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Confronting COVID-19

A team effort for dissertation defence

A student in the Department of History was one of the first ever at Queen's to defend her dissertation remotely.

Photo of Sanober Umar after successfully defending her dissertation over a video conference on Microsoft Teams
Sanober Umar after successfully defending her dissertation over a video conference on Microsoft Teams.

Queen’s has had graduate degree programs since 1889, but is still having new firsts in its approach to graduate education. Over the past few weeks, the university has held its first remote defences of theses and dissertations. One of these defences was for Sanober Umar, who on April 6 became the first PhD candidate in the Queen’s Department of History to defend her dissertation using Microsoft Teams.

Nine people joined the video conference, including Umar, her committee members, a facilitator, and a staff member from IT Services for support. Most were in Kingston, but one person joined from New York City and another from Halifax.

"Even though it was a momentous occasion, I felt surprisingly calm going into my defence. Mainly because I received so much support from Barrington Walker and Saadia Toor, my supervisors; Adnan Hussain, Graduate Chair in the Department of History; and Betsy Donald, Associate Dean in the School of Graduate Studies. Because of their help, I was able to focus on preparing and didn't have to worry about whether the new situation would affect my defence," says Umar. "The advisors at the Ban Righ Centre, who have provided me with so much support throughout my time at Queen's, also helped to keep me calm in the days before the exam."

A successful remote defence

Shortly after learning that classes were transitioning to remote delivery, Umar says she was contacted by Hussain, who let her and the other graduate students in the department know that there were plans in the works for holding defences and exams remotely. The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) also reached out with the same message. “I never had to worry if my defence or degree would be delayed,” Umar says.

Making sure no technical glitches got in the way, David Smith, a staff member in IT Services at Queen’s, stayed on the video call for the duration. All the committee members were also eager to make sure that the defence could focus on Umar’s dissertation rather than whether everyone’s technology was working properly. So they all agreed to join the virtual meeting half an hour early to sort out any potential issues.

Typically, successful defences end with a celebration of the accomplishments of the student. While there could be no in-person gathering, the facilitator of the defence did bring out balloons and a congratulations sign to recognize Umar’s achievement. As her dissertation studies global Islamophobia in the second half of the twentieth century, Umar appreciated having this light-hearted note after discussing such a serious topic for three hours.

Best practices for remote thesis examinations

As Queen’s continues to practice physical distancing, it will rely on this remote format for administering graduate exams and defences. And SGS is providing support and guidance for all students and departments. It has put together a guide to best practices for remote exams which were followed during Umar’s defence, helping to ensure it went off without a hitch.

“Queen’s is one of the first schools in Canada to compile best practices for remote thesis examinations. And we have already seen many departments put them to use as they hold their first-ever remote defences,” says Betsy Donald, Associate Dean, School of Graduate Studies. “I served as the facilitator for Umar’s defence, and it was a pleasure to see her thrive in the remote setting.”

To read the SGS best practices guide for remote thesis examinations, see their website.

Connecting in a time of physical distancing

Office of Advancement hosts a town hall featuring Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane and Special Advisor to the Principal on Planning and Preparation for COVID-19 David Walker.

The Office of Advancement at Queen’s University hosted a special online town hall on Wednesday afternoon, featuring Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane and David Walker (Meds’71), Special Advisor to the Principal on Planning and Preparation for COVID-19.

The town hall, moderated by Vice-Principal (Advancement) Karen Bertrand (Artsci’94), reached out to Queen’s alumni, offering them the opportunity to question the university administration on the ongoing response to the pandemic as well as the direction moving ahead. More than 250 people participated in the live town hall.

Following brief introductory remarks, Vice-Principal Bertrand opened the floor to questions, some sent in advance and others sent through the Zoom platform. Queries ranged from the university’s expectations and plans for the 2020-21 academic year to how Queen’s is cooperating with postsecondary institutions around the province and across the country. Other questions dealt with the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as whether or not Queen’s will be able to maintain its traditions and community spirit.

“This online town hall was a great opportunity to connect with alumni, who are such an important part of the Queen’s community, during a time of physical distancing,” says Vice-Principal Bertrand. “Principal Deane and Dr. Walker provided a valuable update on the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how Queen’s is playing an important role at the local, provincial and national levels.”

