Graduating Class of 2020

Megan E. Kelley

On Thursday, June 11, The Rockefeller University held a virtual convocation for the conferring of doctorate degrees upon thirty graduate students. This streamed ceremony was the culmination of years of dedication, hard work, and perseverance by the honorees. Although we were not able to commemorate this occasion with our usual parade and after-party, this in no way diminishes our shared enthusiasm for the accomplishments of these new graduates. Natural Selections would like to acknowledge and celebrate these former students. Congratulations, doctors! We wish you well in your future endeavors.

Sarah Ackerman

Sarah Baker

“Graduate school has been a trek of self-discovery, a lesson in resilience, and a time to reflect on what I want my place in this world to be. I will forever be grateful to Rockefeller for the support, the friendships, and the unforgettable journey.“

Mariel Bartley

Kate Bredbenner

Ian Andrew Eckardt Butler

Daniel Alberto Cabrera

James Chen

Brooke Conti Trousdale

Amelia Dunn

Nicholas Hernandez

Alexis Jaramillo Cartagena

Nathaniel Kastan

Mariya B. London

Emily M. Lorenzen

Paul Andrew Muller

Lisa Brooke Noble

Philip Mojsov Nussenzweig

Sean O’Connor

Benjamin Ostendorf

Luca Parolari

Rudolf Píša

Cristina Santarossa

Stephanie Lena Sarbanes

Aylesse Sordillo

Leonid Alexeevich Timashev

Waring “Buck” Trible

Zikun Wang

Daniel Neil Weinberg

Anna Yoney

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Murder Hornets, What’s in a Name?

Aileen Marshall

With so many more significant stories in the news recently, you may have only vaguely noticed stories about murder hornets. Is this yet another thing we should worry about? It turns out, not as much as the name would imply. While they might look very frightening, they aren’t going around killing people. However, they may be a problem for our already threatened bee population. 

The insects referred to as murder hornets in the media are officially called Asian giant hornets, or Vespa mandarinia. They are found all over Asia and far eastern Russia, but most commonly in Japan, where they are called giant sparrow bees. In 2008 the name murder hornet appeared in some Japanese news stories. That name was picked up by a New York Times article and has spread ever since. 

The name probably evolved because of their formidable appearance. They can be up to two inches long with a wingspan of up to three inches and a stinger a quarter of an inch long. The thorax is dark brown and the abdomen has contrasting stripes of dark brown to black alternating with yellow to orange bands. The queens are larger than the males, also known as drones or workers. The males do not have a stinger. They can be distinguished from the common hornets found in the United States, Vespa crabro, not only by their size, and also by their different color patterns. A dark brown anterior abdomen and a yellow posterior abdomen with dark brown spots is found on our native hornets.

In September of 2019, a nest of Asian giant hornets was found on Vancouver Island, Canada. That December, there were four confirmed sightings in the state of Washington, with one dead specimen found. The nest in Vancouver was immediately destroyed by the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture. There were two more sightings, one each in Vancouver and Washington as of May 29. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is telling Washington residents to report any sightings. DNA tests showed that the nest in Vancouver and the hornet in Washington came from two different colonies.

While the sting from an Asian giant hornet can be very painful, it is very rarely fatal. Only about forty people a year die from these hornet stings in all of Asia, always from multiple stings. In contrast, sixty to eighty people die from bee stings in this country alone. These hornets are not aggressive and only sting if their nest is threatened. What makes their sting so painful is that a peptide in the venom, mastoparan, stimulates the enzyme phospholipase, which degrades tissue. It also contains mandaratoxin, a neurotoxin. It takes a high volume for this venom to be fatal. It has a lethal dose measurement (LD50) of 4 mg/kg, while the venom of our southern yellowjacket has an LD50 of 3.5 mg/kg. In Asia, people who have died had an average of fifty-nine stings, while most have survived with an average twenty-eight stings. 

