A sign promoting social distancing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Coronavirus research is not the only way to contribute to solving the pandemic.Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty

In an unexpected letter from a family friend in March, I read, “Realize you may be… [working] to help stop the spread of COVID19.” Actually, I wasn’t. I’m still not. At least, not by doing anything more elaborate than staying home, washing my hands and wearing a mask. But how does any self-respecting scientist deliver such a response?

Almost a year ago, I left the lab where I earned my doctorate. I now work in science communication, teaching the next generation of scientists and engineers how to write and speak about what they do. My role in the Communication Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge involves managing a team of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who provide writing, speaking and visual-design support to students and researchers. I find this work fulfilling, rewarding and enjoyable.

But with a pandemic changing the world as we know it, I suddenly felt that my PhD in medicinal chemistry and my background in drug discovery should be turned to solving the current crisis. I live in Cambridge — the heart of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. So, why, when the world needs them most, was I not using the skills that took me the better part of a decade to develop? It wasn’t long before my existential crisis was interrupted by a family one, which ultimately pointed me towards the answer to this question. While the world was being turned upside down by a public-health crisis, my world was being turned upside down by the loss of a loved one. My thoughts turned from my professional life to finding insurance papers and getting dinner for my family. Navigating grief and the aftermath of death is all-consuming in the best of circumstances; planning a funeral under stay-at-home conditions requires a whole new degree of finesse.

Tragedy forces us to live in the moment. It compels me to find ways to be useful right where I am. While I support my family through our own crisis, I now see ways that I can support others through this global one.

Being a part of the solution to a global crisis doesn’t have to mean putting on a lab coat. And neither does being a scientist. My training has taught me how to synthesize concepts, not just compounds. I know how to analyse ideas as well as data and how to distill meaning from a graph as well as a product from a reaction mixture. I can, and do, use these skills without working at a bench.

The importance of science communication has never been clearer. Combatting this public-health crisis requires collaborative global action, and catalysing that action requires the dissemination of accurate and understandable information. In this pandemic, good science communication is literally a matter of life and death.

But good communication skills don’t come naturally. They are built over time with practise and training. My choice to support my students and teach them to communicate has as much potential impact as my ability to pick up a pipette does. Through it all, I am realizing that perhaps my greatest obligation is not to the world at large — but to my little corner of it.