From the dean: A Moment in History

Spring 2020 Issue

There are rare moments in our lives that we know will be marked in history. For me, the earliest was the assassination of JFK, though as a preschooler, all I understood as I watched the funeral procession on TV was that every adult in my world was shaken. Some such moments are positive — Armstrong stepping onto the moon — and some tragic, like 9/11.

The COVID-19 pandemic is another such moment. For WashU, what began as concern over international travel in February became a crisis by early March, with the decision to not have students return to campus after spring break. We had 10 days to go from no courses online to having all classes online. And, with the decision to not have faculty on campus, we had two weeks to leverage any on-campus facility for producing necessary materials. This included performing and video-recording labs in such a way that the students understood what was being done and why (and even how things occasionally break!), and then pushing the data out to students as if they had collected it, then asking them to do the analysis. At the end of the semester, we surveyed the students about their experiences, and the overwhelming response was that the faculty rose to the occasion: satisfaction with the quality of the instructor after going online was as strong as it was prior to spring break.

McKelvey responded in other ways as well. As you will read in this issue, faculty researchers quickly pivoted to address challenges including understanding basic mechanisms of virus attachment; creating rapid, highly-sensitive and accurate biosensor for detecting antibodies; and simulating how infection-causing droplets behave in the environment. Faculty and staff coordinated a Maker Task Force to produce personal protection equipment for our colleagues at the medical school and BJC HealthCare facilities, as well as prototyping an emergency ventilator that could be manufactured locally at scale if needed. And the business of McKelvey continued as well. Working remotely, our staff ensured that students had one-on-one advising meetings; grades were managed; grants were processed; payroll was made; all of our operations continued.

I want to take the opportunity of this note to publicly thank the faculty and staff of McKelvey Engineering for their incredible efforts. As alumni, you should all be proud of the work they did in the face of this unprecedented situation. During the next weeks and months, you will hear how WashU will continue to re-open gradually, how the fall semester will be conducted, and what we expect the near-term and lingering implications of this pandemic will be. Whatever those challenges may be, I know that our faculty, staff and students will respond with strength and grace.

I hope everyone and their families stay healthy as we navigate this moment in history together.

Aaron F. Bobick
Dean & James M. McKelvey Professor
afb@wustl.edu