THE STORY OF HOW TWO ISE STUDENTS, A FACULTY MEMBER AND AN ALUMNUS ENDURED THE BEGINNING OF THE COVID-19 OUTBREAK
On January 9, 2020, the World Health Organization released an announcement concerning mysterious coronavirus-related pneumonia in Wuhan, China. There were only 59 cases so far, but travel precautions were already a concern of the experts. While the virus was months away from impacting the NC State ISE community as a whole, it was only days away from changing the lives of community members and their families living abroad. This story is about how four members of the community, Matthew Izzo (undergrad), Greg Hauser (Ph.D. student), Paul Cohen (distinguished professor) and Phillip Renfrow (alumnus), spent the next several months navigating the pandemic.
Renfrow and his wife left China on January 18 with plans to celebrate the Chinese New Year and vacation in Thailand. Other than a text from his mother before leaving Guangzhou, they had not heard any news about the virus. “I watch international news every morning, and I do not recall any news about the coronavirus prior to our departure,” remembered Renfrow. “Just after we departed for vacation, the coronavirus outbreak occurred in China.”
During the second week of their vacation, his wife received notice that the international school at which she worked would not resume classes after the Chinese New Year holidays. They thought it would be an excellent opportunity for her to visit their children, for what they believed would be only a couple of weeks. “So she departed from Bangkok to North Carolina,” recalled Renfrow. Because they had been on vacation in Thailand and the Maldives, his wife traveled with only shorts, t-shirts and flip flops to North Carolina — in January. Renfrow remained in Thailand through February before meeting his wife and children in North Carolina.
As Renfrow’s wife traveled to the United States, China confirmed it had 10,000 COVID-19 cases and 200 deaths. The WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, so the United States announced a travel ban on China.
As Renfrow arrived in North Carolina, the state identified the first case of COVID-19. Although the virus crept closer to home, it still had not impacted universities. NC State let out for spring break on March 9 as scheduled. But during the break, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper issued a state of emergency. The following day, the University of North Carolina System announced the suspension of in-person classes for all of its schools. Two days after that, NC State released a statement stating that it would extend spring break an additional week to prepare for moving all courses online.
At the same time, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. President Trump announced a national state of emergency and issued a travel ban on non-citizens who had traveled to Europe.
And like that, everyone’s plans turned upside down. Professors had to change their entire class structure immediately. “Chancellor Woodson’s announcement of classes going online caused me to learn how to teach online, restructure courses, meet with student project teams and assist students with the transition,” recalled Edgar S. Woolard Distinguished Professor Paul Cohen. “It was challenging for me, as well as the students in my classes. I have to admit that digitally recording lectures was uncomfortable at first and required a number of changes to lectures and projects.”
Students also had to adjust to classes going online. Undergrad Matthew Izzo admitted that being unable to meet professors in person and have daily interactions with them was less than ideal. “Although I think the professors made concerted efforts to have online office hours via Zoom, it just wasn’t the same as being able to sit down and have a discussion that happens during a typical office hour session.”
Many students also had to adjust living arrangements as resident halls were closing, effective immediately. Ph.D. student Greg Hauser describes this as a very disruptive aspect of the crisis. “I was living in E.S. King and was fortunate enough to be able to move on such short notice. I know of a few students who had traveled home for spring break and were forced to scramble back to campus to move out in time.”
As professors and students fought to prepare for the rest of the semester, Renfrow was trying to go back home. “My original plan was to stay in North Carolina for two weeks and then return to China on March 13.” The night before his departure, Chinese officials announced new quarantine requirements, which canceled his travel plans. It looked like everyone would remain where they were for the unforeseeable future.
Classes at NC State resumed online on March 23. Some students, like Hauser, liked the move to online courses. “In some ways, the online structure has given me more flexibility with how I complete course work, which can help how home life has changed for lots of students,” he said. Others, like Izzo, liked it less. “Working on my classes from my desk at home had its perks, but I really came to miss my classmates and professors, especially as I came to realize we would not be returning to campus for the remainder of the semester,” he recalled. As students and professors adjusted to online courses, Renfrow learned that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China had announced that no foreigners could enter China. So, he was still unable to return home.
On March 30, a statewide stay-at-home order from the governor went into effect. This order that closed many businesses made senior design projects more challenging. “An inability to visit sponsor sites did not allow them to collect some data or, in some cases, implement their solutions completely.” Cohen reflected. “Students did get valuable experience working remotely with their sponsors and team members as they may well face this after graduation.”
The closing of companies also affected student internships. Both Hauser and Izzo had their internships canceled. “I accepted an internship offer from Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia as a process engineer this summer but was informed the program was canceled at the beginning of May due to COVID-19 related concerns,” Izzo remembered. “I had applied to over 50 internships, had good grades, but nonetheless, I was going to be out of a job this summer, which I desperately needed.”
As all good industrial engineers know, challenges also bring about opportunities. While stuck in both Thailand and North Carolina, Renfrow landed a new position with Proctor & Gamble in the United States. “So, in addition to managing my daily operation remotely from North Carolina, my wife and I had to plan and manage our relocation remotely,” he said. Renfrow and his wife did not return “home” to China but instead relocated to their new home in Virginia.
Students had new opportunities, as well. Izzo was about to give up on his summer internship when he came into contact with an employee from Freudenberg Performance Materials, a nonwoven textile manufacturing company. After their Durham plant offered him a position, Izzo learned he would help install and implement 10 fully automated face mask production machines. “Now, after a month in, I have gained more knowledge and insight into the production industry and principles of lean manufacturing than I ever thought possible,” he said. Hauser also had a silver lining to the cancelation of his plans. “I’ll be able to spend my entire summer working on research for my dissertation. I’ve been able to maintain some productivity, and I’m hoping to take full advantage of the unplanned additional time with family I’ll have this summer,” he said.
Cohen received good news, too. “Professor Starly and I have a current Convergence Accelerator grant from the National Science Foundation,” he said. One aspect of this grant is developing software tools that allow people to find suppliers that provide the parts needed for their product or prototype. “We received an additional grant that has allowed us, with undergraduate student Chase Stewart, to source the parts needed for a ventilator produced by Medtronic with their design open-sourced to allow others to manufacture it,” Cohen explained. Using their software tool can help others find suppliers for critically needed items.
Despite the chaos, change and still uncertain future caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, ISE students, faculty members and alumni persevered. Opportunities came and went, but ISE never stopped living NC State’s motto, “Think and Do.”