that provides short-term relief from stress and negative emotions. However, a temporary improvement in mood can be followed by other negative emotions, such as feelings of guilt. In addition, emotional eating can lead to weight gain. If you identify as an emotional eater, there might be several reasons why you respond to stress by increasing the consumption of sugary and fatty foods:
Serial dieting. Our bodies are unable to distinguish between self-imposed food restriction and real food shortages. Therefore, the body responds to dieting the same way it would respond to starvation: by slowing down the metabolic rate and increasing hunger and appetite. This often causes dieters to abandon their restrictions, particularly under stress. Therefore, dieting is considered to be a risk factor for the development of emotional eating.
Poor interoceptive awareness. Some people are prone to confusing stress-related physiological responses with hunger—a phenomenon known as poor interoceptive awareness. This can be the result of inadequate emotion regulation strategies (e.g. suppression of emotions or avoidance of stress by distraction) and can lead to emotional eating. Interestingly, poor interoceptive awareness can develop as a result of damaging parental practices, such as neglectful, overly protective, manipulative, or hostile behaviors.
Inadequate sleep. While not everyone changes their eating behaviors in stressful situations, almost everyone will attest to the fact that stress can interfere with sleep. In turn, poor sleep can lead to emotional eating by interfering with neurobiological, behavioral, and cognitive processes that regulate emotional responses. Moreover, emotional eating can lead to increased weight gain in short sleepers, i.e. people who habitually sleep less six hours a night, compared to long sleepers.
History of trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as childhood and adult trauma exposure are associated with emotional eating. One possible mechanism underlying emotional eating in individuals with a history of trauma is the hypo-activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. Under stressful conditions, the HPA axis coordinates a neuroendocrine response that is thought to promote survival. However, a history of trauma might decrease HPA axis responses to stress and as a result, erase the typical post-stress reduction in hunger.
Genetic susceptibility. The prevalence of emotional eating among children is very low, as emotional eating most commonly emerges in the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Additionally, both genetic and environmental factors play an important role in the development of emotional eating. For example, one study reported that a mutation in the dopamine D2 receptor (DRD2) gene predicted emotional eating in adolescents, but only if they also experienced inadequate parenting, such as high psychological control (e.g. “My father (mother) makes me feel guilty when I fail at school.”). In addition, a mutation in the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene can lead to emotional eating in adolescents, but only if the mutation co-occurs with depressive feelings. Both studies highlight the importance of genetics in the regulation of eating behaviors under stress, but indicate that it’s both nature and nurture that lead some people to turn to food in an attempt to self-medicate.
Depression. Depression is typically characterized by a loss of appetite and weight loss. However, a significant 15-29% of depressed patients suffer from so-called “atypical depression,” which causes increased appetite and subsequent weight gain. These symptoms of atypical depression have a stronger association with emotional eating than other individual depression symptoms, linking depression to obesity.
If you are worried about the long-term consequences of emotional eating, consider talking to a healthcare professional who can recommend strategies to minimize it. Studies show that such strategies might involve any of the following:
- Incorporating moderate intensity unstructured exercise (e.g. long walks) and/or high-intensity structured exercise (e.g. running or interval training)
- Finding social support
- Implementing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Establishing healthy, balanced dietary choices early on in the day
- Using mindful eating habits (e.g. paying attention to hunger and satiety cues while eating)
- Avoiding trigger foods (e.g. not buying foods you are likely to consume in response to stress)
A War of the Worlds for the Age of Pandemic
There have been two excellent film adaptations of the ahead of its time 1898 science fiction novel by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. Gene Barry starred in the 1953 movie that would find repeated airtime in the late 1960s on local New York television, where I first viewed it as a boy. The most memorable moment (and sole remembrance for me) is towards the end of the story, when the terrified humans not yet slaughtered by the invading armies of aliens, take refuge in a bombed church. In 2005, Steven Spielberg directed a fantastic take on the notion of a merciless killing machine of invaders, with Tom Cruise as the hero (Ray Ferrier) who is forced to take fast and imaginative action to survive. The movie focuses on Ferrier’s desperate attempt to stay ahead of the alien starships as they pillage and destroy not only human life but turn the very earth itself into a blood-soaked wasteland. Spielberg effectively transforms Cruise’s character of a divorced and out-of-touch father of a young girl (the superlative Dakota Fanning) and teenage son (well-played by Justin Chatwin) into a selfless defender willing to take all measures to protect his family. In the last scene, as the aliens are dying off and crashing their vessels into sections of Boston, a tongue-in-cheek surprise occurs when Ferrier reaches his ex-wife’s home to safely deliver his daughter. He is greeted not only by his ex-wife and their son (who had been thought dead due to an earlier attack), but also by his former father-in-law, portrayed by none other than the star of the 1953 War of the Worlds, Gene Barry.
