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W&M community improving others’ lives during pandemic

  • Zoom meeting computer screen with six faces
    Community conversation:  William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe hosted a virtual community conversation Feb. 4 with guests Melissa Moore ’84, chief scientific officer of platform research at Moderna; Cara Simpson MBA ’21, co-founder of the CrimDell Small Business Network at W&M’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business; Ghana Smith M.B.A. ’21, financial systems analyst at W&M; Stephen Tang ’82, president and chief executive officer at OraSure Technologies, Inc.; and Kelly Zvobgo, director of the International Justice Lab at W&M’s Global Research Institute.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Community conversation features alumni on the front lines of testing and vaccine research, and students, faculty and staff inspiring others through service

Across a variety of disciplines, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked service to others using an acceleration of accumulated knowledge to take bold, swift action, according to William & Mary community members.

President Katherine A. Rowe hosted a virtual community conversation Feb. 4 to explore the different ways students, faculty, staff and alumni are taking positive action to improve others’ lives during the pandemic. The session is the latest in a series of conversations Rowe has hosted since March 2020 to answer questions and discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on the community.

“One of the first things we did at William & Mary under pandemic when we were starting to plan, this was in the spring for the fall, was to recognize that service in an expanded sense was going to be part of what kept us together as a community,” Rowe said. “That in helping those who are most vulnerable, we gain a sense of control, of agency, for ourselves and for those that we are working with and helping.

“One of the things we wanted to do tonight to kick off the year is to give you a sense of all the different ways that the William & Mary community broadly seeks to change the world.”

{{youtube:medium:right| PmNJilRwSFs, Community conversation Feb. 4}}

Guests were Melissa Moore ’84, chief scientific officer of platform research at Moderna; Cara Simpson MBA ’21, co-founder of the CrimDell Small Business Network at W&M’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business; Ghana Smith M.B.A. ’21, financial systems analyst at W&M; Stephen Tang ’82, president and chief executive officer at OraSure Technologies, Inc.; and Kelly Zvobgo, director of the International Justice Lab at W&M’s Global Research Institute.

W&M pathways to leadership

Panelists opened the discussion talking about what drew them to W&M as students and their pathways to the kind of change leadership they’re involved in today.

Moore described how she transitioned from close relationships with professors and working in labs at W&M to university teaching and research for decades. In 2016, she went to work for Moderna, where the company continued its work using RNA to rapidly create a vaccine for COVID-19.

“I’m so glad I did,” Moore said. “It’s been an amazing ride and particularly this year to be part of the ability to really do something about this pandemic. It has just been remarkable. But my foundations at William & Mary really got me started in that direction.”

Rowe asked Simpson, Smith and Zvobgo to discuss choosing to move through the pandemic in ways that have made a difference. Smith, a longtime community volunteer, said she wrote on her M.B.A. application: “I want to gain knowledge and tools that I can go back into the community and use,” and that she has been able to do just that quickly while taking classes in accounting, finance and marketing.

“Bridging the community is the core of what I’ve been doing with the CrimDell Small Business Network,” said Simpson, referring to the organization of business school students who have been assisting local small businesses throughout the pandemic. “Our whole goal as an organization is to create a bridge.”

Accelerating the impact of knowledge

Panelists agreed the pandemic has changed the work they are doing, and in many ways expedited discovery and brought into focus the impact they are making in the community.

“The theme that I’m hearing run through the work in this group has to do with the way pandemic has caused us to accelerate the impact of knowledge we already have,” Rowe said. “Many things we are moved to take a risk or to lean into really hard, we knew they were true. But the opportunity and what’s called for is to accelerate the impact.”

Moore described the continuation of work Moderna had already been doing on synthesizing messenger RNA and packaging it for the body’s own cells, which basically enables the body to make its own medicines, she said. Tang said OraSure built on its development of at-home test kits using saliva for HIV, genomic and other uses to develop one for COVID-19 that may be approved for use this spring.

“That will enable anybody, anywhere to test themselves and determine whether they’re infectious, which we think will be a game changer,” Tang said. “Even with the rise of the vaccine, it’s going to be very important — particularly with the variants of the [virus] that have been discovered — to be able to do that in home.”

Zvobogo who works with her students at the IJL on comparative reparations and national justice initiatives issues, gave an example of that impact. Since the summer social justice protests, she said, there has been a proliferation of transitional justice initiatives in the U.S. at the local and state level.

“So in terms of changes from my work, what I study abroad has arrived in the U.S.,” Zvobogo said. “And I think it’s an extraordinary development; it’s a welcome change, certainly. But it also means that my students and I have had to pivot a little bit to seek to comprehend what is happening in our own backyard. So that we’re able to leverage our expertise and help shape the public’s and policy makers’ understanding of what’s happening based off of experiences in other countries.”

For small business owners, Simpson said, those who have been most successful under the current challenging conditions have shown resiliency, flexibility and adaptability.

“They’re looking at the current situation as a challenge,” said Simpson. “Now we’re seeing this major disrupter and, all of a sudden, business owners have to makes these really crucial decisions on how to operate and thinking strategically should they invest in this, should they not. Working with business owners in this way has been really, really educational for us.”

Smith, who works locally with the restoration of historic cemeteries, talked about how public history work has accelerated during this time as well. A new generation is looking back and learning the history, she said, and modernization is being linked into it by their use of technology to share information.

 “I really value oral history and I really want to make sure that it doesn’t stop,” Smith said. “That we learn about the people from the past so that we can pass it on to the next generation.”