Alek Lewis earned his bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in public affairs and public policy from Stony Brook University's School of Communication and Journalism. He was news editor of the student-run newspaper, The Statesman, and public relations officer for the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. You can find Alek on twitter @Aleklewis99.
Psychologists at Stony Brook University are studying how different groups of people will remember the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lauren Richmond, Ph.D., an assistant professor of cognitive science and co-principal investigator of the study, is exploring how a person’s role and experiences during the pandemic will impact memory.
She explained that a tragic event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks would likely create a vivid and emotional memory, often called a flashbulb memory. But the pandemic is unique in how people remember it because it is taking place over a long period of time and affects everybody differently.
“We’re all experiencing this in a really idiosyncratic way,” Richmond said. “And social distancing makes us really have to experience this on an individual or a really small network level. … Understanding the different varieties of experiences that different groups in different geographic locations is really important for understanding how people will remember this event later.”
Richmond said she believes the biggest difference in memory perception will be between two groups: people who are working from home and have been static through the pandemic, and people who are working and are more actively involved in the pandemic, like essential workers.
“For better or for worse, 2020 was a year that had a lot of stuff happening. So I think we have the ability to look at a few interesting facets of how we, as a nation, collectively think about some of the things that happened during that period.”
– Lauren Richmond, Ph.D., assistant professor of cognitive science at Stony Brook University
To collect data, Richmond surveys participants and examines their self-reported autobiographical memories, which are based on their own perception of the world around them. She said that there is no way to know if what’s being reported is true or not.
“But we can look at – since we are doing this longitudinal data collection – whether or not what people are reporting on changes over time,” she said. She is also looking at whether any changes on a group level can be predicted by differences in the social support someone has or what news a person consumes, among other factors.“We can look at whether any of those factors seem to predict changes and stability in these memories over time.”
The surveys are also asking respondents questions about their memories of nationally and personally significant events in 2020, such as the presidential election and the Black Lives Matter protests.
“For better or for worse, 2020 was a year that had a lot of stuff happening,” Richmond said. “So I think we have the ability to look at a few interesting facets of how we, as a nation, collectively think about some of the things that happened during that period.”
Richmond said preliminary data suggests that older people have more positive memories than younger people.
The study will last as long as the pandemic lasts, she said, because “we are trying to understand how people’s experiences and memories are unfolding as the event is still unfolding.”
Richmond is tapping into the Stony Brook University community for participants, including undergraduates, affiliates at Stony Brook Medicine and older people in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, known on campus as OLLI. The team is also using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or mTurk, a crowdsourcing website, to obtain nationally representative data. The study is being funded collaboratively by Richmond’s lab and the lab of Suparna Rajaram, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of cognitive science.
Researchers in Stony Brook University’s political science department have been keeping tabs on the coronavirus. They aren’t tracking the number of new COVID-19 cases or deaths or how many people have been vaccinated or where the next outbreak will occur. Instead, these social scientists are looking at the relationship between the pandemic and political partisanship.
Professors John Barry Ryan and Yanna Krupnikov – in collaboration with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University and the University of Arizona – were originally analyzing how Americans viewed their political opposites. But when the pandemic hit, the researchers began to trace respondents’ reactions to the coronavirus as an indicator of their political biases.
“What was great about this survey is we already had their attitude towards the parties,” Ryan said. “And so we can see if they changed in response to COVID, but we can also see how their previous attitudes towards the parties shaped how they responded to COVID.”
The researchers defined political partisans as people who strongly support their political parties to the point that they are unwilling to compromise with the opposition party and actually hold it in contempt.
Ryan said the pandemic was a good lens for studying partisanship. Case counts and death rates were clear indicators of how the pandemic was being handled as opposed to other issues such as the state of the economy, where multiple complex factors are at play and room exists for broad subjective analysis and competing philosophies.
The most telling results of the survey came in the beginning of the pandemic, when states began to lock down. “In areas where there’s not a lot of cases, you see greater partisan splits,” he said. “And as the cases go up, you see the partisans coming together, responding in sort of similar ways.”
This is because partisans in COVID-19 hot spots had similar experiences. Republicans had to be “hit over the head,” as Ryan put it, with the danger that the pandemic could cause in their communities to favor lockdowns and more restrictive policies.
In areas with low COVID case counts, Republicans displayed some form of denial about the pandemic’s severity, while Democrats exhibited what Ryan called an “obsession” with safety precautions, vaccines and news surrounding the pandemic.
The research also focused on how partisans reacted to former President Donald Trump through his response to COVID-19. One method the researchers used involved how they phrased questions on the survey. In one version of the survey, participants were asked if Trump handled the pandemic well, while in another they were asked if the country was handling the pandemic well.
“In areas where there’s not a lot of cases, you see greater partisan splits. And as the cases go up, you see the partisans coming together, responding in sort of similar ways.”
– John Barry Ryan, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University
“These are the same questions. There is no difference between Donald Trump and the United States, Donald Trump is the United States,” Ryan said – or he was because he was still president when the survey was conducted. “And for Democrats, that means everything that the U.S. does is terrible. For Republicans everything the U.S. does is great. Regardless of what the reality is.”
How the question is framed affects the ferocity of the partisan response, the researchers noted. “So you get this sort of thing where you say Donald Trump and it activates the partisan response in people,” Ryan explained. “But when you just say the United States, they all kind of say, ‘Eh, it’s not great, not terrible, we’re sort of in the middle.’”
Ryan said the research can help policymakers craft their messages to target different groups. If policymakers understand their audiences, including partisans, they could better communicate about policy pertaining to the virus, even as the pandemic winds down.
