From the search for a vaccine to practicing mindfulness, SUNY New Paltz Alumni are responding to a historic public health crisis in heartfelt, human ways.
The SUNY New Paltz community has shown overwhelming resilience, ingenuity and expertise in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through their individual and collective action, many are centered in the moment to do what needs to be done, with clarity, focus and, above all, compassion for self and others. In this issue, we’re sharing three still unfolding stories, from three very different professions, that show how young New Paltz alumni are working with grace and determination to support their communities during an unparalleled moment in history.
Joining the Race for a Vaccine
When Brittany Grandville ’18 (Biochemistry) first started as a sample management coordinator at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York, the alumni could never have predicted that a historic public health crisis would transform her work in research and development. Normally, Regeneron works on hundreds of clinical studies, but in 2020 their focus narrowed: Find an effective therapeutic for COVID-19.
"We jumped on the bandwagon rather early once COVID-19 started posing a threat,” said Grandville. “The company began research around mid-January. Since then, everyone has been working hours on end as we try to analyze samples and prepare for clinical trials as quickly as we can."
Regeneron worked quickly, and in June was able to begin clinical trials of a new antiviral antibody cocktail, “Regen-COV2,” specifically for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.
"We are really excited," Grandville said. "We have tons of human samples coming from all around the world to Regeneron that help us better understand the virus and how our antibodies may be effectively applied.”
The FDA granted emergency use authorization for Regeneron’s antibody treatment, which President Trump received when he battled the coronavirus. Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine is pending approval.
For Grandville, the effort has required long days in the lab and deep concentration on the work. She says she and her colleagues are lifted by positive feedback from patients about how their lives have been changed for the better by Regeneron’s therapeutics.
“You can't always connect to the big picture when you're in the lab,” she said. “You know you're dealing with human biology, but to actually hear back from patients is the best feeling in the world. I can't describe it. The medicines the company has approved have helped so many.”
Now just two years removed from her time as a student at SUNY New Paltz, Grandville finds herself at the heart of an industry-wide race to end the worldwide pandemic. "When you choose your major in college, you never know exactly what you'll really be doing in 10 years,” she said. “When I became a biochemistry major, I knew I wanted to be involved in helping people in the medical field, but this is more than I could ever have asked for. This company has been way too good to me, and I have to thank New Paltz for that. The College provided a great education and prepared me for the real world.”
Supporting tomorrow's leaders in today's health crisis
As Program Coordinator for AMP & CSTEP(AC²) at SUNY New Paltz, Binta Ceesay ’18 (Biology) has a clear perspective on how the pandemic is impacting students – especially those from historically underrepresented groups – in their ability to feel supported, motivated and part of a successful academic community.
“Students are really struggling because of COVID-19,” said Ceesay. “I was always aware of the hardships many students faced prior to the pandemic. However, the pandemic has amplified those hardships and exposed all of us to new ones.”
AC² offers resources, advising and a supportive network for students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and health-related fields.
“The program works to empower students by providing them with a community of like-minded individuals with shared experiences,” said AC² Director Nancy Campos. “Half of the battle is getting our students to feel confident as future scientists and engineers. Through our various services, resources and events, our students build a greater sense of belonging within the STEM fields."
The AC² (AMP & CSTEP Community) Program at SUNY New Paltz is a program of academic support and enrichment for students intending to major in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and certain majors leading to licensed professions. The goal of the program is to increase the number of economically disadvantaged and traditionally underrepresented students who earn degrees in these areas.
During the pandemic, AC² has shifted its offerings online to cater to the evolving needs of students. Ceesay has been a key player in that work, as she was when she led an effort to reconfigure the annual summer research experience for undergraduate students, rather than canceling it outright.
That summer experience even allowed some students to study the virus itself. A team including Kaitlyn Gonzalez ’21 (Biology), Shelah Ballard ’23 (Biology) and SUNY Orange student Jonathan Linton used publicly available GPS data to examine the correlation between mobility — how much people are traveling, and by what means — and the spread of coronavirus in New York State.