Principal Deane explained that he has been particularly impressed by how quickly collaborations have formed with community partners and fellow postsecondary institutions, adding that he will work toward maintaining these connections once we move into the post-pandemic phase.

“In the months before the coronavirus hit we’ve had some extremely positive discussions on campus about the role of Queen’s in our community, and one of the things that I would say about the crisis is that it has deepened those connections,” says Principal Deane. “It’s important for us to think about where we will be when we come out of the other end of this crisis and I hope that what we remember is how important it is to maintain all of those positive connections between the university, the city, social agencies, everybody who is interested in making the quality of life in Kingston as good as it can be.”

Having chaired Ontario’s Expert Panel on SARS and Infectious Disease Control in 2003, Dr. Walker was asked to compare the two outbreaks. He pointed to the university’s steps to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Queen’s administration quickly worked to depopulate the campus in response to the spread of the coronavirus and continues to help frontline healthcare workers through donations of personal protection equipment (PPE) and providing living space at the Donald Gordon Centre, Dr. Walker pointed out.

Visit the Queen’s Alumni website for more articles highlighting how Queen’s alumni are contributing to the effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Making the most of the summer

Queen’s online course offerings are proving to be very popular with students facing summers disrupted by COVID-19.

Photo of a person using a laptop.
Faculties at Queen's are seeing an increased demand for their popular online summer courses.

COVID-19 has abruptly changed summer plans for many students across Queen’s, as many employment and internship opportunities have been put on hold. To help students make the most of this unexpected gap, the university is ready to connect students with a host of popular online courses and programs around campus.

Arts and Science Online (ASO) has the largest enrolment out of the units offering online degree credit courses at Queen’s. It’s aiming to become even more accessible to students through measures like increasing enrolment caps for popular classes, extending the application deadline and start date for summer courses, and by expediting the application process for prospective students and visiting students from other universities, such as allowing them to submit unofficial transcripts to support their applications. To support the larger class sizes this summer, ASO will also be hiring an additional 40 graduate students as teaching assistants.

“From last year, there is already a 25 per cent increase in course enrolments in Arts and Science Online. We understand that many students suddenly need to find new plans for their summer, and we are working hard to make accommodations while maintaining the high level of education that we are known for. Whether students are looking to earn credits toward their degree or explore an interest, ASO has something for them,” says Bev King, Assistant Dean (Teaching and Learning), Faculty of Arts and Science.

Arts and Science Online has a long track record of offering innovative online education. Students in ASO can take courses in a wide variety of disciplines, including art history, drama, astronomy, computing, and psychology. Courses in ASO are taught by Queen’s faculty members who often teach in-person courses on similar topics. Their courses are open to Queen’s on-campus and distance students, and students from other higher-education institutions who apply.

Launching careers remotely

The Smith School of Business has also been making their programs more accessible for students facing a summer of physical distancing. Notably, they have adjusted their popular Graduate Diploma in Business (GDB) program so that it is now delivered remotely.

The GDB course is designed for recent graduates from any discipline and gives them a chance to build business skills that can help launch their careers. Credits earned in the program can also be transferred to a Smith MBA program, and completion of the program could qualify students for entry into other Master’s programs at Smith. Throughout the program, students also work with dedicated career coaches who provide mentorship and build important professional skills, such as communication, resiliency, and emotional intelligence.

“This is the seventh year for Smith’s Graduate Diploma in Business. In four intensive months over the summer, students gain a deeper confidence in all areas of business through ten masters level courses plus professional coaching, communications skills, training in high performance teams, career planning, and more so they stand out as a great job candidate,” said Jim Hamilton, Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Sales Management, and Director Graduate Diploma in Business at Smith. “We are excited this summer to deliver the program fully remotely using our teaching studio technology and virtual support. It will be a completely immersive and engaging experience that a student can do from anywhere.”

Health Sciences online

Like ASO, the online Bachelor of Health Sciences (BHSc) program is already seeing growing demand for its courses this summer. Compared to 2019, enrolments are already up 71 per cent. Queen’s undergraduates are driving most of this increase, but there are also many students from other institutions requesting to enroll.