In both movies, the aliens easily repel the greatest efforts of mankind’s weaponry, only to die off naturally soon after their invasion.They succumb to the worlds’ ecosystem and atmosphere and are unable to defend themselves from microbes and bacterial disease. Although they are technologically superior and advanced, these monsters still die from invisible and natural attackers. The dread and fear that Spielberg evokes not only comes from the monstrous appearance of those steering the alien forces, but from the sounds their ships make announcing their approach. In one touching sequence, Cruise and his children march silently through a town with hundreds of other weary, fatigued, and fleeing refugees. The village’s walls are plastered with missing person posters, very much like those that covered Manhattan in the days after the September 11th attack. As the 1953 version of War of the Worlds might be considered a study in Cold War angst, the Spielberg film is a bleak portrayal made for the post-9/11 era. Harking back to the radio play voiced by Orson Welles in 1938, one can sense that it too was a mirror and reflection of the times. It would be but a matter of months before much of Europe would lie in ruin from the German onslaught of World War II.
Science fiction movies of aliens wreaking havoc on the earth come in several brands, the most popular being those depicting them as harsh killers desiring earth’s minerals and vegetation, as well as human flesh for sustenance. A few recent movies turned the genre on its head, including the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where destruction is targeted only at the human species by a superior race of invaders who intend to save all other natural life forms from pollution and destructive wars. The 2016 movie Arrival is quite sophisticated and smart, as the army and intelligence units enlist a brilliant linguistic professor (Amy Adams) and physicist (Jeremey Renner) to break through in communicating with enormous octopus-like aliens manning ships hovering over major cities with unknown intentions. Arrival dives deep into science and philosophy and boasts a breathlessly tense and intellectually satisfying resolution.
A new eight part Epix series based on H.G. Wells’ story debuted in the U.S. in early 2020. This version of War of the Worlds draws from the best approaches of past renditions and other alien invasion stories and makes a timely contribution to the surreal and challenging times we currently inhabit. Aired just prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, its lessons would have been equally as powerful had it been released two years after the end of this crisis.
Unlike the unfolding days and weeks of murders of past War of the World films, most of the mass killing by the invaders occurs immediately in this series. The handful of survivors living in England and France are initially saved only by finding accidental shelter from the destructive sound waves that killed millions of their fellow humans in a flash. The aliens are on a mission to not only hunt down and kill these survivors one-by-one, but also harvest their organs. In early episodes, we are teased with fleeting views of the aliens, making us think they will be as terrifying as those that Spielberg set loose over fifteen years ago. But the galloping dog-like creatures turn out only to be crude, metallic, robot-like machines (plenty scary though when they kill people). When one of them is finally destroyed and split open, it appears to utilize inexpertly cobbled together human tissues for its rudimentary thinking and actions. It becomes apparent to the survivors that these are only worker drones or soldiers of an unseen master (or masters) who have yet to reveal themselves from the mother ships.
Family and survival are a key to this series, but in a 21st century way that Steven Spielberg could never have anticipated in 2005. One English family, the Greshams, consists of a matriarch, Sarah (Natasha Little) and her two teenage children, the quietly pensive, but thoughtful Tom (Ty Tennant) and blind daughter, Emily (Daisy Edgar-Jones). The viewer is teased into believing that Sarah will act in the Cruise-like role of steadfast family protector, but immediately her children question her protectiveness as selfish when they are confronted by people in need whom their mother wants to bypass and leave to fend for themselves. This dynamic becomes more and more complex as the series evolves. On the French side, the Dumont family unfolds as a portrait of modern dysfunction to a tragic degree. Even in a time of emergency, the force and power of their past failures and pains cannot be escaped and become a danger to themselves and to the one man, Jonathan, trying to save them. He also happens to be the head of the Gresham clan and his goal is to return by foot via a long trek to London through The Channel Tunnel, where he hopes to reunite with his wife and children, should they still be alive (the viewer knows they are, but he doesn’t).
The most interesting aspects of this War of the Worlds are its portrayal of the two scientists, Catherine Durand (Léa Drucker), an astronomer in the Alps who first hears the signal of the invading force on a frequency in an observatory, and Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne), a brilliant and aged neuroscientist in London. Unknown to each other, as both face life-and-death situations with their one surviving family member, they are attempting to figure out a method to defeat the invaders based on their own training. Ward wants not only to discover the aliens’ vulnerabilities, but to learn and comprehend its motives. It is this plot device that makes the production so unique. The unknown entities ruthlessly attacking are not here to blindly destroy or colonize or save other species from humans. What they crave is life itself—their own lives—and their fear of death, quite a human notion, is what motivates their blind pursuit of any actions that may save their species from oblivion.
