Dietrich College Diaries
The Dietrich College Diaries offers a forum to share your experiences, reflections and tips as we all navigate the coronavirus pandemic. We encourage submissions from faculty, staff, students and alumni to help us remain a closely connected community while separated by distance. Please submit your entry (300 words or less) along with photos or video to email@example.com. Also, please use #CMUDietrichDiaries on your social media posts. Your entry will be posted along with your name and job title, graduation year or major.
In addition, check in here for related expert interviews, media clips, staff spotlights and other related news aggregated by Dietrich College’s Communications team.
Travelling with a Brush
Two years ago, while writing my grad school applications, I realized how profoundly my passion for painting has shaped me as a person and informed my choices. After moving to the U.S. for a PhD, as I adapted to a new environment, painting took a backseat. During these times of uncertainty and confinement, I again found myself gravitating towards painting. In addition to documenting my surroundings, I have been reliving memories with my brush through the lockdown.
I grew up in a constantly evolving landscape and, in my mind, I have a thriving visual repository of dramatic skies, flowering meadows, glistening peaks and crashing waves. Moving to Pittsburgh added another chapter in this repository of memories. It was my first time witnessing fall and seeing trees blossom after a long winter. This spring, I paid particular attention to when different plants in my neighborhood bloomed. On my walks, I would observe the contours of magnolia petals and wonder what color flowers would the rhododendron bushes bear. During days spent in isolation, as the sun set and I could no longer look outside my window, I escaped the confines of my room through my brush.
Painting in watercolors has been a meditative pursuit for me. Building up paintings, stroke by stroke fills me with the memory of the subject and how it made me feel. I perceive paintings as having a will of their own, with my role being merely to guide them a little with my brush. The interplay of colors and water always finds a way to surprise me. During moments spent holding a brush, I feel engaged and calm, and grateful for this trusty companion, who is by my side through these unsettling times.
-Mansi Sood, PhD Student, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Turning an International Pandemic into Musical Lemonade
I was bummed when my 24th birthday plans, two concerts, were canceled due to Coronavirus. Realizing the cancellations were also a serious financial blow to the artists, I decided to orchestrate an online music festival. In 10 days, I crowdfunded over $1200, hired 24 artists using Gigstarter.co.uk, and coordinated a 16-hour lineup accommodating three time zones. As stage manager, Zoom host and emcee of the music festival, 24for24, I introduced performers stationed across the globe as viewers enjoyed 24 amazing musical performances on Saturday and Sunday via Facebook Livestream.
Ironically, if 24for24 were an outdoor festival, I’d need lots of Ibuprofen to survive it. Last year, I began experiencing joint pain, which escalated until even the 20-minute walk to campus hurt. Until then, I’d played on sports teams all my life. Losing that part of who I was all while accepting a weakened body was the loneliest struggle of my life. Then Coronavirus happened, and everyone’s life lost something.
I didn’t see it at the time, but 24for24 briefly gave people back parts of their identity that Coronavirus had taken away from them. For 40 minutes, each artist was back to being a self-supporting, freelance musician, playing another gig for an audience of strangers. For 16 hours, viewers were enjoying their weekend at a music festival, just like old times. And for 10 days, I felt like I was back to being a teammate again.
This pandemic has us all in a unique situation, and no one knows how soon things will return to normal. New graduates and entertainers alike are hard-pressed to find work. If you, like me, are a new graduate facing today’s job market, it’s easy to let life’s lemon turn you sour right now. But I promise, there’s always a way to make lemonade.
-Julia Stelman, (DC 2020), Masters in Statistical Practice
Connection Error: Care Update Needed
Everything about my life, except my body, has gone digital.
Courses, work, finals, meetings and even hangouts have all become digitized. The lines between these obligations have melted and fused together. During hour-long video calls, everyone is compressed into hundreds—sometimes tens—of pixels. Smiles are a commodity, and I have not seen many besides my own.
The looming feeling is loneliness. We all feel this way.
The ways we connect have permanently changed. Strained eyes. So much time we spend in front of a computer screen. Strained connections. When the WiFi is weak and the signal wavers, we are not in sync. Everyone’s schedules are unique, so how do we synchronize our time? If our communities are online, how do we interact?
