I expected the last few weeks of my time as a Georgetown University student to be filled with nostalgic lasts. I have instead found myself confronted with a series of firsts. I experienced my first week of sustained online learning, first Zoom office hours, first virtual dinner date and first trip to the grocery store with a scarf wrapped tightly over my nose and mouth. As the coronavirus has made its way around the globe and COVID-19 case counts have surged, it seems that this viral disease has monopolized our social consciousness. My email inbox is filled with emails signed, “Stay safe!” My social media feeds are cluttered with reposted articles about hypothetical epidemiological curves based on the implementation of various social distancing measures.
Despite many biologically fascinating aspects of the COVID-19 disease and the coronavirus, in this installment of “Molecular Musings,” I am focusing on how our personal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic might follow a biological precedent. In the words of a high school teacher, words mean things, an adage I have discovered holds particularly true in the field of biology. Biologists note a key distinction between adaptation and acclimation, words that are essentially synonymous in colloquial speech. Biologically, adaptation refers to the ability of a species to adjust to its environment over the course of multiple generations through evolutionary processes. In contrast, acclimation refers to the immediate adjustments an organism makes in response to changing environmental conditions. Individual organisms have no control over how their species will adapt over the course of evolutionary time. Instead, they acclimate, adjusting to change as well as their current genome allows. Similarly, one person cannot singlehandedly flatten the epidemiological curve of COVID-19 cases or predict the course of the pandemic. All we can currently do is focus on acclimating to stay-at-home mandates and disruptions to our daily lives.
Organisms acclimate to environmental changes in a variety of ways: Certain bacterial species are capable of adjusting their respiration rates in response to increased temperature, some plant species can arrest growth to survive through cold seasons and humans can adjust to higher altitudes by increasing their red blood cell count. Similarly, there is no right way to acclimate to the changes precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The conditions of the pandemic pose different challenges for different people and thus require unique acclimation.
Over the past few weeks, I have started to identify practices that help me acclimate to the new normal of staying at home to slow the spread of COVID-19. My house has a list of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic taped to our fridge to help us stay optimistic. The list reminds us that travel restrictions have lowered global carbon emissions, Zoom classes have generated large quantities of memeable content and we have all been getting more sleep. I have also found cleaning and organizing to be an effective way to calm down when I start feeling anxious. Simple tasks like washing the dishes, folding my laundry or organizing my closet have helped me feel more productive and improve the order of the living space I now spend so much time in. I have also been trying to journal for five or 10 minutes each day, writing about how I am feeling, what I am grateful for and what I am looking forward to. The announcement that Georgetown classes would be online for the remainder of the semester and the more recent stay-at-home mandates brought about feelings of numbness for me and journaling has helped me break through this numbness to process my underlying feelings. While these activities may not be contributing greatly to our societal adaptation, they have been influential in my individual acclimation to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed on my day-to-day life.
Though the Hilltop feels like home for many of us, we now find ourselves dispersed across the country and around the world, staying in place and social distancing. I encourage my fellow Hoyas to find the practices that help them acclimate to the changes required by the COVID-19 pandemic. While none of us can single-handedly facilitate the adaptation of our society to the conditions necessitated by the pandemic, we can focus on acclimating individually to the unique challenges each of us is experiencing during this time.
Sarah Reuter is a senior in the College. Molecular Musings appears online every other Wednesday.