To accommodate more students, the BHSc is adding more courses. Originally, the program planned to offer 18 courses, which was already an increase over the 15 offered in 2019. But now they will be adding 3 to 5 more courses on top of the 18. The preferences of students are being considered as the BHSc plans for this expansion. They have asked for feedback from students about which courses they are most interested in taking, and they have received over 100 responses so far.

“Seven years ago, the Faculty of Health Sciences made significant investments to develop state-of-the-art, fully online courses that would become the foundation of the Bachelor of Health Sciences program. The result is that we can now offer a diverse array of courses online, enabling us to respond to the student demand because of this COVID-19 pandemic. We are very pleased to be able to help the students out,” says Michael Adams, Director, Bachelor of Health Sciences.

The BHSc is designed for undergraduates who are interested in pursuing the health professions, and it offers online courses on a wide range of topics, including infectious diseases, pharmacology, physiology, and global health. This academic year, it launched an on-campus version of the program, which received over 4,000 applications for its first cohort.

Queen’s Faculty of Law

Having seen several years of steady growth for the Certificate in Law, the law school is continuing to see increases in enrolment in both individual courses and the Certificate program itself as the summer nears. Queen’s students represent about 60% of students in the program, but off-campus students, both undergraduates and lifelong learners, are a growing cohort for the program. Law 201, Introduction to Canadian Law, is a perennially popular course, but speciality courses such as Aboriginal Law and Intellectual Property are rapidly accruing interest and enrolments as May nears. 

“We have increased our caps for most courses, hiring more teaching assistants from our Juris Doctor and graduate students,” says Hugo Choquette, Academic Director of the Certificate in Law program. “We are continuing to invest in course renewals and improvements for the courses, and the quality of the courses are reflected in their growth both on- and off-campus. We’ve also extended our program enrolment deadline for Queen’s students by a week, to April 27, to accommodate this higher level interest.”

The Faculty’s online Graduate Diploma in Legal Services Management is also seeing growing interest among legal professionals with a series of courses to train legal professionals in business skills ranging from financial literacy to project management. One of its summer courses, LSM 840 – Working With Teams and Managing People – has proven especially relevant in the current context.

“The COVID-19 epidemic has, among other things, highlighted how important leadership and management skills are to weathering a crisis,” says Shai Dubey, Academic Director of the Graduate Diploma in Legal Services Management. “We’re reaching out to small and mid-sized law firms with a series of tools, created by the course developers, to help them with remote team management and mentoring, and seeing a strong positive response and interest in this course, as well as the other courses in the program.”

Exploring online programs

For more information about Arts and Science Online, visit the ASO website.  Learn more about the Graduate Diploma in Business on the program’s website, or find out about other programs that Smith delivers remotely on the school’s website. The website for the BHSc has information about both the online and on-campus versions of the program. 

If you are interested in summer online courses in other academic areas, see the website of the relevant faculty or school to learn more about their programs.

Recruiting the Class of 2024

Undergraduate Admissions and Recruitment is busy making offers to the next class of first-year students.

Aerial photo of Queen's campus.
Queen's campus in the summer.

As Queen’s students are completing the academic year, the university is busy reaching out to potential students that will be part of the Class of 2024. The Undergraduate Admissions and Recruitment (UAR) office is currently assessing over 45,000 applications for the next undergraduate class and is working towards having all admissions decisions completed by the middle of May.

“As always, students across the country are showing a strong interest in coming to Queen’s, and we continue to process offers of admission. Undergraduate Admissions and Recruitment is moving ahead and we are on pace to admit an exceptionally strong class. Thanks to our admission staff who are working remotely and the strong collaboration with our partners across campus, we have been able to adapt quickly to this changing situation and stay on track with our admission plan,” says Chris Coupland, Executive Director (Acting), UAR.

Many aspects of the recruitment process remain the same, but staff have noticed a heightened interest in their webinars and in prospective students wanting to have video chats with recruiters. These interactions are taking the place of larger in-person recruitment events that typically happen each year, such as March Break Open House and receptions that the university hosts across the country.