We are digitally connected, but are we connected in the ways we really want? I imagine there are those who are so connected and therefore feel lag and latency from being overwhelmed. When we’re connected all the time, how do we make time to disconnect? To log off, close the tab, shut down, restart and refresh?
Please, for your own care log off, restart and refresh.
Your care update is long overdue. I hope you can find many hobbies to entertain you and restore hope in yourself and others. I hope you find the support you desire. May you be surrounded by community to help care for you. We need you and you need you. I’m wishing right beside you (6 feet away, of course). Be well, I believe in you.
-Jorge Armando Alvarez, a first-generation college student (DC 2020) B.A. Professional Writing
When Working Moms Come Home
For seventeen years, I was a full-time mom, from the birth of my first child in 1994 onward through my fourth child’s young life. Although it was often stressful, I enjoyed being there for my children growing up. When I started at CMU in 2011, I only worked during the school hours for my youngest, Elizabeth born in 2003. Even so, by mid-summer of 2012, I felt horrible about them being stuck at home with nothing to do and nobody to take them places, so I gave notice to quit CMU and go back to my children. When I told Elizabeth, she cried. At nine years old, she asked how she was supposed to go to CMU to study musical theater if I didn’t work there. So I rescinded my notice and went back to work.
Elizabeth is about to be a senior in high school in the fall, and she doesn’t really remember a time when I wasn’t working full-time. When she told me that, I wanted to cry. These last few months, working at home, have enabled me to spend more time with her and my three sons. As she prepares for college applications and auditions, this summer and fall, I am so grateful for these extra days together.
-Becky Finkel, receptionist & facilities coordinator, Deptartment of Psychology
Humanities@CMU: COVID-19 and Risk
We have heard a lot about risk recently: the risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the risk of serious complications, the risk of failing to social distance. These risks are often expressed numerically, using case fatality rates or simulation models. But risk isn't always well conveyed by numbers.
A few centuries ago, people also understood diseases as dangerous and had a concept of chance or fortune playing a role in their survival. People did not express such risks numerically. Before risk could become calculable, the human experience had to be transformed from something capricious--or driven by moral desert and divine intervention--into a set of regularities amenable to probability.
Even today, risk eludes easy calculation. We face mortal risks all the time, but small differences in behavior or constitution often have large or unexpected effects on the calculation of any given person's risk. As a society, we can aggregate and mitigate risks, from regulating airbags to funding cancer research, which makes managing risk across a population possible. But such aggregation can also have the effect of erasing the individual, humanistic experience of risk.
I may understand a novel disease as yet another burden competing with unemployment and addiction; you may understand it as uncertainty undermining a carefully micromanaged existence. To be human today is to live in a world of competing risks, but putting numbers on them doesn't always help us navigate them. Tellingly, even our own risk calculations rarely stay consistent over time: some of us might disinfect groceries today having happily visited hospitals with antibiotic-resistant infections a year ago.
It's certainly reasonable and even desirable to use risk calculations as a guide to decision making, but quantifying risk will never capture everything that's important about it.
-Christopher J. Phillips, associate professor in the Department of History
Lessons from a Toddler
A major component of my role as an educator at the Children’s School is observing children and noting their developmental progress. My daughter Quinn is 23.5 months old and unaware of the COVID-19 epidemic. She quarantines the only way she knows how, like a toddler. While we are home together, I observe her unique toddlerhood and track the true miracle of child development. My almost two-year-old is teaching me many personal life lessons during this time, including:
- Be prepared for a mess. As I write this, my daughter is placing the balls from a ball pit, to random locations all around my home.
- Take risks. In our home, my daughter believes that any unattended cup or glass is fair game. I know that leaving liquids unattended is an error of judgement for a parent, but her near obsession for transferring (cool) liquids, into other containers is showing me the important developmental milestone of risk taking.
- Dance when literally no one is watching. My family of three has a dance party after dinner almost daily. It helps that my child insists on pulling us to the carpet squealing “dance.” I dance with Quinn because it gives her joy and exercise. We also dance to release the stressors of quarantine.
- Read, read, read and repeat each day. My daughter’s commitment to children’s literature is astounding to me. Each and every day she teaches me that literacy, and being in the presence of books, is a gift that needs to be honored.
- “Don’t worry about a thing.” My small family is being cautious and safe during this crisis, but my daughter is always there to remind us to be vigilant in smiling, singing, laughing and being silly in the way that only a toddler can.
-Anne O’Neill, educator at the Children's School
Focusing THE BLUR
There are many things that I don't particularly like about the aging process, but the one that causes me almost constant annoyance is my failing 20/20 vision. I am so tired of THE BLUR. Without my cheaters, the world is never in perfect focus.
Now THE BLUR has taken over more than just my eyesight, it has infiltrated my being. Work and home has blurred. Meal times and snacking are blurred. Fashion sense has blurred from professional to loungewear. Teaching has blurred into teacher, counselor, virtual friend and YouTube video editor. My relationships have blurred from grandmother to teacher to cruise director. My home, my sanctuary has blurred into my confinement. And on and on and on... left unchecked THE BLUR can be frustrating and depressing.
Now is the time that we all need to put on our cheaters and refocus our world. Thank God that we have food that is being popped mindlessly into our mouth. Thank God for the home that allows you to continue to earn a paycheck. Thank God for the people that are leaving their confinement so that you can be safe when you leave yours. Thank God for the variety in which old bonds are being reformed with your loved ones. And I thank God for my aging memory because someday this time will also be a BLUR. And on and on and on. Left unchecked THE BLUR can be gratifying and uplifting.
- Donna Perovich, Kindergarten Teacher, The Children's School
Below is an excerpt from a note Ms. Drash wrote to Children’s School families for the Friday Family email series where reflecting on one’s own childhood can help children cope with the unusual situation we are living through today.
When Mr. Rogers was asked what was the biggest mistake that parents make when raising their children, he answered, “Not remembering their own childhood.”
Lately, with all the changes in the world, it seems that people are finding comfort reflecting on their past and sharing what they’ve been learning. My chats with friends are turning to recounting childhood stories and memories, whether personal or generational, often starting our conversations with, “Remember when…” This got me thinking about my own early childhood memories, most specifically those from my time at the Children’s School during the mid-late ‘70s. There I learned the basic and most important things about cooking, and how to move around the kitchen carefully and efficiently. I learned how to entertain myself for hours with little direction and often without typical toys. And I came to appreciate the value of delving deeply into an interest or theme. There are countless stories and memories from those days, but I’m most grateful for these particular early life lessons that are serving me well during these unique and quiet days at home.
I encourage you to take time to think about your own childhood and see what funny or interesting stories bubble up. Share these new stories that can enrich your relationship with your child, and consider how what’s happening to them now will be the stories that they will share with their own children. What fun and interesting stories will spark their “remember when” memories?
-Allison Drash, (FA 2004), administrative coordinator at the Children’s School
I have come to realize that some days when I feel heavy in my body it tends to be because I ran out of internal space to hold onto what has been happening in the world. Today was one of those days, but also not quite. As my thoughts for the day ricochet between all the different pockets of my memory, I think back to this past Friday when our lab had the last lab meeting for the semester. Half of the undergraduate students in our lab are graduating this year, and as they reflected on their journeys, I found myself filled with awe. It was powerful to watch them grow, to know them, and to learn from them. I revisit an online workshop I attended this past Monday in which we discussed the long history behind healthcare disparities in black and brown communities and ways to act in solidarity with these communities. Amidst the flurries of to-do lists and whistling kettles and over-steeped teas I can still remember the warmth—when a space is so intentionally crafted, it is hard not to feel inspired. A friend texted me yesterday asking how I was. I swear I could have almost heard their voice.
I have been using the window as a whiteboard; it works so long as the sky is still bright. Right now, my window is filled with scribbles—pseudocode, quarter-baked research questions, a quote from Arundhati Roy. I had a few smiley faces up there at one point, but I erased it to make space for something else equally random. I wonder what will show up on my windowpane tomorrow.
