By Joe Paradiso, ETH Zurich alumnus and Professor at MIT
The COVID-19 causality cascade began for me at the end of February, as northern Italy began to encounter the pandemic. I had just returned to Boston from a week in that region, where I gave a series of lectures and took a few days of vacation. Watching the crisis build there shortly after returning, any cough or congestion felt like a significant symptom, but there were lots of more benign causes of that already around. It seemed we didn’t bring it back with us – only great memories, a few bottles of good Italian wine, the usual souvenirs, and many CDs of edgy Italian rock and jazz, as I collect unusual music everywhere I go, a habit dating to my days of living in Switzerland four decades ago. But the virus was already finding other ways to the Boston area. The first ‘superspreading’ event in this area appears to have been the Biogen Annual Leadership Meeting that took place here a week after we returned.
One of my faculty colleagues at the Media Lab is a biochemist who has spent much of his professional life focused on infectious disease, hence we had a strident early forecast of what was quickly coming. We encouraged our staff and students to work remotely where possible, already at the beginning of March, and the bulk of MIT followed suit a week or two later. By the time the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, March 17, the MIT Media Lab building was locked down, together with most of MIT. All MIT classes were canceled for the week of March 16, and became entirely virtual following the end of Spring Break a week later. This gave faculty and instructional staff two weeks to move everything online. Tools that some of us explored via MIT’s Stellar, MITx and OpenCourseWare platforms were pushed into shotgun marriages with Zoom, Jitsi, Google Hangout, and other scalable videoconferencing platforms, and teaching at MIT went all virtual by March 30. I would normally be teaching my flagship Sensors class this term, but deferred as I carried extra teaching responsibilities last term. This class would have been very difficult to fully virtualize, in that it involves extensive hands-on labs and a hardware-intensive final project. My colleagues teaching project-based classes at MIT and other universities that involve hardware are having components shipped to students at home and running virtual critiques. On the other hand, my friends in the MIT Physics Department teaching their famous ‘Junior Lab’ class (somewhat similar to the Physik Praktikum class I used to teach at ETH) count themselves fortunate in that the students had already taken most of the data they needed and could focus on analysis (even at MIT, it’s difficult to send X-ray machines, radioactive sources, NMR gear, etc. to students’ homes).