Helping prospective students during COVID-19

Given the unprecedented circumstances of this application cycle, UAR is working closely with colleagues at universities across Ontario to help prospective students. Queen’s and other higher-education institutions in the province want to ensure that students are not unduly burdened by the application process due to COVID-19. They are collaborating to develop a consistent approach that provides flexibility for students in submitting documents and completing all aspects of the admission process.

As UAR recruits the next members of the Tricolour community, they acknowledge that many prospective students have questions about the 2020-21 academic year.  

“Usually when we work with prospective students, we’re able to give them a clear sense of what their first year on campus will look like. We know students and families have a lot of questions right now. While there is some uncertainty, we can assure them that Queen’s is committed to offering our incoming class an excellent experience. We’re helping prospective students navigate the uncertainty by keeping them updated and letting them know we’re here to help,” says Coupland.

For more information about how UAR is currently operating, visit the UAR COVID-19 FAQs webpage.

Racing for air

More Confronting COVID-19 Stories

Multi-disciplinary team designs and builds life-sustaining ventilator in only 14 days.

The team's device is comprised of more common or easily-sourced components.
The team's device is comprised of more common or easily-sourced components.

Any other time, having two weeks to design and prototype a respiratory ventilator that can outmatch those created by hundreds of international teams would be a daunting task. These days, however, the stakes are much, much higher than bragging rights.

A multi-disciplinary team comprised of Queen’s University faculty and students, as well as health professionals from Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), entered the Code Life Ventilator Challenge earlier this month. Together, they are hoping to be among the top three groups whose designs could go into production and soon start saving lives threatened by COVID-19. With the challenge about to close, the Kingston-based team worked steadily through the weekend to finalize their functioning ventilator model.

“In people infected with COVID-19, parts of the lungs fill with fluid, which prevents oxygen from passing into the blood, and causes the lungs to fatigue and stiffen,” says Ramiro Arellano, Head of Queen’s Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, and team member responsible for ensuring the device will provide the life-sustaining respiratory support patients require. “As an analogy, imagine how your legs would feel walking on pavement compared to walking in knee-deep mud; eventually your muscles tire and fail. For the lungs, a ventilator takes over the work so muscles can rest, and the body can better fight infection.”

Dr. Arellano says the brilliance of their team’s design is its use of items readily available in the community in combination with items that are easily sourced or 3-D printed.

In pairing two continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, commonly used to treat conditions like sleep apnea, the team was able to harness the air pressure required to provide a patient with the correct amount of oxygen. Since CPAP machines provide constant airflow to users, they next had to innovate a way for the device to provide a steady, on-and-off supply of air more akin to the natural tempo of breathing. Combining a small computing device, a series of tubes linked to the CPAP devices, and mechanical arms that compress the tubes intermittently, the team was able to simulate the proper timing to provide regular spurts of oxygen.

The Queen's/KHSC team's ventilator design.
The team's ventilator design combines machines typically used to treat sleep apnea with a computerized control centre that governs airflow.

“Our ventilator design goal was to make the production of the device as simple and versatile as possible,” says Reza Najjari, a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical and materials engineering whose expertise in fluid dynamics has him overseeing that the device will deliver the precise volume of air to a patient. “I think the simplicity and modular features of our device give it the potential to help a lot of people, as it provides the production flexibility that local producers need to manufacture them rapidly with the materials they have on hand.”

Drs. Najjari and Arellano feel that the team’s cross-disciplinary approach makes their Code Life Ventilator Challenge submission highly competitive, while recognizing there may be strong competition from across the globe. They are focused on creating an effective, life-saving device with an open-source design that can be used by anyone around the world.

“Our ventilator design would not have been achievable without the wide-ranging expertise and collaboration of our team of researchers at Queen’s,” says Dr. Najjari. “We had specialists in fluid and solid mechanics, biomechanics, electrical engineering, computer science, and health sciences; all who showed the utmost dedication to creating this important device.”

Dr. Arellano took it further, comparing the team’s complement of experts to an ensemble of musicians.

“In many ways, the team is built like an orchestra,” he says. “Each person plays a unique instrument and the amalgamation and organization of each unique sound produces music that would be impossible otherwise.”