-Phuong (Phoebe) N. Dinh, Ph.D. student in Psychology
Humanities@CMU: Metaphors To Live By
“And mark this well: When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.”
This quote is not from Dr. Anthony Fauci or another medical expert addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. It was President Roosevelt in 1937 presenting what is now known as the “Quarantine Speech.” Roosevelt used the metaphor of contagious disease to refer to fascism — as would George Kennan about communism — because he wanted to impress upon Americans a sense of a fast-approaching, imminent danger.
Metaphors can serve us well when we try to score a quick rhetorical success — to make an abbreviated argument and emotionally enhanced plea for action. We have seen plenty of metaphors employed to describe our crisis during this pandemic: the virus is “a silent enemy;” the lack of tests, vaccines and treatment is “a perfect storm;” we are in a “lock-down” (a term originally used for prison security protocols); New York is “under siege.” During the pandemic, quarantine is for many people real rather than metaphorical. Yet if quarantine acts as a protective bubble, it is hard to accept that we are in danger.
We have been asked to stay home not only for our own safety, but for the safety of others. This is where, perhaps, the rhetorical success of the metaphor of a political quarantine clashes with the reality of our medical quarantine, making people rebel and demand their “freedom.” Considering the militaristic language used to describe this pandemic, we can think of ourselves as warriors or victims. Perhaps it’s worth considering that we might be the saboteurs to our country’s health.
-Andreea Ritivoi, head of the English Department and Humanities@CMU Initiative
Language Need Not Be Spoken
Have you ever been in a state of “deep-focus” or what Cal Newport calls “deep work?” When you are close to the answer, the excellent turn of phrase, the breakthrough, and then—your roommate butts in to show you the newest COVID Meme. As we stay-at-home, we need to balance deep focus with roommate harmony.
In other words: what’s a scholar without an office to do?
One approach is to rely less on the language parts of our brain and outsource our communication needs pre-emptively. Here’s what I mean: despite my best efforts, I cannot keep any plant alive in my apartment. Refusing to accept defeat, I have pots and vases sitting around the apartment, knowing that someday, when I’m not home, the plants will spontaneously return and sprout to life.
As I sat writing one day, I glanced at one of my favorite plant-vacancies, an oatmeal colored ceramic pot that formerly held a white lily formerly secured to a bamboo stick. It dawned on me that the austere stick, proud and unadorned, looked like a flagpole without a flag.
I began to wonder, what if I actually made a flag to adorn the bamboo stick to visually communicate that I was striving for deep focus? Red could mean I’m focused; do not interrupt. Green could mean that I’m working, but you are welcome interrupt in order to share the latest piece of wisdom gleaned from Golden Girls reruns.
For someone who looks to language as the ultimate problem-solving tool, I (re)discovered that language need not always be spoken. Perhaps, by drawing on non-verbal cues during a pandemic, we can balance focused study with compassionate cohabitation.
At any rate, whether visually or rhetorically, the point is: when it comes to living with our loved ones and sustaining our long-term, work-from-home needs, looking for harmony in both is a worthwhile spot to plant your flag.
-Craig Moreau, Ph.D. candidate, Rhetoric
Poster Presentations during a Pandemic
On April 30th, a virtual poster session was held that combined students from three different classes of Research Methods in Psychology: Social Research Methods, Modern Research Methods and Cognitive Research Methods, taught by Meredith Van Vleet, Molly Lewis and Laurie Heller, respectively. Forty-four students presented their original educational research projects in a “live” Zoom setting. About 70 people participated. The students presented their posters while visitors asked questions, with interactions similar to a real poster session.
Some visitors commented that this online format was an improvement because they were better able to hear what was being said. In addition, six volunteer judges were able to preview the posters and prerecorded 4-minute presentation videos on a special Canvas course. This allowed students who were in very different time zones to coordinate asynchronously. Judges visited each poster at a scheduled time within the “live” poster session and spent several minutes asking questions of the students. Judges used ballots that had been mailed to them in advance. At the end of the poster session hour, everyone joined together in a large celebratory meeting on Zoom.
