May 12th, 2021

By Joseph Thomas

I still felt incredibly groggy in the morning when I rolled over to check my email inbox on my phone. I usually joke that my brain isn’t fully “on” until I have my morning coffee and this cold April Saturday was no exception. I was staying in a Philadelphia suburb with my partner, their roommate, and their roommate’s parents. My partner was immunocompromised, and when the virus began to rapidly spread in New York City we made the decision to leave for a safer, more spread out environment. When we left there was fear that New York City would be quarantined, that the rich had been tipped off early to flee in helicopters, and that being trapped inside could be a death sentence for anyone vulnerable. Luckily those all turned out to be rumors, but the situation in the city was still dire. Only a few days prior I had sipped my therapeutic morning coffee and watched a livestream of the USNS Comfort docking in Manhattan, in anticipation of the human suffering that was soon to overflow from emergency rooms citywide.

My eyes finally focused a bit more and I saw the email I had been waiting for. “How quickly can you get back to Brooklyn? I want you to start training on how to run Coronavirus tests on Monday.” A former colleague of mine was organizing graduate students and medical students to help the overwhelmed medical staff of University Hospital Brooklyn. In the previous weeks I had emailed everyone I could think of, from hospitals all the way to the National Guard, trying to find some way I could help. As a scientist I felt so helpless just sitting around as the world collapsed all around. In that process I had placed my name on a list of student volunteers that my colleague created, but in the back of my mind hoped I would never get called up. The hospital had just been declared an emergency COVID-only site by the New York state governor and needed extra hands to handle the tsunami of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) based tests that needed to be run. Low-income Black communities in New York disproportionately bore the brunt of COVID-19 in neighborhoods like East Flatbush where the hospital is located, and the numbers of people coming into the emergency room every day were staggering. New York City emerged as the disease epicenter for the entire country at that time and some of the news reports starting to come out were terrifying. Being selected meant that I would have to leave my partner behind in Philadelphia while I went back into the proverbial lion’s den for an undetermined length of time. Getting COVID-19 and ending up intubated in the emergency room was a non-zero chance. All of this sank in as I read the email over and over while my partner slept peacefully next to me.

Last photo taken after loading the car to drive New York City from Philadelphia.

I had self-taught myself PCR in the last months of 2019. It is a useful technique and crucial to my PhD thesis work. I never thought learning a specific technique would highlight me of all people,  to do anything special, but here I was in 2020 doing just that and it all seemed surreal. These were my thoughts as I loaded my small car with as much food as it would fit and left Philadelphia for Brooklyn. People still in New York City were saying it was becoming hard to get certain groceries, so I prepared for the worst and bought enough food to hold up for a month aiding the emergency response if needed. I drove up I-95 in eerie isolation, not seeing other cars for miles on the northbound side. I was scared but also excited. I kept thinking how silly it was that I just happened to be a biomedical engineering PhD student during a pandemic. Somehow uniquely qualified to make a difference yet drowning in imposter syndrome that I was about to be the frontline defense to a global crisis.

By a stroke of luck my partner had an apartment 4 blocks from University Hospital Brooklyn, so this was my new home since I could walk to and from the hospital and living alone would prohibit me from spreading the virus to anyone else at home. I spent my days running PCR tests on the Cepheid system that had recently won emergency use authorization. We were required to be decked-out in PPE since we were handling dozens of patient samples a day, some of which surely contained COVID-19. The hospital itself had been transformed into a viral response hotspot. Triage tents were set up outside the ambulance bay and the cafeteria had been converted into an emergency overflow ward. Refrigerated trucks had been sent over as well since the morgue had run out of space and the tide of patients was endless. When I came home from the hospital, the first thing I would do was spray my clothes with ethanol then immediately shower and change to ensure that I wouldn’t end up infecting myself by continued exposure to my hospital clothes. Evenings became time to work on my graduate studies, which almost seemed ridiculous in comparison with what I was seeing during the day. Self-care became a crucial activity because burnout was ever present, and I was living alone in a stressful environment.

Wearing an N95 mask and medical gown while running tests.


As time went on, the tide began to turn in the fight against the virus. Each day I worked at the hospital I would run more and more tests, but the ratio of positive tests to negatives was shrinking. The lockdowns had bought hospitals around the country invaluable time to experiment with treatments and statistics showed the number of patients dying every day was receding. The public support for frontline healthcare workers around the hospital was overwhelming. Every evening at 7 pm I would open the apartment window and hear people cheering, clapping, and banging pots. I had been feeling depressed and felt detached from this practice until one evening on the phone my partner said, “They are cheering for you, you should be so proud of everything you have done.” In June, the hospital lost its COVID-only designation and I ended my time there. My PhD lab was reopening, and I knew it was time to shift gears back to my own research. I saw firsthand how valuable my research and lab skills were and I was emboldened to finish my degree. I had developed a new confidence in my own abilities and a new interest in using my skillset to combat infectious disease. Working a frontline pandemic response gives you training you will not get elsewhere in a PhD program. It was a sobering reminder that science is a high stakes game and that our actions as scientists do have far reaching effects, but this also means that the work we do can positively impact people.

Weathered mural in Downtown Brooklyn, photographed in Summer 2020. As of writing, the death toll in the US stands at 500,000 and rises every day.


This pandemic has caused trauma at all levels, from institutions to individuals. It has laid bare healthcare inequities by disproportionately targeting poor communities and communities of color. I have reflected much on what life was like from March to June and I am still processing everything that happened. My reflection has also given me a new perspective on my identity. Before the pandemic I would describe myself as a scientist, as if it was the defining feature of my existence on this Earth. My experience has made me revise this though, and to view myself as a human being who just happens to do science for a living. I was in no way insulated from the human effects of the pandemic just because I could mix a buffer solution or because I have a graduate degree. Mental health is just as important as experiments and data, and to not recognize this is to dehumanize myself. This is true for everyone across the board. We have been through hell and we owe it to ourselves to be kind to ourselves and to each other because we are not out of the woods yet. I check the news daily and I see cases rising in the USA and around the world. As scientists we may find ourselves back on the frontlines, but I know we still have a lot of fight left in us and we will rise to meet the challenge. COVID-19 felt like a sucker punch out of nowhere but being up close and personal with all the amazing people mounting the response makes me confident that if/when another pandemic arises, we will be ready.