The series has countless shots of the streets of London and towns of France eerily empty at the height of the day, quite like what we are witnessing during our virus-protective lockdown in April 2020. Never has a television film centered on destruction been so eerily silent for so many long sections of its telling. Durand in France tunes into the alien signal at one point to hear music playing. It turns out to be one of the songs that astronomers launched in a space vehicle hoping to discover other intelligent life forms in the galaxy, quite like what NASA has done in the past. To her horror, Durand realizes the song she hears is one that she so harmlessly selected for the probe herself. The invaders found earth by tracing back the music to its origin and the astronomer is devastated to learn that it was her team’s recordings that led them here. In the final episode, Durand does find a frequency to disable the attack – at least for now, but we are not witnesses to its implementation. However, there are other complex and very gray aspects to the final episode of part one of the series that make for great emotional and tragic drama.
I was taught long ago in school that bacteria, the killers of aliens in past War of the Worlds films, were living, natural beings. Viruses, on the other hand, I recall as a membraned “box” encasing a squiggly line of nucleic material with a small antenna-like shape atop—a killing machine knowing nothing but sucking life-force from its host and replicating like a blind monster. In the Epix series, the aliens adapt their destructive plans as humans make headway in understanding their weaknesses. Similarly, a virus mutates to evade medical treatments. Yet with great effort, scientists eventually discover medicines that viruses ultimately succumb to no matter how they morph. It may be a little silly to say that life will be true to art here, but in my heart, I believe that it will be our tireless, selfless scientists who bring down or find a way to protect us from this current viral invasion.
Not many of us around the Tri-Institutional community have experienced a pandemic situation like COVID-19. News pundits and politicians are saying this is “unprecedented.” But is it? The word “pandemic” reminded me of references to the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. Though that event was caused by an influenza virus, from a different family than the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, there are similarities between that outbreak and the current one. Perhaps we can learn lessons from the pandemic that happened almost 100 years ago.
The influenza pandemic started in the spring of 1918 and lasted until the spring of 1919 during World War I. The Allied countries didn’t want people to panic or to distract from the war effort, so they censored reports of the new virulent flu. Spain was neutral, so most reports of the flu came from their newspapers; thus, it became known as the Spanish flu. However, the actual origin of the flu is still unclear.
There are three current hypotheses as to where the 1918 influenza virus started: Kansas, France, or China. A flu-like illness started appearing in Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas in late 1917. It was first reported on March 11th, 1918. At that point more than 100 soldiers had gotten sick and it was spreading quickly. Troops from this camp were shipped to Europe shortly after. Some say that this was not the origin because there was a deadlier flu in New York City at the same time. A 2018 review of the origins of the 1918 pandemic suggests that viral haemagglutinin proteins found in the samples from Kansas were older than those of the 1918 flu. Some think the virus first showed up in Étaples, France in late 1917 where there was an English military camp that was overcrowded with hundreds of thousands of soldiers passing through every day. Pigs and poultry were also kept at the camp, animals suspected of being carriers of the flu strain. And some think this flu started in China, although it’s hard to tell given that records from the country at the time are very sparse. There was a mild flu there at the time, and tens of thousands of Chinese workers toiled behind the French and English lines of the war. A 2018 study by evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey showed that there was no evidence of this flu along the routes the Chinese migrants traveled to Europe, suggesting that China might not have been the origin. This first wave lasted through the spring of 1918.
The second wave started in August of that year and was deadlier than the first. New flu cases started appearing in France, Sierra Leone, and the United States. This time, predominantly young adults were affected. At Army and Navy training camps outside of Boston, almost half of the soldiers died. Worsening the spread, sick soldiers were often sent on crowded trains to crowded hospitals. In September of 1918, New York City started mandating that flu diagnoses be reported and requiring sick patients to be isolated at home. Many cities closed theaters, schools, churches, and bars and banned public gatherings. Philadelphia, however, decided to go ahead with a war bonds parade. Within days of the parade, tens of thousands were sick, and within ten days, over 1,000 people died. October of 1918 was the deadliest month of the pandemic. The United States recorded 195,000 deaths from the flu. Regulations banning spitting in public were passed. In November, news articles about the disease started appearing more frequently as the virus moved from France to Spain. Quarantine signs were put on the homes of people diagnosed with the flu. Yet this same month, people gathered in large numbers to celebrate Armistice Day. As the second wave ended in December, public health campaigns appeared instructing people to put their tissues in the garbage after sneezing into them. Officials asked businesses to stagger their opening and closing times and for people to walk to work to limit crowding on mass transit. The death rate overwhelmed morgues and bodies piled up.