All the students were commended for successfully adapting their projects to the changing times, and two winning posters were announced — “Did the duck really gorp the bunny? A meta-analysis of syntactic bootstrapping literature,” by Cao, A., Greenholt, M., Mittleman, A. and Stephen, I., and “The Effect of Word Familiarity on Memory and How Intermediary Tasks May Affect It,” by Lee, J., Elhag, M. and Ng, F. Addiionally, two runner-up poster awards were announced — "The Effects of Visual Coffee Cues on Cognitive Performance” by Lin, C., Yu, K. and Friedman, A. and "The Effect of Music Tempo and Intensity on Cognitive Performance, by Rosado, C., Nischal, R. and Chundur, A.
-Laurie Heller, teaching professor of Psychology
Working Remotely as Seen Through The Eyes Of Our Cats
- Week One: Female person (aka Mom) has been home every day. She used to go out in the morning and return late in the day. The only places to go as far as we know are the groomer and the vet. Why she spent her days there we will never know. Dad is retired and we’re used to him being around but having her here all the time is just plain weird.
- Week Two: We are beginning to adjust. It’s called working remotely. She uses a laptop (we thought WE were laptops). We heard Mom tell Dad that we are very smart, because we never walk on the keyboard (that’s the thing that makes annoying clicking sounds). There is also something called a mouse. We are investigating.
- Week Three: Sometimes there are sounds coming from the laptop, mostly people she seems to know talking gibberish. She calls them “zoom meetings.” The only time we zoom is to get the heck out of the litterbox after using it. Try to get that image out of your head the next time you are at a zoom meeting.
- Week Four: Try this. When you see a stack of work papers on the dining room table scamper through them and watch them float to the floor. Apparently, it’s not so good when papers get out of order. We suggest using a stapler. She suggests not scattering them all over the floor.
- Week Five: She’s still zooming and stapling like a fiend. And we still hear that darned clicking of the keyboard. We’ve discovered the thing she calls a mouse. Sorry, that is NOT a mouse. We should know.
- Week Six: We have heard talk that eventually things will “open up” and she will be going out every day again. This disturbs us greatly because we have accepted this new dynamic in our lives. But they say this will be a good thing because it will mean that people won’t be sick from a virus anymore. And even though we’re as self-centered as most cats (we put the ME in MEOW) we want everyone to be safe and healthy and doing the things they love. In the meantime, we send you all a virtual pat on the head.
May 7, 2020
Faculty Highlight: Zhang Gets Supplies for First Responders
Kun Zhang, assistant professor of Philosophy, was worried. He knew there was probably going to be a shortage of N95 and medical masks for front-line workers, especially for medical workers. He knew he could do something and contacted some suppliers in China. He bought the masks and asked a friend of his, who happened to be a doctor, to check their quality. With their quality confirmed, he had his friend ship the masks to Pittsburgh via DHL. Zhang distributed the masks to clinics in need, including Premier Medical Associates, an affiliate of the Allegheny Health Network, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee.
Making the Semester Count
I came across a March 9 email exchange with a co-worker, which seems so long ago:
Me: I am responding to messages about contingency plans in case the university asks people to work remotely for a period of time.
Co-worker: Oh wow, I didn’t think the coronavirus precautions would lead to that.
But it did come to that. A friend recently wrote, “I don’t know how you work-at-home folks stay motivated.” My answer may sound clichéd, “I am inspired by the resilience of the Carnegie Mellon students with whom I interact.” Most had to cut their spring break short and move home, or they have not been able to come to get their belongings. They are living in a world of uncertainty, attending classes that are being offered via a variety of models while sitting in a time zone somewhere in the world, and still they are learning.
I interact with students who are completing an Information Systems project this semester. These students are in Pennsylvania, California and India, yet they’ve found ways to collaborate and participate in weekly meetings despite the distance between them, and have developed a great solution for the non-profit, Matt’s Maker Space, a Pittsburgh non-profit started by CMU Alums Noelle Conover (DC 1982) and David Conover (E 1979, 1981), with whom they were working. A Dietrich College student, working on a directed study project with me, had to adjust data collection plans. She persevered and has achieved the goals that were established in January long before everything that we took for granted changed.