Contest finalists will be announced soon. Watch the Code Life Ventilator Challenge website for the list of winners to appear. In the meantime, read about another ventilator design project being led by Queen's Nobel Laureate Art McDonald.

See the world from home

Experience art from around the globe through online collections and exhibitions with #AGNESFromHome.

Leiden, Netherlands
Leiden, Netherlands (Photo: Jose Zuniga via Unsplash)

If you are itching to take a trip, there may be no better time to do so than right now. No need to worry about COVID-19 or going against our efforts to physically distance – you can explore the cultural richness of Europe, Africa, and Canada’s far north from the comfort of your living room with #AGNESFromHome.

“There are few things capable of expanding our horizons in the ways that art can,” says Alicia Boutilier, Interim Director of Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. “Artists energize our imaginations and illuminate our individual experiences and our shared histories. As we maintain physical distancing, we hope you can find a connection to people, past and present, through our online collections and exhibitions.”

Leiden, Netherlands

Setting foot in Leiden is said to be like stepping into the 17th century. Heralded as the “city of discoveries”, the university town has been a science powerhouse for centuries — cultivating any number of groundbreaking researchers — but it is perhaps most notable as the birthplace of legendary painter, Rembrandt van Rijn.

As part of Agnes’ Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges exhibition you can take in the vibrancy of the Baroque master’s hometown in this short documentary, and get an up-close look at some of his most memorable works. Visit an interactive map of 17th-century Leiden for a look at the city’s incredible landmarks, and to see where the artist honed his craft and helped nurture the talents of countless pupils.

Afterward, take a deep dive into the free, fully-illustrated digital catalogue (in both English and French) detailing the early careers of Rembrandt and his peers, highlighting the exhibition’s included works, and offering broader context to Leiden’s historical and cultural profile at the time.

These online assets were produced as part of Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges, a touring exhibition which debuted at Queen’s University’s Agnes Etherington Art Centre in August 2019 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. Experience many of the pieces included in the exhibit online by visiting The Bader Collection.


African Ivory exhibit brochure cover
Ivory figure created by a Lega artist from the region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The world’s second-largest continent boasts rich cultural diversity and an abundance of natural wonder.

As part of #AGNESFromHome, you can learn about the long-running exhibition The Art of African Ivory, which explores how African communities have used ivory to teach morality, convey social standing, heal wounds, safeguard communities, and in commerce.

The use of ivory does carry baggage however, so be prepared to spend some time at the intersection of art preservation and animal conservation. Art curators across the world have the dual responsibility of protecting ‘cultural ivory’ works, while also combating the pursuit of contraband ivory. Past Director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, spoke at Queen’s on the matter last fall—discussing historical African ivory art and wildlife conservation in her lecture Displaying Historical Ivory in Museums: Let’s Talk about the Elephant in the Room.

The Art of African Ivory exhibition features a number of pieces from the Agnes’ Justin and Elisabeth Lang Collection of African Art—one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in Canada, with over 500 works created by primarily west and central African artists. You can view much of the African historical art collection online.

Baffin Island, Canada

Celebration and Drum Dancing from Picturing Arctic Modernity: North Baffin Drawings from 1964

The most memorable elements of any journey are the people we meet along the way.

With the Picturing Arctic Modernity: North Baffin Drawings from 1964 exhibition’s online interactive experience, we are introduced to Terry Ryan, an artist and arts advisor who encouraged and collected drawings by Indigenous people in the North Baffin region over three months in 1964. Traveling to three communities that had no formalized art programs—Clyde River (Kanngiqtugaapik), Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik), and Arctic Bay (Ikpiarjuk)—Ryan would distribute paper and pencils to local people at the start of his trips and purchase finished drawings on his way home. Together, the collection of drawings depicts profound perspectives of daily life, history, and memory during a time of profound social change for Inuit communities.

You can now reveal the stories behind the drawings with #AGNESFromHome. A selection of illustrations spanning Inuit identity, land, and history, can be viewed online. Each drawing is accompanied by special video interviews with the artists’ descendants and friends, who provide an intimate connection to the people, events, and themes of the era, while underscoring the importance of cultural heritage to communities today.

