by Ashlea Morgan
When met with daunting obstacles—be it as trivial as blank pages waiting to be filled or as devastating as global pandemics—relatable first reactions are panic and hopelessness.
We are in the midst of two insidious threats to life. One of these, COVID-19, is new. The other, unjust and violent discrimination against Black people, is much older and deeply entrenched. How in the world will we overcome? Our emotions are raw and that can feel paralyzing. But, lives are at stake so action is required. We must respond.
As a result of the dual pandemics, two responses have emerged: (1) a concerted effort of scientists and clinicians at institutions all over the world, including Columbia, working to understand and combat COVID-19, and (2) a movement that has spread across all 50 U.S. states and internationally to call for the end of systemic racism and oppression.
Even as we are impelled to step up, we face challenges. I had apprehensions about joining CRAC and writing this post, but talking with scientists—including Dr. Howie Wu—reminded me that these challenges are universal and can be overcome. In this post, I’ll share three insights I gained, my story of stepping up in both pandemics, and hopefully empower you with the resources to do the same.
1 | It’s us versus no one
Like many researchers, after non-essential lab work ramped down, I wanted to volunteer. But, as a graduate student at Columbia, I was not eligible to volunteer for CRAC projects that most directly benefit Columbia's clinicians and researchers fighting COVID-19 or infected patients. I thought I could not help with the anti-COVID effort. However, as I began looking for other remote opportunities, I found the call for volunteers to join the CRAC blog team.
Given that I had done some science writing before, I figured perhaps I could help. I opened the application and began filling it in. As I finished copying and pasting this link to my work, I paused. I was struck by familiar thoughts. Who am I to think I can do this? I’ve never blogged for the public before.
“If you can’t find anyone better, then I can try.” In his initial application to be the manager of the IRB data management project, Howie too expressed doubt. Dr. Howie Wu is a Columbia postdoc in a lab in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Because the stakes are so high right now and we are dealing with people’s lives, we begin to question if we are the best person. We may think ‘there is someone better...’ Indeed, there are likely better and more qualified people to do any job.
The issue is that they are not here now and we need to get the job done.
What Howie realized and stressed to me was: “no one was going to [do it] unless we do. It’s not us vs. a better, more qualified person. It is us vs. no one.” We who are able now, should try and do the work now.
2 | We succeed more than we fail
As a project manager for the COVID-19 database, Howie worked with a team of other volunteer postdocs to build a searchable database for COVID-19 researchers in collaboration with Columbia University’s IT department. The idea was to find and compile the ongoing efforts in laboratories across Columbia campuses (i.e. CUIMC, Morningside, and ZMBBI) that were engaged in COVID-19–related research projects. The team would then build a database that would facilitate researchers in finding a resource or a collaborator, without duplicating efforts.
“We are highly trained grad students, postdocs, and above,” Howie says. "We are able to do the work. Sure there are people with many more years of experience managing patient samples or building a database, who would probably be more efficient based on their skills. But, we are also skilled and quite capable.” If we made it this far in our careers, he added, “we’ve succeeded more than we’ve failed.”
After just two weeks of work and troubleshooting, an update announced that “the database is now live for administrators, faculty, officers of research, and officers of instruction. We are expanding access to students soon.” They did it and did it quickly! Howie and his team created the database.
“A version of it,” he told me.
3 | 90% is probably good enough
“[We] had to learn on the fly... and if we rewind back and try again, it could have been done better.” This is a common retort, similar to ‘if I had more time’ or ‘if I knew what I know now’. It is probably true, but there was no time and I did not know then. The database works and researchers are able to use it. Howie suggests “90% [of perfection] is probably good enough.” The achievement of succeeding in completing the task is more than good enough.
Putting it together
In reflecting on my exchanges with Howie, something clicked for me.
He shared his experience of doubting whether he was the best person to do the work, but showing up anyways, doing it, and succeeding. It parallels my experiences in joining the blog team and more generally my own academic journey.
I've just turned the corner on my 5th year of Ph.D. training. But, I must confess I’ve always hesitated to proclaim, ‘I’m a scientist.’ Adding the clause ‘as a scientist,’ was a suggestion I received while editing my first blog post to place me in the authoritative writer role. I held back. I would have rather written, “as someone who researches a specific topic in neurobiology (a field unrelated to this post), I have read just a little about serology testing and...” It acknowledges how I feel about my position, but would have shrunk my authoritative voice.
My publications appear on PubMed. I present my work at conferences. I’ve been awarded fellowships. I’ve done scientific research for just over 7 years now. I am not as experienced as a senior scientist, but I don’t need to reach that level before my accomplishments are valid. I am doing science so I am a scientist. And, I am going to go ahead and say, I am a blogger.
The urgency of this moment demands that I don't wait for someone else to write this blog post.
Who and When? | Me, Now
As a volunteer CRAC blogger and a scientist who is Black, I feel a responsibility to address the additional pandemic that is killing Black people and denying them justice. Despite feelings of doubt, my voice has value and relevance, and should join the voices of those who came before and those who will come after me.
The pervasive social systems that condone racial injustice and police brutality are responsible for the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, George Floyd, and far too many Black lives that needed to matter.
I am here now and affirm #BlackLivesMatter.
For me, the intersection of systemic racism and sexism that uphold the status quo in society and academia cannot be disentangled from ‘I don't belong’ moments that grasp me each time I struggle to self-identify as a scientist or blogger.
Questions like “who are you… do you work here?” from a senior researcher while eating lunch alone in the lab’s breakroom made it evident my first year. And, it is clearly evident now during every Zoom call where floating faces of my colleagues plan for and wish we can 'return to normal,' when I don’t.