These hornets have a life cycle similar to other hornet species. Over the winter, queens hibernate and all the male hornets in the nest die. In the spring, fertilized queens will leave the old nest and start looking for a new spot to build. Asian giant hornets almost always build their nest underground, often in abandoned rodent tunnels. They also like to nest under tree roots, or in the bottom of a hollow of a dead tree. In contrast, our native hornets build their nests well above ground, in tree branches or under roof eaves. After the queen establishes a spot, unfertilized females build the cells in the nest and raise the workers. Then the workers go out and get tree sap to feed to the queens. There is a hierarchy among queens and the alpha queens get fed first. Around July, the unfertilized females stop leaving the nest and die, and the workers continue to go out and get food. By August the nest is usually at its peak of about one hundred workers. 

Asian giant hornet. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

From August through October, the workers switch to hunting other insects for food, as a source of protein: bees, other hornets, and mantises. A worker will find a beehive and release a pheromone to attract other workers. Japanese bees have evolved a defense mechanism. They will let the hornet in, then many bees will surround it, beating their wings. This generates heat and CO2, which suffocates the hornet. European honeybees that have been introduced into Japan do not have this defense. A single bee will attack the hornet outside the hive, but because of the difference in size, it does not have a chance. The Asian giant hornet will take apart the bee, only carrying its protein-rich thorax back to its nest. If more than one hornet attacks a hive, they go into what is called a slaughter phase. They will keep killing the bees instead of returning to their nest, until all the bees are dead. Then they enter the occupation phase, where they go inside the hive and prey on the larvae. They can kill a whole hive in one to two days. It is not known how bees in this country would react since they have not encountered Asian giant hornets before.

In the fall the fertilized queens produce both male and female larvae and care for them. From October to November males and new queens leave the nest and mate. This is their most active time. Their colors get more intense and queens grow an average of twenty percent larger. Workers then change their food source from proteins to carbohydrates. 

There are two main ways to get rid of these hornets. One way is to burn or apply pesticide to the nests at night when they are asleep. The other way is to set bait traps. These traps have a sweet solution to attract the hornets, but the hornets can’t exit the trap. These are often used by beekeepers to help prevent loss of their colonies. 

There is no need for people to worry about being attacked and killed by these insects. The USDA is vigilant about not letting them become a new invasive species. However if they do take hold in North America, they could be a threat to our bee population, which is already threatened by nicotinamides and colony collapse disorder.

Japanese honeybees (Apis cerana japonica) form a “bee ball” in which two hornets (Vespa simillima xanthoptera) are engulfed and heated. Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture, Honshu Island, Japan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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What It’s Like to Get a COVID-19 Antibody Test in NYC

Anna Amelianchik

Antibody testing for COVID-19 is now widely available in New York City. Unlike the polymerase chain reaction test used to detect coronavirus from the infamous nasal and throat swab, the antibody test does not determine whether you currently have the disease. Instead, it can detect antibodies against COVID-19 present in blood and determine whether you had COVID-19 in the past. The body produces antibodies to facilitate the destruction of invading pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2, by immune cells. Antibody tests are designed to detect two specific types of antibodies, IgG and/or IgM. Patients with COVID-19 develop IgM antibodies shortly after the virus attacks. IgM antibodies are then replaced with IgG antibodies which become detectable in the blood of COVID-19 patients approximately ten days after they become symptomatic. While all patients recovering from COVID-19 develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, scientists and health authorities are debating whether the presence of antibodies protects people from reinfection. In addition, antibody levels may wane over time effectively erasing any acquired immunity. For instance, a 2006 study showed that antibodies against SARS-CoV, a coronavirus closely related to the virus that ravaged the world in the past months, lasted for several months to two years, although all study participants had low antibody levels after about fifteen months. While the longitudinal profile of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 is still unclear, a predictive modeling study showed that, in the absence of recurrent vaccination, short-term immunity (~ten months) against SARS-CoV-2 would lead to annual outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, while long-term immunity (~two years) would cause biennial outbreaks. However, it is critically important to conduct antibody tests to better understand the impact of the novel coronavirus on communities that are heavily affected by it. 