To learn more about contemporary and historical media created by Inuit, First Nations, and Métis artists from Turtle Island and across the world, visit the Agnes’ Indigenous Art Collection.

Planning for our future

More Confronting COVID-19 Stories

Principal strikes new COVID-19 steering committee to plan for 2020/21 academic year.

The COVID-19 outbreak continues to pose unprecedented challenges for universities across the world, and the Queen’s community is no exception. Most students, faculty, and staff are learning and working remotely to aid public health efforts, and it is unclear how long the situation could last. In readying to weather this uncertainty, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane has struck a COVID-19 response steering committee that will focus on planning for the upcoming 2020-21 academic year, ensuring that Queen’s continues to fulfill its academic mission for faculty and students. 

“With the current public health crisis posed by COVID-19 we must not only respond to immediate needs, but must also prepare for what may lie ahead to ensure we can face future challenges and, more importantly, emerge from them as a stronger institution,” says Principal Deane. “Over the coming weeks, the steering committee will identify and analyze a range of potential scenarios, providing crucial insights to Queen’s senior leadership as we navigate what lies ahead and look beyond it to the future of the institution.”

The steering committee will be responsible for oversight and direction of seven sub-groups tasked with developing forward-looking recommendations for key areas of university operations. These areas range from academic regulations to research impacts, and from enrolment to remote delivery. The small, agile teams will include representatives from faculties and shared services.  Some groups will also seek input from students. They will meet regularly throughout April to craft strategic recommendations for the Senior Leadership Team and Principal for review in early May.

“The university must plan for a variety of possibilities over the coming months that will directly affect how we conduct ourselves,” says Principal Deane. “Exceptional times call for exceptional solutions, and I am optimistic for our future having seen both the resilience and the creativity of our campus community in confronting COVID-19. I know the steering committee will bring this same ingenuity to the planning ahead.”

Allergy season concerns during the pandemic

More Confronting COVID-19 Stories

Queen's University allergy researcher Anne Ellis explains the best way to deal with springtime allergies.

A man wipes his nose with a tissue
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, allergy sufferers have some new concerns to deal with. (Unsplash / Brittany Collette)

It’s spring and that means allergy season is on the way. But this year it will be arriving in the midst of a global pandemic and with this comes a host of new concerns to contemplate. The Queen’s Gazette spoke with Dr. Anne Ellis (Medicine), a Canadian-leading expert in allergies.


How is COVID-19 making this year more challenging for allergy suffers?
A: Reduced access to primary care will be an issue for patients who suffer from seasonal allergies. Fortunately, most if not all allergy practices have converted to telemedicine and/or virtual care so people can still get in touch with their treating allergist at this time, and pharmacies remain open.

How are seasonal allergy symptoms similar and different to COVID-19?

A: Seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever) present with symptoms of sneezing, runny nose, nasal itch, and nasal congestion, along with associated eye symptoms like itchy/watery or red/burning eyes.  Occasionally people will develop cough, especially if they also have asthma, due to post-nasal drip.

COVID-19, while it can present with cough and other respiratory symptoms, is also characterized by fever, sore throat, and, as new studies show in 40 to 50 per cent of cases, gastrointestinal symptoms (GI) like diarrhea. Seasonal allergies will not cause a fever and while itchy throat may be present, it will not be accompanied by a sore throat. GI symptoms would be extremely atypical.

Q: Are there any allergy medications that people should avoid taking that may lower their immune system?
A: It is important for all patients to continue to take all of their prescribed medications. While medication does have the word “steroid” in the name, the doses used to treat asthma or allergic rhinitis are not immunosuppressive, and stopping them (especially asthma inhalers) can lead to a worsening of underlying conditions, and may lead to an asthma attack that necessitates a trip to the hospital.

If you have been prescribed an inhaled corticosteroid or are receiving chronic low dose prednisone for asthma, the risk of stopping these drugs far outweighs any potential benefits.