I see high-quality examples of work that confirm that students are making the most of their semester, in spite of the unusual circumstances. Each interaction reassures me that CMU students are amazing.
-Judith Hallinen, EdD, (DC 1983) assistant vice provost for Educational Outreach
Stop and Smell The Roses...
I have heard the phrase stop and smell the roses my entire life but I don’t think I have ever really put it into perspective. As our days of staying at home grow into weeks, (I am beginning to lose track!) I have begun to apply this phrase both literally and figuratively.
First the literal...each day as I walk up the hill to begin our family daily walks, I take in the beautiful smell of my neighbors’ arrangement of flowers. A smile instantly comes to my face and I am filled with happiness. Flowers have always been something that brings me joy. As we continue walking down the roads of our neighborhood, I take in the smells of fresh-cut grass, food baking in the oven and lingering out the window, dinner being cooked on the grill, or the smell of marshmallows being toasted over a bonfire.
Now, for the figurative...it seems like we are frozen in time, as we are spending our days away from the hustle and bustle of life and instead having countless hours (sometimes a few too many) of togetherness. In these moments, I am reminded of how fast my daughters are growing and how I want to be there to witness all their ups and downs. With the restriction of seeing family and friends, I am reminded of how we need to make more time to visit with one another.
So, as I take time to smell the roses of life, I am relishing in the moment. Remember not to take for granted all that you have and are surrounded by, instead take time to fill your senses with joy, both literally and figuratively. Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.
-Caitlin Armbruster, Young Three’s Teacher at The Children’s School
Students Research Nimble during Pandemic
Students in my 85310 Research Methods in Cognitive Psychology course adapted their in-person educational research projects to adjust to online learning. All of the students prevailed, completing original projects after unexpectedly needing to adapt their experiments from an in-person test to an online format. Some of the students had to alter their research questions or redesign their methods mid-stream.
One team, consisting of Crystal Lin, Kelly Yu and Alia Friedman, focused their study on using the smell of coffee as a stimuli. They adapted their project from an olfactory to a visual cue
The team acknowledged that this switch weakened the stimuli, but they noted that participation increased because the study was conducted remotely and it was more efficient because the team members did not need to monitor progress in person. According to Lin, this approach gave the team more power to evaluate the effect of the performance expectations caused by coffee.
Another group of students who had already written an experimental task in Python before the closure had to adapt their code for different operating systems to allow classmates to test themselves at home.
In short, students were very creative in addressing their challenges and have risen to this challenge, gaining experience in designing and conducting original research through this educational project. The class presented their projects during a virtual poster session in the Psychology Department at the end of the semester.
-Laurie Heller, teaching professor of Psychology
A New Normal Is Not a Permanent Normal
Today marks the end of the seventh week in self-isolation. I remain cocooned in western Pennsylvania, relatively safe compared to some hot zones around the country. I have spent the weeks talking to friends and family on the phone and Zoom. I check daily with friends who have fought the virus successfully and mourned with family and friends whose loved ones succumb to the illness.
Having peacefully settled into my monotonous routine of self-isolation and social distancing, a new directive in early April stirred me from my stupor. Pennsylvanians were now strongly encouraged to wear face masks in public, later becoming mandatory for entering stores. Lacking a sewing machine and any crafting skills, I began exploring Etsy for options. Without asking, my neighbor marched across the street on one particularly lovely day and placed several pieces of fabric on a small cement bench. Standing back, she instructed me to make my selection. She was making facemasks for the neighborhood. Today, my friends post selfies of their face masks rather than the latest culinary concoction at the local restaurant du jour.
As days drag into weeks and soon months, people have begun to wonder how quarantine will change how we interact with one another. Will handshakes cease? Will we ever gather in large groups? Will businesses ever recover?
I believe we are resilient, and, for better or worse, have short memories. We will shift back to old routines. We will once again greet strangers on the street. We will wander aimlessly through stores. We will attend concerts and sporting events. And we will linger with family and friends over meals at our favorite restaurants and, of course, Instagram the appetizer to whet the appetite of followers far and near. We just need to hang in there a little longer because normalcy, I believe, is just around the corner.
-Stacy Kish, Associate Director, Research Communication