Resilience: How COVID-19 challenged the scientific world

Tim Grant’s first day at the Morgridge Institute for Research was anything but typical.

On the morning of March 16, 2020, he opened his email inbox to find several messages from fellow Morgridge scientists. Many said they weren’t coming into the office and wouldn’t be able to meet him for a welcome lunch.

After a tour of what appeared to be an empty building and a brief meeting with Brad Schwartz, the institute’s chief executive officer, they addressed the elephant in the room:

“We probably shouldn’t do the lunch, right?”

“Yeah, we won’t do the lunch.”

For Grant, his first day just happened to be the day that employees at the university — and residents statewide in Wisconsin — were told to work from home. It was the first day when many accepted the COVID-19 pandemic was here.

“That was the worst day possible to start,” Grant laughs, reflecting on the uncertainty of that day.

Grant, a native of London, England, had just moved 800 miles from the Janelia Research Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Washington, D.C. He was ready to start his lab as an investigator in the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Center for Research on Virology at Morgridge and in the Department of Biochemistry.

Soon, he imagined, he would start hiring trainees who specialize in computational approaches for solving molecular structures, such as cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) — a highly-complex, critical tool that researchers use to see the atomic structure of viruses, some of the smallest living things on earth.

Scientists like Grant are trained to embrace the unknown. They follow science, fearlessly, to ask questions and make progress in understanding what we don’t know, and why.

Grant faced the uncertainty of a new job. His family, including two young children, was adjusting to their new city, and a new house with empty rooms. They had planned to shop for furniture in Madison, but of course, that didn’t exactly pan out during the shutdown.

“When you start a new position you have amazing drive and energy to get stuff done, you know, it’s all new and exciting — and I had all that,” Grant says. “I had all that, but nothing to do with it.”

Despite the limitations that the COVID-19 pandemic placed on the workplace, Grant was able to make early progress. He was able to return to work and slowly begin hiring members of his research team.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time that humanity has faced a major public health challenge, and it certainly won’t be the last.

But these challenges haven’t stopped scientific progress…

Over the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed a seemingly untold human, social, and economic wave of devastation.

For a new longform feature, Resilience: how COVID-19 challenged the scientific world, researchers at the Morgridge Institute for Research and the University of Wisconsin-Madison reflected on what has collectively happened and how it impacted their science.

Those conversations held notes of promise, resilience, and lessons learned from a damaging and challenging experience. They shared the unique opportunities they pursued to contribute directly to pandemic science, and ways they might approach their research differently in the future.

But the startling reality is that global pandemics will continue. The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted — critically — the need to double down on basic research with new approaches and “space race” level investments to better understand, prevent, and stop the next deadly outbreak.

It is a global shared story that has impacted our local community in a variety of ways — a story about people coming together to fearlessly tackle the unknown.

“Here you have all of these people who are basic researchers who made a change in what they were doing, because they knew society needed it,” says Brad Schwartz, chief executive officer at the Morgridge Institute. “To me, this was a huge win. It demonstrated their commitment: ‘here’s a chance for me to do something good, and I’m going to do it.’”

Read the longform feature.

As an independent research organization, the Morgridge Institute for Research explores uncharted scientific territory to discover tomorrow’s cures. In affiliation with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Morgridge supports researchers who take a fearless approach to advancing human health in emerging fields such as regenerative biology, metabolism, virology and medical engineering. Through public programming, Morgridge works to inspire scientific curiosity in everyday life. Contact Mariel Mohns, or Brian Mattmiller, with questions.