Q: Will allergy season be worse or better because there are few people out and about? Could people with allergies actually benefit by staying at home?
A: We anticipate no changes to the pollen season itself so some people may experience more allergy symptoms this year if they are enjoying the sunshine while physical distancing more than they would normally at this time of year (e.g. office workers who are typically indoors much of the time). Continue to do things like keep windows closed and, when it gets warm enough, turn on air conditioning to minimize the pollen burden in your home.

Q: Any other thoughts or comments?
A: Practicing social/physical distancing, strict adherence to hand hygiene procedures, and staying home as much as possible are still your best defense against COVID-19, regardless of whether you have allergies, asthma, or both. Symptoms of allergies may make it hard to not touch your face, so your rigorous attention to hand washing is essential at this time.

Music played from coronavirus isolation shows how the arts connect us

Professional and amateur musicians-in-isolation offer community expressions of human spirit through social media.

Steve Martin plays the banjo
Two Steve Martin banjo video tweets have been viewed more than 10 million times since March 21, 2020. Here, stills from the ‘Banjo Calm’ video. (@SteveMartinToGo/Twitter)

Many musicians are reaching out from isolation on balconies, in condos or the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Italian tenor Maurizio Marchini sings “Nessun dorma” from his balcony while the police in Mallorca, Spain play music, dance and sing in the streets and people watch from balconies. Many people are posting #songsofcomfort.

American actor, comedian and musician Steve Martin’s March 21 viral Banjo Balm tweet (at the time of this writing, about 9.8 million views) followed by March 27 “Banjo Calm” (one million views) are two videos that bear witness to the ways we rely on the arts within social media to build connections and create community in times of isolation.

Music educators, community music facilitators and ethnomusicologists value the power of music to build community. These three fields coincide when they examine the notion of music for all that transforms societies and people. They identify humans’ basic drive towards “making things special,” as explained by Ellen Dissanayake, an affiliate professor of music education at University of Washington School of Music.

Our communities make the music we need when we need to do so. We mark significant events, both traumatic and joyful, with the arts.

Banjo Balm

For years, Martin’s comedy hijinks included his banjo; the public increasingly became aware of how talented he is as a musician.

Martin’s album The Crow: New Songs For The Five-String Banjo won best Bluegrass Album at the 2009 Grammy awards; he also received awards for 2001 Best Country Instrumental Performance and the 2013 Best American Roots Song. He is now as respected as a musician as he is as a comedian and actor.

Martin’s stand-up comedy and early film roles were zany. His movie characters gradually transitioned into ones who were a little odd but wise. This shift in his acting roles parallels his rise as a prominent figure in roots and bluegrass music.

Space and place influence music

Musician David Byrne describes ways space and place have always influenced music. From operatic stages and philharmonic concert halls to punk rock concerts at CBGB in New York, composers and musicians write and play for spatial and acoustic qualities of specific venues. What works in an outside amphitheatre may well fail at Carnegie Hall.

Martin presents us a talented musician who becomes our beloved great uncle in the “Banjo Balm” viral clip. We see him alone, as many of us are — or at least feel — in social isolation, but he does not appear lonely. He stands outdoors, relaxed, just as many of us wish we could be today.

He smiles gently at us with compassion. Thus, Martin transforms his outdoor space into an intimate venue that millions share in mostly indoor settings. We feel he’s come to visit us at home and we’ve welcomed our buddy inside. We are all family in this context, isolating apart together.

Banjo ‘ill-suited’ for conveying sadness

Michael Schutz, associate professor of music cognition/percussion at McMaster University, explores composers’ cues for musical emotion and concludes that “the challenges in producing low pitched, slow moving melodies” on the banjo make the instrument “ill-suited for conveying sadness.” Martin himself has made the same point in his stand-up comedy.

Martin’s “Banjo Balm” overcomes this tendency with rich, warm tone and a slow tempo. The major sounding melody descends with each phrase, suggesting repose, up until the final coda where it leaps and ascends, offering us some optimism. We tend to hear music in a major keys as happy or light, while minor keys tend to suggest sadness or darkness. This music calms us; we feel lifted from melancholy.

However the high lonesome sound associated with bluegrass music returns in “Banjo Calm.” It begins in a minor mode, a darker but still warm tone, and slowish tempo. At 50 seconds in, Martin fills in the spaces between the warm, slow and melodic notes with traditional clawhammer — fast, high pitch fill — that identifies the cheerfulness of bluegrass, even in sad songs.

