It has been a year since Rochester Institute of Technology and other institutions across the U.S. first shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which caused me to pause and reflect on all that has happened over the past year.
While the toll on society has been terrible, hope is on the horizon with vaccination rates rising and restrictions gradually relaxing thanks to some truly incredible scientific achievements. Developing and beginning to roll out vaccines for this deadly pandemic in less than a year is nothing short of amazing. Over the course of my career, I have never been more proud to be a part of the scientific community.
As dean of RIT’s College of Science, I lead more than 270 faculty and staff that serve more than 1,100 students training to be the next generation of scientists. In the RIT community, scientists from nearly all disciplines have contributed to the battle against the pandemic in some form or another.
My colleagues in virology such as Associate Professor Maureen Ferran have helped the public understand the capabilities and limitations of testing; mathematical modelers such as Associate Professor Nathan Cahill, Assistant Professor Tony Wong, Professor David Ross, and Associate Professor Kara Maki have helped us predict how changes to human behavior can help reduce infection rates; biochemists including André Hudson have helped us assess the effectiveness of products designed to prevent the spread of the virus; our alumni have been on the front lines of developing drugs to treat the virus; and our students have helped us to roll out saliva-based testing on campus.
In a university dedicated to applied learning, we’ve watched in real time how issues that seem far off in the future can be in the forefront overnight. For example, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use messenger RNA technology, something scientists had been researching for decades. While traditional vaccines use a weakened form of the virus, mRNA vaccines use the virus’s RNA genes that facilitate protein production.
The different approach can be manufactured more quickly and may have the potential for stronger immune response, but it wasn’t put into practice until COVID-19. Now we have the first mRNA vaccines ever in use. This milestone is just one way genetic-based science is changing the way we identify and treat illnesses.
The use of genetic science, more commonly known as genomics, will be fundamental to many future scientific developments. It will allow us to pinpoint treatments rather than prescribing broad-spectrum medications that can lead to issues like antibiotic resistance. It will also help us work toward a world where you can walk into a pharmacy and pick up medications tailored to your individual genotype. Precision medicine can help us not only treat illnesses but also increase equity of those treatments as it takes an individual’s health, history, ethnicity, and genes into consideration.
Despite such breathtaking advances, scientists have been undermined, discredited, and underappreciated across the nation throughout this process. Nonetheless, they have persisted at a feverish pace in a race to save lives. The division and isolation plaguing our country this past year has been disheartening, but I take pride knowing that science will be what ultimately brings us back together. Along with medical professionals and frontline workers, scientists are among the true heroes of the war on the coronavirus.
We must share these stories of heroics with our children because kids are acutely aware of the disruptions and destruction the virus has caused. Coronavirus has impeded the progress of far too many children who missed out on crucial social development milestones or suffered from inadequate access to education in remote settings.
As terrible as the pandemic has been, perhaps it can serve as motivation for our children to aspire to make a difference in the world through the power of science. The past year has illustrated that sound strategy, scientific methodology, and communicating your research findings in a clear manner can help save lives. We need our children to understand that by pursuing careers in fields like science, technology, engineering, and math, they can be like the everyday heroes that are helping us overcome a pandemic.
We will continue to prepare our students to be ready for whatever is next because science and math will surely be part of the solution.
Sophia Maggelakis has been the dean of the College of Science at Rochester Institute of Technology since 2010. She previously served as the head of RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences.