Adapting During COVID-19: How Two Professors Are Coping

April 08, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused all of us to make adjustments in our daily lives. To remain connected during this time of social distancing, we’re sharing interviews from members of the Texas Biomedical Engineering community. Two of our faculty members, Tom Yankeelov and Mia K. Markey, opened up about how they’re adapting and what is helping them.

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An important coping mechanism for Dr. Tom Yankeelov is to focus energies helping others. "Anytime I can take the emphasis off my own personal situation and make things less about myself, it can decrease anxiety," he says. 

What have you noticed in the past few weeks?

My hope since the beginning of this battle is that we emerge stronger and closer knit than when we started. That we realize more binds us together than separates us. I see evidence of this on small and large scales. More people are walking around my neighborhood smiling and exchanging supportive pleasantries. Many are willing to be quite honest about how they’re holding up on a given day. On the larger scale, research labs are donating relevant equipment to the clinical effort, telecom companies are donating thousands of iPads to make sure kids have access to distance learning, and companies that make adult beverages have switched to producing hand sanitizer. I may be naïve, but I do think people are banding together.

What adjustments have you had to make?

Like nearly everyone else, there has been a dramatic shift in our schedule. My wife (who is also a faculty member at UT) and I are now home-schooling and home-playing with our children, which is a ton of fun but, of course, takes a lot of time. We also need to make sure the children are getting enough emotional support as they very much miss their school (Lee Elementary rules!) and extracurricular activities. On the positive side, their parents are actively engaged in all aspects of their life, and everyone seems to enjoy that.

What’s helping you stay positive?

My schedule is actually quite good these days. Alternating between work, supervising the children’s work, and exercising/playing with family is awesome and, frankly, probably closer to the way we are supposed to live than what many of us actually do in “normal” times. The trouble comes when I remember the reason we are now living in this situation, and the very real pain and suffering happening right now. Praying a lot, focusing on maximizing this time with my family, talking through my emotions with my wife and close friends, Googling “signs of hope coronavirus,” and letting go of the need to control everything all help in maintaining hope. Also, Legos, playing and listening to music, and playing basketball.

What impact has this had on your work?

We are perhaps more fortunate than some because our research effort is divided between mathematical and experimental work. While our experimental program has been placed on hold, we have been able to continue pushing forward on our mathematical programs. We have also been able to (like everyone else) focus on writing manuscripts and dissertations.

One area where my own personal work has been hit negatively has been in the classroom. So much of my teaching style is based on reacting to student’s expressions and questions and finding the direction they want to explore. With pre-recorded performances (yes, “performances,” not “lectures”), it’s impossible to know in real time what is working and what is not. I would say my students have probably suffered the most as they have had to work through recorded videos of my performances, while they almost certainly crave the live version. 

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Dr. Mia K. Markey has gotten creative in devising work spaces within her home. 

What have you noticed the past few weeks?

Our living spaces have been transformed into classrooms for our four kids. The biggest challenge has been internet access. We had to add a second internet service provider to our household so we can handle so many different videoconferences at the same time! I am very grateful that we can get the resources we need to support educational continuity for both my UT Austin students and my kids.

What adjustments have you had to make?

I was surprised to discover how much my experience teaching a Maymester course has helped me get through these first few weeks. Adjusting to our changed circumstances requires flexibility and self-compassion, just like teaching and learning abroad.

How has this impacted your work?

The biggest impact on my work is that my schedule has to be very fluid now. In my second Zoom class session, I had to pause class so I could break up a very loud fight my kids were having… over a protractor! I have to organize my work based on how robust the activity is to interruption and the expected frequency of interruption by my kids.

What’s helping you stay positive?

We are trying to take our laughs where we can find them. We have a small room in our house that family members can reserve for their most important videoconferences. We call it the “Shack of Solitude” as a nod to Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude.”

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Mia Markey's children studying from home at their individual work stations.