Coronavirus Researchers Are Dismantling Science’s Ivory Tower—One Study at a Time

As the pandemic wears on, I've begun to forget what the inside of my office looks like. The last time I saw it was the second week of March, when my colleagues and I were told to work from home. Most of us had an easy enough time making the transition: At the Computational Health Informatics Program, an initiative jointly run by Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, we spend much of our time in front of screens anyway. We had been studying Covid-19 since late January, modeling its spread in hopes of understanding how it might evolve in the weeks and months ahead. Now we'd swap our desk chairs for couches. I switched off my office mood lamp and fairy lights, grabbed my laptop, and quickly familiarized myself with the VPNs I would need to gain remote access to our institutional computing services.
Others in my field weren't so lucky. As I settled in at home, I saw tweet after tweet from scientists all over the world whose professional lives had ground to a halt. Laboratories were shutting down. Clinicians could no longer see their patients. The postdoctoral job market had suddenly dried up, and many recent graduates were concerned about the gaps the pandemic would leave in their CVs. Even among those who still had work to do, there was a feeling of listlessness: Everyone wanted to contribute something to the fight against Covid-19, but some worried they didn't have the ability to do so on their own.

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Meet ACE2, the Enzyme at the Center of the Covid-19 Mystery On March 18, five days after the Trump administration declared a national emergency, I decided it was time to harness all this pent-up brainpower. I put out a call on Twitter for qualified volunteers who wanted to use their extra time to tackle a myriad of research questions at the intersection of computing and Covid-19 epidemiology.
Right away, expressions of interest flooded my inbox: I heard from a veterinary clinician in India with expertise in zoonotic diseases, a category that includes Covid-19; an engineer in Canada who'd recently completed her master's degree in artificial intelligence and could help with deep learning; a health law and policy specialist from France who could speak to the pandemic's legal and political implications.Surprised by the deluge, I enlisted my friend Angel Desai, an infectious disease physician, and my husband, Imran Malek, a recent law school graduate with a decade of experience in software engineering, to form an ad hoc oversight committee. And just like that, the Covid-19 Dispersed Volunteer Research Network was born.

We decided to formally launch our effort with a weekend hackathon. Other groups had organized similar events to develop diagnostic tests and help with the shortage of medical equipment, so why not do the same for research? From the beginning, we knew we'd have to shake up the usual way of doing things. In a traditional lab environment, the structure tends to be hierarchical: A principal investigator sets the agenda and divvies up tasks for the group. Our hope was to proceed more democratically. We didn't want to scare off people who were donating their spare evenings and weekends, an immensely precious commodity at a time when everyone's lives had been upended. And we suspected that a group as diverse as ours, encompassing a wealth of disciplines, 20 different native languages, and 25 self-identified ethnicities, would work best with minimal limits on its ingenuity.

More than 30 volunteers across dozens of different institutions signed up for the event. We started by hosting an all-hands meeting on Zoom, where the oversight committee laid out some of the unanswered questions we'd encountered in our own research: Could we use smartphone mobility data to gauge whether people were adhering to lockdown orders? What might internet search query data reveal about the public's interest in coronavirus treatment scams?