Finding Community at EOS During COVID
Updated: Aug 13
This is a guest article written by Stephen Randall. Stephen works in the Wilkerson/Dugdale lab where he studies how phytoplankton use different forms of nitrogen. He is interested in understanding how anthropogenic nutrient loading has affected phytoplankton biomass in the San Francisco Estuary and Delta.
It’s 7:06 a.m. on a cold mid-winter morning and I’m driving through that final windy stretch of Tiburon's Paradise Drive, where my sense of time and orientation seem to wither away. Soon Estuary Hall emerges, a landmark telling me that I’m about one hairpin turn away from the southern entrance to San Francisco State University’s Estuary and Ocean Science Center (EOS). I said I’d be there at 7:00 a.m. to take a water sample from the EOS pier, but I figure I’ll still be within the bounds of the plus-or-minus-two-hour-window surrounding the first high tide of the day, so I’m not worried. After parking in the mostly empty lot, I realize that I have forgotten to complete my virtual COVID-19 Screening, a requirement for unbridled access to any San Francisco State
I should really start doing this before I leave the house, I think to myself.
After I’ve ticked all the right boxes - “no”, “no”, “no”, “no” (in no particular order) , I make my way towards the lab, juggling my coffee, keys, and phone to scan the QR code laminate taped to the door, and fumble my way inside.
My first semester of graduate school during this historic COVID-19 era has come and gone. It had been two years since I’d been in school, so it was quite an adjustment to learning again, and furthermore, learning again virtually. I’ve had some experience with Zoom with my previous employer, attending meetings that usually seemed only necessary for the higher-ups. But at least then, most of us were in the same room – only a couple members were elsewhere. With online classes, everyone is elsewhere, but they still have a firsthand view as I muster up the courage to stumble through a contribution to a class discussion. It can be a little unnerving to look at a Brady Bunch-like grid of peers that are staring right back at you.
I sometimes wonder which cohort in our EOS masters program faced more adversity because of the pandemic (our graduate program is organized by year of matriculation, or “cohorts”). I mean at this point as a first cohortian, online graduate school is all I know, and obstacles courtesy of the virus have pretty much been a constant fly in my graduate school champagne (most likely Kirkland’s Brut). I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I feel the more senior students have received the shorter end of the unwieldy COVID-19 stick. They’ve had experiments and these derailed because of COVID-19’s far reaching impacts. All I have to deal with is a wildly short commute to class. I suppose it doesn’t really matter who got it the worst. Everyone in the world has it worse than before.
But beyond all my COVID-centric griping, I really do feel lucky to be here. I’m fulfilling a dream, even if a small portion of that dream was to finally move out of my parents’ place. And I feel exceedingly fortunate to have had opportunities to physically go to EOS, get trained on various lab techniques and even participate in fieldwork – all while abiding by the necessary COVID-19 precautions. It also really is amazing how much can be accomplished through online classes, from presentations to debates, and even virtual field trips to restoration sites. I feel as though I’m still receiving an immersive graduate school education. Despite the COVID-mandated distance, a strong sense of community persists at EOS, which has been cultivated through virtual holiday parties, happy hours, and even an EOS graduate student Discord, a chat room app focused on creating communities, and is something that I have foolishly forgotten to join.
After I gather the materials needed to take a water sample from the pier, I notice something out of the ordinary. Resting upon the guardrails on the pier are an alarming number of seagulls standing shoulder to shoulder (wing to wing if you like) for the entire length of the pier. At first, I don’t think much of it. I figure they will probably get spooked as I make my way closer to the pier. But as I unlock the gate and prop it open, they don’t budge - they just cock their heads and look at me, as if to say, “Who do you know here?”
I take my first steps onto the pier, and some get spooked and begin to fly away, while others simply flap their wings, anxiously shuffling around on the guardrails. There are even some adolescent seagulls waddling around on the walkway, which is absolutely smothered in fresh guano and fish guts, that can’t seem to flap themselves up and over the rails. They resort to squeezing their way through wires under the guard rails, causing them to regurgitate halves or whole herring – a thoroughly disturbing sight. As I tiptoe my way around a mélange of bird poop, fish guts and panicked seagulls, they are mostly able to filter out and I slowly make my way to the end of the pier.
After narrowly escaping bird flu and collecting my water sample, I can finally exit the pier and close the gate on that avian disaster. Walking back to Delta Hall through the mostly empty parking lot, I’m reminded of my first visit to the EOS center back in November of 2019, featuring a very full parking lot. As a bright-eyed prospective graduate student, I was blown away by the warmth and sense of community that existed there, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. Now, 16 months later as a first-year grad student, and even through the virtual filter, I do feel like I’m part of the EOS community and I’m proud to be here. But I should finally download Discord.