A third, but smaller wave began in February of 1919. In New York City, only about 700 diagnoses and sixty-seven flu deaths were recorded. During this wave, city hospitals around the country set up studies of treatments for influenza. Efforts were made to implement more nursing school programs to address the nursing shortage created by the pandemic. It is now recognized that this shortage was partially due to a societal reluctance to hire African-American nurses. Near the end of the pandemic, President Woodrow Wilson collapsed during the Versailles Peace Conference in April of 1919; it is thought that he also contracted the flu.
Thanks to studies over the last few decades, we now know that the 1918 influenza virus was an H1N1 strain, the same type that caused the swine flu epidemic in 2009. Our knowledge of the strain comes from preserved bodies in the permafrost in Alaska, where the pandemic had been particularly lethal to Native Americans, wiping out entire Inuit villages. In 2008, scientists were able to exhume one of the bodies and obtain tissue samples containing the virus. Because of the extreme cold, the viral particles were relatively well-preserved, and they were able to sequence its genome. A study by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the United States Department of Agriculture, and Mount Sinai Medical School determined that a set of three genes enabled the virus to weaken bronchial tubes, which allowed for secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia.
It is now thought that the 1918 flu virus spread so easily throughout the world due to several factors, including military troop movements. Many military installations were overcrowded, and more soldiers died from the flu than in battle. Malnutrition and poor hygiene were more common than today. Interestingly, the flu particularly struck people under age 65, which accounted for almost 90% of the fatalities. This was because influenza caused what is called a “cytokine storm,” an overreaction of the immune system, so young adults with stronger immune systems had stronger overreactions. Furthermore, the disease was not well-diagnosed, as it often caused bleeding in mucus membranes, a symptom not usually characteristic of the flu. There were no antiviral drugs available at the time. It is estimated that about 500 million individuals around the world were infected during the course of the pandemic, or about 25% of the world population. In the U.S., about 28% of the population, almost twenty-nine million, became infected.
Global fatality estimates run from seventeen million to 100 million, or from 1% to 5% of the world. Estimated deaths for the U.S. run from 500,000 to 675,000, or around 0.5 % of the country’s population. Doctors would prescribe 8-30 grams of aspirin, which we now know is toxic. In fact, many deaths were due to aspirin poisoning. There was a high fatality rate among pregnant women. Studies have shown that children born to infected women had lower education levels and socioeconomic status than the general population.
Research has shown that cities like Saint Louis, which had early and sustained practices of social distancing and quarantining the sick, were effective in reducing the spread and had very low fatalities. Saint Louis is often compared to the aforementioned situation in Philadelphia that had little intervention and high numbers of deaths. While these effective practices are similar to the situation with COVID-19 today, a significant difference is that influenza was infectious only during onset of symptoms, not like the asymptomatic transmission that is thought to be possible with this current coronavirus. While there are many parallels between the 1918 flu and COVID-19 pandemics, as of this writing, the global number of deaths from SARS-CoV-2 is 128,000 with 26,000 in the U.S., representing about 0.002% of the current population, five hundred times lower than during the flu pandemic a hundred years ago. Nutrition, hygiene, medicine, and communication have significantly improved during the last century. Remember to wash your hands several times a day, avoid touching your face, and distance yourself from crowds so that hopefully this current pandemic will become part of the history books soon.
Winter in Scotland
Traveling off-season in Scotland allows for quieter access to tourist sites, such as castles and palaces, that are usually crowded and overrun in spring and summer (although some shutter for winter months but allow for strolls on their grounds). In December 2019, my wife and I lucked out with unusually mild weather for our entire stay in Ballater, a burgh in Aberdeenshire on the River Dee and close to Balmoral Castle. We also spent a few days in Edinburgh.
Nick Didkovsky, Bioinformatics Group Supervisor in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Rockefeller, announces record releases and video premieres from his bands Doctor Nerve and Vomit Fist:
- Doctor Nerve is an eight-piece instrumental band and just released what may be their heaviest and most hard-hitting record yet, LOUD (available on CD, digital download, and limited edition vinyl). The band also recently premiered a video, “If You Were Me Right Now I’d Be Dead,” where the musicians filmed the music at half-speed and backwards, then flipped and sped up the footage to synchronize to the music, for a very unique and jittery effect.
- Vomit Fist is a three-piece metal band that just released their second EP, Omnicide. This release made the top twenty-five releases of 2019 by Sonic Abuse, and consists of extremely dense, high energy tracks, some of which are incredibly short (in fact, one piece serves as a convenient, twenty-second hand washing guide). A new lyric video for the track “Flies Choke the Grove” premiered on Invisible Oranges and can be viewed here.
Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office has released a new music video, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Langs acted as video director and musician, covering the song “I’ve Been Everywhere” while setting his performance to photos and footage from the past decade of his travels. Langs’ release can be viewed on his YouTube page.
Email Megan E. Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!