Our society normally values being productive and profitable over being healthy and safe. The status quo willfully allows overt and covert acts of racism rather than actively fighting oppression. It makes me feel that I don’t belong and I do.
Because of the color of my skin, I find myself facing two global pandemics that disproportionately affect me. But, I am not alone. I've heard fellow Black colleagues, elders, and friends share their private traumas, microaggressions, and stories of brushes with racial injustice.
The public trauma of repeated racial injustice and oppression triggers anyone who has ever had to justify why they are occupying a space to someone who assumes they don’t belong. Adding on to COVID-19-related fears, deep-rooted and painful collective memories are coming back to our minds.
While the grief and pain are not equally shared, the public trauma of the pandemics caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus and systemic racism is witnessed by everyone.
In an emergency situation, when people start crowding around the scene they say to directly point to the person who will run and get help. I felt like I was pointed at, do you?
Who and When? | You, Now
‘I don’t belong’ and ‘I’m not the best person for the job’ strictly because ‘there are more experienced or qualified people’ are thoughts we all have faced at some point in our lives. But, dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism have collided at this moment and require us to act. It’s not ‘one or the other’, but ‘both + and’. Lives are at stake.
During these crises, individuals, like Howie and I, who might have been the only ones able to do the much-needed work hesitated. I would guess many re-think doing the work altogether.
The COVID-19 pandemic is new and the work needed to succeed in its resolution is on the way. The pandemic of systemic racism has vastly deeper roots and efforts have been and will need to be sustained long-term for progress towards a resolution that is still far away.
We have all been a witness to the public grief and trauma of these pandemics. We may initially panic, fear, doubt, or feel hopeless. But, there are tangible next steps that only we can take based on our unique abilities and mosaic of identities—e.g. race, country of origin, education, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and disability status. (scroll down for Resources).
Who and When? | Non-Black Allies, Now
My non-Black allies often express to me, “I can never fully understand” It’s true, but the statement dismisses the opportunity to learn.
My story is that of a Canadian-born Black woman of Jamaican heritage raised and living in the U.S. Talking to me or reading this blog post allows you to learn a little bit about a singular Black story that is a part of a huge collection of Black stories (here is another). But, it is not and cannot give you the full scope of the Black experience.
Keep reading, watching, listening to, and then engaging with Black stories in the same way we are all expected to read, watch, listen to, engage, and know white stories (see publication).
This work is for all of us to do.
Who and When? | All of Us, Now
We are living through two pandemics. I am reaching out to point in your direction and asking you to help (knowing full well that I have three fingers on my hand that point back at me).
We all need to do the work to the best of our abilities, but 90% of perfection is probably enough. Maybe we use the wrong hashtag. Maybe we share a misinformed social media post and now need to edit it (< oops..that one was me).
Don't let this moment pass by without taking tangible next steps: offer up your continued support and step up to take sustained, continuous actions that add to the collective work (scroll down for Resources) Doing the work isn't easy. But, here is what I have learned:
If we own our mistakes, ask difficult questions, do our research, and work collaboratively with other skilled and honest people, we will succeed more often than fail.
We need to succeed now.
To Dr. Howie Wu and the members of the CRAC COVID-19 database team: You all succeeded in creating a searchable database to link researchers doing vital COVID-19 research. Thank you for continuing this great work.
To my dear friend who hesitated, but stepped up and made an awesome illustration in record time, Amelyn Ng.
To all those that read drafts of this post, especially members of the CRAC blog team: Kelly Butler, Dr. Paula Croxson, and our leader, Dr. Barbara Noro. Thanks for your ongoing support!
On a wider scale, to those leading the battle against COVID‐19, and to those who are doing the work to advocate and proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter. Keep it up. I cheer for you daily!
To all fellow Black scientists and friends: A special thank you and a tight virtual hug. You inspire me. Stay safe. Breathe and meditate. Take care of yourself. As a friend reminded me: your existence is resistance.
Resources for stepping up during dual pandemics
Tangible next steps to combat COVID-19. Consider joining one of the CRAC projects or volunteering remotely. We need help:
1| At Columbia (If you are here, consider joining CRAC or Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19)
2| Everywhere remotely (There are a lot of other remote opportunities)
3| In NYC and surrounding areas remotely (This is a senior check-in program. Commitment is 30 minutes 1-2x/week via phone. I’m a volunteer caller and like it)
Tangible next steps to combat systemic racism and police brutality. Consider these resources to educate yourself and take action. We need to:
1| Make a public pledge and ask other people and institutions to as well
2| Educate ourselves
Finally, seek resources to protect your own mental wellbeing, whether in New York or elsewhere. To say the very least, we can use the extra support right now.
-Post 5: If not now, when? If not us, who? Perspectives on Stepping Up During Dual Pandemics
-Post 4: Answering the call: CRAC Serology Testing Volunteers Join the Fight Against COVID-19
-Volunteer Profiles: An opportunity to “meet” some of the serology testing volunteers
-Post 3: The human scrub machine
- Post 2: Biobank volunteers process 15,500 samples
- Post 1: The CRAC organizational structure
Covid-19 has changed what matters.
The CRAC team was born as a grassroots response to a pandemic none of us has experienced in their lifetime. CRAC has now grown into a community of like-minded postdocs, students, faculty, and administrators, from across Columbia University - a diverse and inclusive ecosystem of talented individuals with a simple goal: support projects to address what matters now, the fight against covid-19.
These are the stories of how the CRAC ecosystem has evolved and continues to adapt to bring life to efforts that became bigger than the sum of their parts. These are also the stories of single individuals who continue to inspire others with their unheralded efforts.