Over a two-week period in May, the NYC Department of Health conducted a citywide antibody survey and tested approximately 70,000 NYC residents for the presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Launched in partnership with BioReference Laboratories, the study was designed to help health authorities better understand the spread of COVID-19, how the body responds to the virus that causes it, how often the virus causes an infection with symptoms, the frequency of specific symptoms, and risk factors for this disease. “For New York, a city that has been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of information will be of great value in helping healthcare professionals to analyze the presence and progression of the disease in order to identify at risk populations for possible early intervention,” said Jon R. Cohen, M.D., the Executive Chairman of BioReference Laboratories, in a press release posted on the BioReference website on May 7. The antibody test was offered to NYC residents for free with testing sites available in all five boroughs. Several members of our editorial board participated in this antibody survey at the testing site closest to The Rockefeller University campus in Long Island City, Queens. Located inside a repurposed warehouse, the testing site prioritized the safety of study participants with temperature scans at the entrance and free personal protective equipment (PPE). Several blood draw stations were spaced out to allow for a distance of at least six feet between them. Colorful tape on the floor indicated the direction of foot traffic and prevented crowding. The nurses, in full PPE, drew blood through vein puncture and collected one tube of blood per participant. For those who filled out the screening survey online, the entire process could take less than ten minutes. To determine the presence of antibodies in blood samples, BioReference used the Roche Elecsys test with 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. The results of the test were available online on the BioReference portal 24-48 hours after the test was administered. As of this writing, the NYC Department of Health paused the recruitment of new participants for this survey. However, you can still access antibody testing in NYC, often with $0 co-pay for those with private health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare. Some testing sites might also provide free antibody tests for those without health insurance. For example, Mount Sinai is looking for volunteers to donate convalescent plasma used to treat patients with COVID-19. They are screening the members of the public who have previously had the symptoms of COVID-19 and waiving fees for antibody tests. To participate, fill out this survey. For the full list of testing sites available near you, visit the New York State Department of Health website.

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Culture Corner

And the Alternative Oscar Goes To…

Bernie Langs

You obviously cannot hand out Academy Awards for every superlative acting performance and deliver a statuette to all deserving movies every year. That said, here is a commercial-free presentation of Honorary Oscars for a handful of overlooked actors, actresses, musicians, films, and filmmakers that doesn’t take three prime time hours to get through and has absolutely no Geico commercials.

For goodness sake, give Amy Adams her due with a career award for Best Consistently Awesome Display of the Depth of the Emotional Dictionary. Adams has failed to earn an Oscar five times for supporting roles and once in the Best Actress category. She is gifted with an uncanny ability to dive deep into an oceanic expression of diverse emotions. She is a fearless explorer of uncharted feelings and personality traits expressed to perfection in the diverse characters she creates. As a brilliant linguistics academic in 2016’s sci-fi thriller, Arrival, she raises the film’s power and intensity to unexpected intellectual heights. Adams presents to her audience a study in disastrous life choices in romance and love in her role as Susan Morrow, a wealthy Los Angeles-based art gallery owner, in Tom Ford’s deeply disturbing and violent tragedy, Nocturnal Animals (2016). In David O. Russell’s dark comedic take on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ABSCAM sting, American Hustle (2013), Adams and Christian Bale shine as a pair of con artists conscripted by federal agents to entrap mobsters and crooked politicians in exchange for a reduction of their criminal charges. Adams is also no stranger to outright comedy, portraying famed pilot Amelia Earhart in spunky overdrive in one of the Night at the Museum franchise films, and as a fairyland, songstress princess brought magically to New York City in 2007’s Enchanted. How much more does she need to give us on celluloid before the Academy recognizes her extraordinary talent?

The Oscar for Most Overlooked Soundtrack Artist goes to Jimmy Cliff for his acting and musicianship in the 1973 film The Harder They Come. Set on the island of Jamaica, Cliff’s story about a young man in poverty trying to beat the oppressive system stacked against him as a musician and outlaw literally brought reggae music to the international community. The title tune is a joy-filled social statement and Cliff rises again to the moment with You Can Get It If You Really Want. A lesser known gem on the soundtrack is Johnny Too Bad, a sublimely catchy bit of island sound performed by The Slickers. Hunt that song and the rest of the album down on Spotify and you will not be disappointed. 

