This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on August 21, 2020 at 9:55 a.m.
Subject: Update from the President
The weather this week has often been glorious, and I hope many of you have been getting some time away from work to renew and rejuvenate, whether you’re traveling or staying close by.
Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo reported that the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in New York State had remained below 1 percent for 10 straight days and had been almost that low continuously since June. On Monday, in fact, the statewide positivity rate was 0.71 percent, the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic. The numbers in New York City have consistently stayed nearly as low as the state’s figures, accompanied by low hospitalization rates. This all has been good news.
Here at Rockefeller, we continue to see a very low incidence of COVID-19 with no transmission of virus on campus; there has been one new positive test in our community in the last two weeks among over 400 tests. Our collective commitment to maintaining a culture of safety has allowed us to greatly expand research and support activities on campus since we entered Phase III on July 6. Key to this success has been effective social distancing, face covering, hand hygiene, and environmental cleaning. This has been strongly supported by on-campus virus testing via saliva by Bob Darnell’s lab. Nonetheless, there is concern about the potential for resurgence of cases this fall due to resumption of college and K-12 schooling, as well as the arrival of cold and flu season. As a consequence, all of the Phase III policies and processes will continue at present and will likely continue through the fall season.
During Phase III, employees whose duties require them to be on campus have been working on site, resulting in a daily census on campus of approximately 1,300. As we extend Phase III, we encourage those individuals who can work remotely but who would be able to work more effectively from campus to speak with their supervisors about returning to campus to do so on a part- or full-time basis. We expect that many will prefer to return to campus, and we remind all employees that they must have their supervisor’s approval to continue to work remotely some or all of the time.
As you may know, temporary parking permits for on-campus parking expire on August 31. Given that the University is extending Phase III, we are evaluating the feasibility of extending the temporary permits past August 31, with ongoing evaluation on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Lastly, as a reminder, New York State requires that all employees confirm they are symptom free each day before entering the campus. Please use the online health self-assessment tool, RU Healthy, to comply with this mandate.
In a hallmark of the approach of fall, members of the incoming class of first-year Ph.D. students began arriving on campus this week, with classes set to start after Labor Day. The 30 new students include 13 women and 17 men; three students identify as Black or African American, two identify as Hispanic or Latino, and one identifies as a member of both groups. Thirteen are U.S. citizens/permanent residents, and 17 are international students. The international students come from nine countries on four continents, including Argentina, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Germany, Iran, Japan, Serbia, and the United Kingdom. These students will be augmented by a number of students who will also be joining Rockefeller labs through the Tri-I MD-PhD program and Tri-I Programs in Chemical Biology (TPCB) and Computational Biology and Medicine (CBM). As always, our new students are a supremely talented group of young scientists, and we are excited about their arrival.
Earlier this month, our RockEDU outreach team wrapped up their seven-week-long Summer Science Research Program for high school students. Months ago, they pivoted the program to an online format complete with scientific lectures, journal clubs, and discussions covering a breadth of topics, including bioethics and social justice in STEM. In addition, students were sent innovative experimental kits that enabled them to devise their own at-home investigations. Five different research tracks with teams of volunteer mentors guided these young scientists as they explored topics ranging from bacterial diversity in yogurt to bioinformatics. I continue to be amazed by the creativity and commitment of the RockEDU team and the students they attract. Thanks as well to the lecturers and mentors who gave their time and expertise to ensure the success of this summer’s program.
In other inspiring news, Great Performances is planning to bring an array of restaurant partners back into their meal programming this fall. Not only will this enhance the dining options available to everyone on campus, it will also help to support NYC restaurants as they face the daunting challenge of staying in operation during the pandemic. GP is especially focusing on small and minority-owned restaurants. Starting in the fall, they will partner with one restaurant each week to develop a menu that will be available for preorder along with the weekly menus. As soon as allowed, GP will also bring back in-person chef appearances, similar to the pop-up appearance of Millie Peartree last February. Until then, I note that GP is again offering outdoor lunchtime BBQ in the CRC courtyard.
On the scientific front, in the never-ending evolution of host-pathogen interactions, the lab of Luciano Marraffini reported in Science their discovery of a protein from a virus that infects bacteria that prevents the bacteria’s CRISPR system from stopping the virus’s infection. Beyond providing an amazing description of pathogen one-upmanship (“I’ll inhibit your inhibitor!”), this new protein has interesting potential use as a switch for rapidly turning off CRISPR activity in cells.
In closing, I note that our community has been remarkably resilient through the steep challenge of the pandemic over these past five months. Great science continues to pour out of our labs every day, and dedicated teams keep the operations of the University running at peak performance. Nonetheless, daily life carries more stresses than usual these days. Please remember that the University offers a number of resources for support should you need them. Yesterday afternoon, for a break from the isolation of the otherwise-empty Hess Academic Center on the rooftop of the River Campus, I walked through the campus and was walking down 66th Street toward the York Avenue entrance just when excited kids and their teachers began spilling out of the CFC to meet parents arriving to pick up their children on a gorgeous afternoon. It was a heartwarming moment made more so by knowing of the incredible effort required of teachers and staff to reopen and operate the CFC in the midst of this pandemic. We all have been challenged to be better versions of ourselves under difficult circumstances, and I’m grateful for our community’s good will, camaraderie, creativity and personal generosity. I encourage you to stay connected to one another, your friends and family as a potent antidote to these socially distant times.
Stay safe and be well.
With all best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University