Martin developed “Banjo Calm” into a more finished, more professional, more bluegrass piece. Personally, we feel more calm after “Banjo Balm.”

Music for community

Martin’s ever-changing social and cultural capital provides traction for both video tweets. His musicality and star power alone made “Banjo Balm” viral, however, this social media phenomenon occurs with so much music in so many places around the world.

Canadian fiddler Ashley MacIsaac says musicians make music because “we have no choice — that’s just what we are, we’re artists.” Through these YouTube and Twitter experiences, both professional and amateur musicians-in-isolation engage community expression and audiences appreciate their demonstration of solidarity.

This phenomenon transcends individual performances in any one genre, and functions as community building, or at least community expressions of human spirit. We see professionals performing, community singalongs and Canadian rockers Arkells offering free, online music lessons. Then, there are countless artists performing online from their homes.

Amateurs too are performing for their communities, including doctors at the Mayo Clinic, children and grandmothers.

Let’s all join in this community apart together!The Conversation


Roberta Lamb, Professor emeritus, Dan School of Drama and Music and Faculty of Education, and Robbie MacKay, Lecturer in Musicology, Dan School of Drama and Music.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Generosity flourishes at the BISC

More Confronting COVID-19 Stories

Over 2,000 tulips from Queen’s campus in England have been donated to lift some spirits.

  • Tulips at the Bader International Study Centre (BISC) were gathered into more than 300 bouquets that were donated to frontline health care workers in the United Kingdom as well as vulnerable members of the local community.
    Tulips at the Bader International Study Centre (BISC) were gathered into more than 300 bouquets that were donated to frontline health care workers in the United Kingdom as well as vulnerable members of the local community. (Photo by Julie Ryan)
  • Staff members and volunteers collected tulips from the gardens of the Bader International Study Centre. The flowers were part of care packages for healthcare workers.
    Staff members and volunteers collected tulips from the gardens of the Bader International Study Centre. The flowers were part of care packages for healthcare workers. (Photo by Julie Ryan)
  • Staff members and volunteers collected tulips from the gardens of the BISC. The flowers were included in care packages for healthcare workers.
    Staff members and volunteers collected tulips from the gardens of the BISC. The flowers were included in care packages for healthcare workers. (Photo by Julie Ryan)
  • Volunteers help collect tulips from the gardens of the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle.
    Volunteers help collect tulips from the gardens of the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle. (Photo by Julie Ryan)

Spring is usually a time when the Bader International Study Centre (BISC) is bustling with students and visitors taking in the beauty of Herstmonceux Castle and its grounds, including the breathtaking gardens. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has closed the property to the public so no one has been able to view the thousands of flowers that recently bloomed after being planted in the fall.

But the BISC turned this into an opportunity to show support for those most affected by the pandemic. Staff members at the BISC cut over 2,000 tulips and gathered them into more than 300 bouquets that were donated to frontline health care workers in the United Kingdom as well as vulnerable members of the local community.

“It seemed like the most fitting choice to give our tulips to the health care workers who are doing so much to keep everyone safe right now and the people who are a part of groups vulnerable to the virus. We wanted our community to know we’re thinking of them during this stressful time,” says Hugh Horton, Vice-Provost and Executive Director of the BISC.

BISC on the BBC

Just before the flowers were cut and shared, the BBC arrived to take some shots of the scenery to share with people at a safe distance. Recently, the network produced a segment featuring Guy Lucas, Gardens and Grounds Manager at Herstmonceux Castle, who is the only person still working regularly on site. Mixing aerial drone footage and close-up shots of flowers, the BBC captured the quiet magic of Queen’s empty English campus at a time of year when it is usually buzzing with activity.

“Everyone has put in so much work and so much time and so much energy to create something for people. The whole idea of these gardens is for people to appreciate and to love them. And there’s no one there to love them other than me,” Lucas told the BBC. He added that he’ll be planting again soon and hopes that people will be able to come see the next bloom in the garden.

To learn more about the BISC and take a virtual tour of the campus, visit their website.


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