Best Badass Performance in a Futuristic Non-Superhero Role is a tie with the award going to Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow (2014) for her portrayal of Sergeant Rita Vrataski, the “Angel of Verdun,” and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) as Imperator Furiosa, a warrior bent on moral vengeance in a post-apocalyptic world surviving in a desolate desert landscape amid a grotesque, fascist society. Both films are fueled by high-octane action, which may turn off many viewers until they realize that Blunt and Theron’s characters have layer upon layer of complexity. Blunt acts in tandem with Tom Cruise while Theron performs alongside the marvelous Tom Hardy. The audience holds tight as the partners in both films ride nonstop through choreographed mayhem of ever-increasing ferocity. Furiosa accomplishes more in the name of justice (and feminism) as a one-armed, brute-strength crafty soldier dressed in drab fatigues than the newly branded Wonder Woman achieves with her multitude of superpowers.

Best Underappreciated Performance in a Supporting Role is presented to Robert DeNiro for his role as Pat Solitano Sr. in another dark comedy directed by David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook. Released to great acclaim in 2012, the cast is led by Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany) and Bradley Cooper (Pat Jr.) as two emotionally damaged people recovering from difficult life traumas concerning their spouses. The entire supporting cast is incredible, including Chris Tucker as Pat Jr.’s manic former mental hospital friend and Jacki Weaver as Pat Jr.’s snack-baking mom who’s left bewildered by the unfolding events. DeNiro, who was nominated in the Supporting category (and lost), gives a masterful depiction and study of a father confused by his son’s mental illness. Ironically, the audience realizes that although Pat Sr.’s obsessive compulsive disorder may not be on the destructive level of his son’s violent flare-ups, this imbalance was most likely inherited by Pat Jr. As Pat Jr. heals himself through Tiffany’s endearingly quirky and odd wooing, DeNiro’s recovery and revelations are more subtly played out. In a powerfully emotional scene, Pat Sr. transforms himself in a matter of minutes from raging anger towards his son and Tiffany into a complete (and humorous) acceptance and understanding for what she has been doing for his family. The sequence morphs from a position of seemingly irreversible tragedy to a plot shifting moment of hope and redemption.

Best Performance in a Mob Movie More Realistic Than The Sopranos goes to both James Gandolfini (who played Tony Soprano in the HBO series) for his role as Uncle Marv, a bar owner in Brooklyn, and Tom Hardy for his role as bartender, Bob Saginowsky, in 2014’s The Drop. In the final role of Gandolfini’s career (he died suddenly in 2013 just prior to the movie’s release), he plays a bitter man angry with the world about his life and situation, taking his frustrations out on the seemingly slow-witted employee portrayed by Hardy. The bar, now owned by local Chechen gangsters, is being used with Marv’s blessing by the criminals to move their illegal nightly cash take. When the bar is robbed of the mob’s nightly take, the hunt by the ruthless, yet oddly savvy, Chechens devolves into tragedy for Marv and Bob along with many other characters caught in their web of revenge. Bob has long accepted his basic lot in life, but Marv unrealistically holds fast to a fantasy that his patrons still respect the power and aura he once had in better days. In an effort to save him from his own worst instincts, Bob is forced to confront Marv with the uncomfortable truth that he has to move on and understand that he has always been and will never be more than the owner of a small local bar. It is very sad to think about what future roles Gandolfini may have excelled in, had he lived. Hardy remains an actor of fabulous and rare talent, and although he chooses most of his roles selectively, at times his fans must admit that he takes some parts “for the paycheck.”