Ryan and his colleagues have published three academic articles on their surveys and plan to compile the results in a book.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Kirsten Wohlars was a data analytics consultant in New York City.
She was happy with her job at DAS42, a consulting firm for enterprise businesses. She liked the company and her coworkers and said she thought she might have a future there in a managerial role.
But a few months into the pandemic, Wohlars began feeling unsatisfied.
“You know, as time went on and I started learning more, at first it was very exciting,” Wohlars said. “And then it sort of started entering realms where I wasn’t really interested in the work I was doing anymore.”
Wohlars, who graduated from Cornell University in 2019 with a degree in biometry and statistics, said the company had sold her on a client-facing role, which suited her professional goals and her personality. She describes herself as somebody who enjoys social interaction and has held jobs in the service industry to fuel that interaction.
She quickly realized that the job was not what she had been promised. Instead, she says it turned into “boring” meetings in boardrooms. This was exacerbated when suddenly – thanks to the pandemic – all the in-person meetings with clients were remote and held over teleconferencing.
“I felt like I wasn’t having the type of impact that I like to have,” she said.
Wohlars said she considered a few options for other careers. But one night as she was having dinner with her family, she listened to her stepsister, who is a nurse, complain about her busy days at the hospital during the pandemic.
“Even though it was exhausting and she wasn’t glamorizing it in any way, I was just like: that’s what I want to do,” Wohlars said. “I want to be there serving the people. I don’t want to reduce them to statistics. I want to be there at their bedside.“
Wohlars decided to leave her job and pursue a career in medicine. Now, she is in the post-baccalaureate pre-health program at Stony Brook University and is preparing for medical school. She is leaning towards becoming a family doctor.
As a data professional, Wohlars saw data come to the forefront of the pandemic. Statistics like infection rates, deaths and test results have been used to make policy, but the numbers have also been misinterpreted. “Data was being weaponized,” she said.
She saw that for her, the best way to make an impact was to jump into health care.
“I want to be there serving the people. I don’t want to reduce them to statistics. I want to be there at their bedside.”
– Kirsten Wohlars, who left her job as a data analyst to pursue a career in medicine
“You’re really engaged in the environment. It’s not just statistics — it’s not just a COVID-related death — you really understand the full picture of what happened to each person and how they can best be helped,” she said.
James Montren, director of Stony Brook’s pre-health pre-professional advising program, described Wohlars’ story as both “inspiring and emblematic.”
“Here’s someone who has a strong background in biostatistics,” Montren said of the student he advises. “Has a nice cutting-edge career path [and] job, but seeing all the suffering around her, is saying to herself: ‘I’d rather prevent these death statistics from happening as opposed to studying them.’”
Montren said Wohlars is one of the earliest students to get into health care because of the pandemic, but not the first student he has seen who was inspired by a national tragedy.
“You know, certainly when I look back at COVID and pre-med I’m gonna think of her,” he said. “Similarly to the way I think back on the fall of the World Trade Center, of a student ages ago who had been a responder there and then was inspired to go into health care by it.”
Medical school applications are at an all-time high this year, increasing 18 percent over previous years, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Officials say some applicants may be influenced by the suffering brought on by the pandemic and by the perceived heroism of front-line medical workers, according to an article published last October on the group’s website.
Dr. Geoffrey Young, AAMC senior director for student affairs and programs, drew a comparison similar to Montren’s 9/11 observation but instead likened it to the modest uptick in military service in 2001.
“This certainly seems like a significant factor this year,” Young said.
But medical school admissions officials, both in the AAMC’s article and in interviews, said that the effects of the pandemic will become more apparent in the next few years. They also cited other reasons for the increase in applications, such as prospective students having more time to put together application materials and being more motivated to seek reliable professions in what could be a post-pandemic recession.
“We can’t say for sure why so many more students have applied this year,” he wrote in a statement. “We know it takes years for applicants to complete prerequisites and compile the portfolio they need to apply.”
Young said that the AAMC surveys applicants and will eventually know more about the reason behind the sudden increase. But Robert Pertusati, associate dean of Stony Brook’s undergraduate admissions, suggests that the incoming high school graduating class may have an increased interest in health issues from what he’s seen of first-year applicants.
“They were talking in their essays a lot about wanting to go on to medicine,” he said, “wanting to go on to nursing, wanting to go on to something in the health field because of the influence of what they were seeing in their own everyday lives, in their own families, their friends, their communities. How it was impactful to them and inspirational to them.”
He also said that the university has seen increased applications in STEM – an acronym for science, technology, engineering and medicine – and health sciences programs, which can lead to careers in various health care fields. The high school counselors he talks to say students are asking more about health fields.
“They were talking in their essays a lot about wanting to go on to medicine, wanting to go on to nursing, wanting to go on to something in the health field because of the influence of what they were seeing in their own everyday lives, in their own families, their friends, their communities. How it was impactful to them and inspirational to them.”
– Robert Pertusati, associate dean of undergraduate admissions, about the interest in health care fields among first-year applicants
“They are very interested in science and STEM fields and they are very interested in these careers, two fold. Because A, they see it as a realistic profession, but also they see it as they can help give back,” Pertusati said.
For Kirsten Wohlars, the investment in time and money required to make it through medical school seems worth it to be able to serve people as their doctor.
“I think anyone who’s ever had to go through the health care system, which is most of us, knows how confusing it is,” she said. “I just want to be the person who makes that a little bit easier and less scary, and makes people feel confident going into the system.”