“When I saw the invitation to work on a project related to COVID-19 I was really excited to do it,” Linton said. “Since this is currently happening, I knew it would be interesting research.”
AC² provides more than just research opportunities, and their services often extend beyond pure academics. That’s been especially important in a year when students are dealing with extreme levels of stress and anxiety.
Ceesay and her colleagues are helping confront those challenges through weekly mental health check-ins with students.
“This allows them to express their feelings and still receive support from our community,” said Ceesay. “Their needs are unique and simultaneously alike given the pandemic’s impact on our daily lives.”
Ceesay has also been a leader and role model on social justice issues, working with fellow faculty on the College’s Black Lives Matter at School organization.
In April, the group helped convene a forum on the pronounced impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. Ceesay set the tone for the discussion with an in-depth presentation on medical and financial disparities and the interconnectedness of health and race, especially as it affects college students.
“I wanted that forum to provide a platform for students to explain their own stories and share important knowledge with faculty about the issues our students may be facing,” she said.
Ceesay has her own set of priorities to balance — in addition to her work at New Paltz, she’s also completing a graduate curriculum at the University of Albany’s School of Public Health — but she remains focused on doing all she can to see the students she represents succeed.
“My advice to students is, this is a tough time and COVID-19 may have made things even worse for you,” she said. “However, you have a community — turn to them for support. We are here for you. You made it this far and completed a semester during a pandemic. You did that and will continue to do amazing things even when times are tough. You got this.”
Visit the AC² program at newpaltz.edu/ac2/ to learn more.
Connecting Communities and Mindfulness now
To say that COVID-19 has been an emotional roller coaster is an understatement. As many people continue to juggle working from home, homeschooling their children and avoiding germs at every turn, their minds may be caught in a loop of worry.
"How will I get health insurance if I lose my job?"
"How will I make my mortgage payment?"
"What if I develop symptoms of COVID-19?”
But for just a moment, Juan-Carlos Piñeiro ’07 (Psychology) wants everyone to take a brief moment to focus on what is rather than what was or may be.
“So many of us are experiencing loss in many ways as we mourn our old lives. We are even experiencing anticipatory grief for the future,” said Piñeiro. “Our minds are filled with anxiety and fear. It’s important for our mental health to check in to the present to allow us to feel what is occurring in this very moment. There we can find peace, calm and experience the benefits of mindfulness.”
Piñeiro is an educator, performing artist and motivational speaker who has spent more than15 years researching, developing and facilitating experiences that use artistic expression as a tool for self-cultivation and psychosocial development among diverse populations. Mindfulness is a central element of his practice and teaching. Being mindful means being aware of your thoughts, emotions and how you're feeling physically and mentally in the present moment. Researchers have found that mindfulness practice can increase compassion and empathy, essential traits for supporting individual and collective resilience.
Juan-Carlos Piñeiro ’07 (Psychology) participated in the College's helpful virtual video series that welcomed alumni to highlight their individual expertise.
According to Piñeiro, mindfulness can also help us navigate the social distance and quarantine measures that keep us physically separate and yearning for connection.
“The role of mindfulness in nurturing feelings of interconnectedness and reducing risk factors for loneliness and isolation has become increasingly important,” he said.
Piñeiro shared his expertise with the SUNY New Paltz community this summer for an online seminar, “Mindfulness Now,” as part of an alumni event series organized in the wake of pandemic-related cancellations of in-person gatherings. He used the opportunity to dispel some myths about mindfulness and meditation and share tools for living a more present and fulfilling life.
“It was an absolute joy to connect with alumni via this virtual setting,” Piñeiro said. “During this strange period in human history, where we must physically disconnect and somehow embrace alternate ways to socially connect, I found it a true gift. I genuinely want to be of service in this world. I’m grateful for SUNY New Paltz and the space it’s held in my life, and I hope that as other alumni connect, they’ll also feel that quite real and mystical healing experience that comes from diving into shared communal experiences, be it in-person or virtually.”