Best Film Depicting Unwavering Political Courage in an Era of Existential Crisis goes to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) starring Daniel-Day Lewis, which follows the iconic Civil War President as he desperately seeks to secure Congressional votes to ban slavery in the United States, and Darkest Hour (2017) with Gary Oldham as Winston Churchill on the eve of Britain’s entry into World War II. Both Lewis and Oldham deservedly took home the Best Actor statuette for their respective roles. Each film is an exciting tutorial on courageous leaders facing the pressing reality of the potential destruction of their nations. Lincoln and Churchill both remain steadfast with their plans for victory and national survival. They refuse to waver or cave to the many calls put forth by friend and foe alike for ill-advised, half-baked compromises that would leave their countries as empty shells of their historic selves and betray the core values on which their national identities and foundations are grounded. Holding firm to an ideal of freedom for all and staying a moral course during crisis—these are timeless ethical bedrocks so rarely taken to heart by politicians in our own era. Too often we are witnessing an embarrassing international dearth of character in our leaders that would appear as nothing less than shameful in the eyes of those who crafted and refined the living definition of public service for the good of all souls. 

We hope you have enjoyed the First Annual presentation of Honorary Oscars! And now…a message from Geico!

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Pets of Tri-I

Pooja Viswanathan

In this issue, we return with a pet interview. I have had my eye on this little puppy for a while and due to social distancing measures, I have been keeping a respectful distance, but in this time he’s already grown so much that I must introduce him to all of you without delay. Today, I interview Otto, the beautiful dog who has come to live with Tatiane Kanno (Postdoc, Brivanlou Lab, The Rockefeller University). 

Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?

Watson and Otto

Otto: I just turned six months old. In human years I am ten years old. I am a happy little boy!

PV: Is there a story behind your name?

O: My mommy said she likes unusual Brazilian names; Otto is actually short for Otacílio. 

PV: How did you first meet your mommy?

O: I was living in a foster home for a week when my mom started looking for a puppy. I went to visit her house and she could not say no to my cuteness, so she adopted me right then and there. I met my big brother Watson the same day. He is my best friend! He is teaching me how to be a good boy and how to outsmart the hoomans with puppy eyes!

PV: What is your first memory?

O: I was rescued in Texas with two other siblings, but I do not remember much about it. My best memories are from the day I met my new family! 

PV: Where do you live?

O: I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. 

PV: What are your favorite smells of NYC?

O: NYC has such a diversity of smells; I am still exploring so I don’t have a favorite smell, I think. Every day I find something new.

PV: What are your favorite neighborhoods in NYC?

O: I haven’t had the chance to explore much in the city. My hooman said I am not allowed to go out because we are in quarantine. I don’t really know what that means, but hooman is home all the time and I love it! For now, I can say I like walking by the river, and I went to Central Park a couple of times. Central Park is so much fun, a bunch of new things to explore and see. I am looking forward to going back there and chasing squirrels with my brother, Watson.

PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?

O: I would be happy living anywhere else as long as my mommy is with me. I don’t like to be left alone; I cry when she goes out without me. Mommy also said she will take me to Brazil for the holidays, I wonder what it’s like there.

PV: What are your favorite foods?

O: Hooman food of course! Every time she eats, I get very excited and want to eat as well, but mommy said I cannot have much of it. Besides hooman food, I love eating peanut butter and banana treats. 

PV: What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

O: I like walking outside and playing with my big brother Watson. But, what is a weekend? Hooman said every day is a weekend nowadays.

PV: Besides your human roomie, who is your favorite human in the Tri-I community?

O: Watson! Wait, Watson is not a hooman. Hmm, I like Watson’s dad Kevin as well. He likes bullying me all the time, but I know he loves me very much. We used to share the same name. When I was living in my foster home, my name was Kevin as well. Uncle Kevin helped my mommy with the whole adoption process and when he saw my name he told my mom: it is meant to be, it is fate! Adopt him! So, I guess I like him because he helped me find a home! 

PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?

O: One night I had a playdate with my big brother Watson, we had so much fun and I got very thirsty after running all over the place with him. I went to drink water, and the tiny water bowl was empty. Then, I started exploring the house in search of water. When I entered the bathroom, I saw a huge white bowl of water. I was so happy that I had found water, but when I started drinking my mommy came yelling at me and gave me a stink-eye. I still don’t know why; I was just thirsty. Hmm, maybe that was not such a funny story, I got scolded in the end!

PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?

O: Yes, @watson_otto on instagram! I share the account with my big brother, Watson.

PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?

O: To talk because every time my hooman leaves me alone, I scold her, but she doesn’t understand what I am saying. She thinks I’m joking and laughs! 

PV: What do you miss the most about pre-COVID times?

O: I’m a COVID baby. I don’t know anything before COVID. But I wish it would go away so I can go to the dog park. Watson told me it’s so much fun there!

PV: How have you helped your human get through these times?

O: I give her lots of cuddles and kisses! I don’t give her any space to sleep on the bed and I like to share her pillow. This way, I’m sure she isn’t lonely! I also like following her everywhere in the house, even when she is in the shower, I keep peeking to see if she’s okay. She might get stuck indoors, so I make sure she always has company!

Otto

Otto

Otto

Watson and Otto

Otto

Otto and Watson

 

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New York Rhymes

This Time

Konstantina Theofanopoulou

This is a time to amplify Black voices and Black poets. Tagged on my poem on Instagram and on my stories daily (@newyork_rhymes) are Black writers who have inspired me. Read their poetry, support them, and thank them.

Poetry: Dr. Konstantina Theofanopoulou (Instagram: @newyork_rhymes)
One line art: Mikaella Theofanopoulou (Instagram: @m_theta_art)

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Natural Expressions

Digital

Myles Marshall, Lab Manager in Alipasha Vaziri’s laboratory at The Rockefeller University, would like to announce the release of a music video for “Capital T” by Chaos Chaos. Marshall acted as creator and animator for the music video, using a combination of scientific graphic design and animation from his studio, Secret Molecule. By interweaving familiar scientific forms with abstract imagery, Marshall’s animation complements the complex and ethereal nature of the song, 

This month, Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the digital release of his song “Two Paths.” For this pop ballad featuring the vocal talents of opera singer Gretchen Farrar, Langs not only acted as musician, but also as composer. Langs’ collaboration with Farrar for “Two Paths” can be heard here on Langs’ SoundCloud page.

E-mail Megan E. Kelley at mkelley@rockefeller.edu 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!

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Thank you, Sarah!

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.

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June Cover

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Reopening Rockefeller

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 restart@rockefeller.edu.

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.

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Pets of Tri-I: Working from Home with Pets Pt. 2

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. 

David, Maxwell, and Reno Sweeney

“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. 

Karen and Daisy

“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

“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. 

Pippa

“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 (gmichelfel@rockefeller.edu) with your stories and photos.

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Lace Up for Immune Health

Anna Amelianchik

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!

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Culture Corner

Painter as Cinema: Gerhard Richter and Never Look Away

Bernie Langs

View of new works by Gerhard Richter at the Marion Goodman Gallery in 2012; image originally appeared at that time in a Culture Corner art review in Natural Selections

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.

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Quarantine Reads

Emma Garst

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?

(Copyright Open Road Media)

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.

(Copyright Penguin Books)

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. 

(Copyright St. Martin’s Griffin)

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.

(Copyright Penguin Books)

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.

(Copyright Vintage Publishing)

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.

(Copyright Atria Books)

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.

(Copyright Simon Pulse)

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.

(Copyright Harper Perennial)

Miss nature?

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. 

(Copyright Melville House Publishing)

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!

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Quarantine Don’t Reads

Jennifer Einstein

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.

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Natural Expressions

Digital
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 mkelley@rockefeller.edu 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!

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Life on a Roll

Inside Iran: Holy City of Yazd

Nan Pang

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 buscars 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 imagineit 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.

Jāmeh Mosque of Yazd

Wind-catchers of Yazd

Yazd art house rooftop cafe

Amir Chakhmaq complex

Yazd art house

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New York Rhymes

Poetry: Dr. Konstantina Theofanopoulou (Instagram: @newyork_rhymes)
Art: Mikaella Theofanopoulou (Instagram: @m_theta_art)

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May Cover

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Musings on a Ph.D.

Sarah Baker

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.

Photos courtesy of Melissa Jarmel

Photo courtesy of Jim Keller

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 ownyour 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 sciencethis 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 datadeveloping 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.

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