Last spring in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, campuses shut their doors and moved coursework and essential activities online. Lecture halls sat empty, campuses fell quiet, and long-anticipated convocation ceremonies were canceled or moved to digital formats.
It felt like an ending, but it turns out that it was a beginning. As classes moved to Zoom and students returned to their hometowns, university researchers began researching how to diagnose, treat and ultimately prevent the spread of COVID-19.
We’re already seeing the fruits of their quick and decisive pivot. From MIT’s contract tracing app PathCheck (1), currently being piloted on college campuses, to the University of California, Berkeley’s adaptation of the gene-editing tool CRISPR to deliver a virus-killing enzyme that neutralizes COVID-19 (2), elite research universities are enjoying a renaissance moment as they pioneer inspiring, bold new research on COVID-19.
No stone is being left unturned. Earlier this spring, Ben-Gurion University and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology partnered with the tech startup Kando to test sewage samples to identify outbreaks before people even begin to show symptoms. Universities in the United States, including the Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Arizona and Syracuse University (3), are following suit with similar programs.
How in a moment of immense uncertainty and chaos could these universities transform seemingly overnight into coronavirus research and innovation hubs?
For one thing, it didn’t happen overnight. The traditional university structure is one of silos between departments and disciplines. But the challenges of the 21st century—and of COVID-19, in particular—are multidisciplinary by nature. Universities thriving in this moment recognize what the Technion has known since its inception: Multidisciplinary challenges cannot be solved by just one field.
It’s why under the leadership of president Uri Sivan, the Technion has restructured research around those major challenges: human health, energy sustainability and the environment, and advanced manufacturing. Right now, more than 50 labs at the Technion are applying this approach to combat COVID-19 through vaccine research, therapeutics and assistive technologies for health-care providers.
These universities also recognize the power of partnering with industry leaders. Research used to be the sole province of academia. No longer. Today, corporations like Apple have their own research departments and initiatives. Universities have a choice: to collaborate or try to compete.
At the Technion, we’ve found that working hand-in-hand with industry makes both sides better, stronger and more competitive. An excellent example of this is the “Maya” sticker—one of the first personal protective equipment developments for medical teams on the frontlines of treating COVID-19. The sticker is made of nanofibers and can easily be adhered to a mask. The nanoscale pores of the sticker prevent the virus from penetrating the mask, improving its efficacy. The brainchild of Technion researchers, it’s now in mass production at the Dykam paper plant in Kibbutz Ein Harod, providing jobs to Dykam employees who were furloughed at the start of the pandemic.
Finally, these universities also understand that our role is no longer just to provide information. Anyone can use Google or Wikipedia to find answers. You can enroll in an online course on virtually any topic under the sun.
Yet only a university can mold people into rounded human beings sensitive to their environment and their community. Look at the course catalogs of Stanford, the University of Chicago, MIT, the Technion—these institutions know that it is not enough to simply teach students about a discipline. Indeed, the innovators and researchers leading us through this pandemic understand entrepreneurship, ethics, equity—and they’re applying it to their COVID-19 research in real time.
This fall, many campuses are still quiet as students complete their coursework remotely. But make no mistake: Universities like the Technion, which have long understood the value of a global, multidisciplinary approach to education and research, are as busy as ever. And every new coronavirus testing method announced and every new vaccine that becomes available is a reminder that we all benefit from their innovative, forward-thinking approach.
Michael Waxman-Lenz is CEO of the American Technion Society.