“What is obvious and clear for us may not be for a lot of people…”

A nanoengineering grad student finds the right way to talk to loved ones.

This is my fifth year away from my family. If anyone knows about being out of reach from loved ones, it’s me. But unfortunately, with our current situation, it is likely you, too.

The community of international students at UC San Diego have all experienced “family distancing” for a while. We have done our best to keep our friends and family safe overseas. But last time I checked in on my family during this COVID-19 pandemic, I was terrified.

I come from a simple family. Last week, I called my mother. I asked how they were dealing with the lockdowns and such, and she said everything was good. I could hear my little nephew, who lives with my parents, playing with my father in the background. Then I learned that he was away from school because he had a cold and high fever. “Wait…what?” I said, as my mother tried to calm me down, explaining how he did not have the coronavirus because he wasn’t having difficulty breathing.

Let me explain my shock: My father has diabetes and hypertension, and my grandmother is over 70 years old and lives with them. My mother apparently had no clue about the risk they were all exposed to. I had to explain to her that in most people the symptoms are very mild, especially among kids. From that day on, my nephew would only get better, but just because he has no respiratory symptoms does not mean he is not a vector. I told her to keep him as far away as possible from his grandpa and asked her to teach him “the right way” to sneeze. It was very painful to be away at that moment. I knew my father and grandmother’s health were at high risk. At the same time, I know how difficult it is to control a child. Without actually being there with them, I felt I could not do anything more to help.

I had to be selective about what to share with my family. I started looking for information about COVID-19 that made it easier to understand—things like videos and pictures, for example, or information and tips that were clear and persuasive. We tend to assume that all people have access to the same information we do, because it is all over the news and social media. But what we need to keep in mind is that what is obvious and clear for us may not be for a lot of people, including our families. I’ve learned to make sure people really understand what is happening before judging or chastising them. They just might not have gotten the right message yet.

This is a common theme in academia, where many of us focus intently on one specific subject or discipline until we know it inside and out, while it may remain completely obscure and unknown to the majority of people. As a nanoengineering researcher, for example, I am very accustomed to extremely small scales. So I can readily envision what I read about with regards to the virus. I can imagine how, when we sneeze, our saliva comes out in the form of tiny droplets, each less than 100 micrometers in diameter—about the width of a strand of human hair—and how they can travel up to 8 meters (26 feet) away from us. And in each of these tiny saliva droplets, there can be as many as 200 million individual virus particles, almost one virus for each of us in the U.S., all of it covering everything around us. So, I tell my friends and family to wipe clean all surfaces they come in contact with. That includes desks, computer keyboards and mouses, cell phones, and eyeglasses. There could even be 200 million viruses just hanging out on our hands as we scroll down our screens, so we should all go wash our hands right now! (But wait… stay a little bit more, I’m almost done.)

My personal experience throughout this COVID-19 pandemic has taught me to be aware of current developments, to learn everything I can, and to be a proactive and helpful player in conveying this information to others, so I am able to keep others informed and safe. As a member of the scientific community, I see it as my duty to communicate technical information accurately and in a way more people can understand. 

So throughout all of this, just keep in mind that all of us—the whole of humanity—are all isolated cells of the same body, and that body is sick and needs us to fight the disease together! 

So, let’s all go wash our hands now.


Juliane Sempionatto is a Ph.D. student at Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. Her research focuses on the development of wearable biosensors for medical and healthcare applications. She hopes to graduate with a Ph.D. in nanoengineering in 2021.  

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