Mark Koranda describes his experience as a graduating UW-Madison Ph.D. student during the social distance measures that were put in place in Madison in the spring of 2020. Mark shares a story about some project work he did on a national scale for CoronaWhy, helping to analyze and organize research data about COVID-19 using computer algorithms. Mark talks about the days leading up to the Safer at Home order, and steps he took to prepare to shelter in place.
Narrator name: Mark Koranda
Interviewer name: Andres Torres
Date of interview: April 23, 2020
[00:00:44] – Psychological and personal impacts of pandemic and Stay at Home order.
[00:04:11] – Work on Kaggle and CoronaWhy, data science competition and volunteer team analyzing medical science research articles related to COVID-19
[00:07:11] – How Koranda first got involved with Kaggle
[00:08:23] – Stockpiling for staying at home, experience with grocery delivery apps
[00:10:38] – Navigating pandemic with four independent roommates, standards, control
[00:12:54] – Impressions of election day, voters wearing masks
[00:14:36] – Closing
Interviewer: Hello. My name is Andres Torres, I'm here with Stories From a Distance, part of the Living History Project. Today is Thursday, April 23, 2020, and now I will let the narrator introduce themselves.
Narrator: Hi, I'm Mark Koranda. I'm a graduate student at UW-Madison and I'm wrapping up my Ph.D. in psychology.
Interviewer: Thanks for being with us today, Mark.
Narrator: My pleasure.
Interviewer: So the main question that I'm going to ask you today is, What is your Covid-19 Safer at Home story?
Narrator: Yeah, I was super glad to hear that this project is happening. I think that it's very interesting. To me, it's a story about, I think, coming to realize that something is happening globally and how long it takes to really, like, let that sink in and realize because Covid-19 is very much invisible in ways until suddenly there are massive consequences.
As a graduate student, I'm finishing up my Ph.D. so I'm not teaching explicitly; I have a couple students that I mentor in undergrad in psychology and I help out with a university club, so I have some interactions, but mostly my work is pretty flexible in location, so from a very material sense I didn't have to relocate much when Safer at Home became mandated. I more or less work a lot from home, as it is, and the timing of it was right around spring break that the university started making decisions and announcements that students shouldn't come back to campus and that sort of thing. Coincidentally this year I had planned to stay home for spring break so all of this sort of, you know, built up for a recipe for a very understated transition. I was already working from home and I was going to stay home for spring break and then afterward the university said, Stay at home.
So initially it was nothing, nothing very impactful happened for me or to my experience but certainly the first thing to notice was the Groundhog's Day of waking up and it's not spring break but it feels like it because I'm still home, and then day in and day out. Another thing I started noticing was I used to commute by bike whenever I'd go anywhere and now I don't go anywhere, so my bike bag, which used to be a part of my daily routine, is just gathering dust and for the longest time I didn't even know what was in it. I'd forgotten the last time I made a trip because usually I'm interacting with it so frequently.
So for me, it's really just been a massive time to reflect and notice a significant change that happened and is now playing out whether we realize it or not. And, you know, day after day a new realization will hit me. One, is that a lot of my colleagues—I'm not going to see them again because I'm graduating or they're graduating. My students I won't see them in person again, for the same reason. So it's very much psychological, maybe that's because of my discipline, but that's the biggest thing.
The other somewhat significant element about it—you know, being at home, part of my work relates to computer programming, and, my skill set overlaps pretty heavily with programming because I do a lot of analysis and psychology and specifically language analysis—that's my focus, and it's relevant because the government had put out sort of an open call for help from data scientists to help medical science researchers handle the massive influx of research articles and process them using computer algorithms and that sort of thing. And so I jumped on the bandwagon and at the time there was a—it was a competition that was put out and prize money for a team of people that might put together something that might be useful for medical scientists. And one person said, "Hey, if anybody doesn't have a team, come join me," and it was sort of like a junk drawer team that went from five to fifty to five hundred people in about two weeks, and I kind of jumped in somewhere between fifty and five hundred and just got really immersed in it. This was, this might have been partly in the spring break, actually, and found myself dumping, you know, forty hours a week into it. This effort of volunteers that, you know, we all saw the same thing, which is that this is a global problem. Some people are stranded in ways, or lost jobs and stuff, so it became a great way to sort of collectively cope and do something about it, to work on building some computer algorithms that can help process these research articles. The group is still going; I had to step back a little and return to my day job, so to speak. But that had been very quickly a component of meaning-making for me. And one of the consequences, of course, was it just amplified my interest and curiosity in the news and everything that had to do with Covid-19. You know, I feel like I should get a couple of university credits for virology at this point. That's been interesting because usually I try to avoid too much interfacing with the media, but it's like I can't help it with this.
Interviewer: How did you get involved with that project, Mark?
Narrator: Well, it was—so my research lab is a language research lab and somebody in an (unintelligible) lab who's faculty at a university elsewhere just posted and said, "Hey, in case anybody's curious I saw this on—Kaggle is the name of the competition website that put out this call—and it seems to be pretty high profile and it's up our alley," so I just checked it out that way and on the discussion board there was somebody who had said this and that about making a team of people who didn't have teammates, so to speak. The competition—they point out maybe a handful of research questions that would be helpful to build tools for, related to different components of learning about the disease or the virus. Right, and so we just jumped on if you thought that you had something to contribute for the problem.
Interviewer: That's great. I wanted to ask you a question about the days leading up to the Safer at Home order and how if you had any opportunities to prepare for this kind of staying home and quarantining yourself, or if it kind of snuck up and took you by surprise.
Narrator: Yeah, I think that it's a little bit of both. I sometimes geek out about—I might fall into a mild version of preppers category—I geek out about having a stock of necessary supplies and that sort of thing. So in some ways I was already prepared, but I think I overstated that for myself and there were a few things that I kind of got nervous about—you know, toilet paper for instance. We've been okay here but I think in some ways maybe lucky, more than having prepared for it. I live with roommates that we all just kind of contribute where it's needed and that happened to be something that a couple of people had bought coincidentally at the same time or something like that so we had a little extra but—generally not so bad. I think I had been for awhile using an app like Instacart which will deliver groceries for you and that had been my habit so it was quite convenient to put your grocery list on an app and in a couple hours those groceries are at my door. The app became overwhelmed. The first time I tried to use it during Safer at Home, it was a five-day wait and the second time they just didn't even have any delivery options. So that was the first way that it directly impacted me, but when I got myself together and got up and got the dust off of my bike and went over to Festival [Foods] it was okay.
Interviewer: You said you live with roommates. Has that caused any kind of concerns or worries as far as whether or not they're leaving the house, what they're doing on a daily basis?
Narrator: That's a great question. I think it's an ongoing thing to navigate. I think a lot about it, yeah, the short answer is, yes, there is a concern. There's four of us total, we all have different lines of work. It's so funny that this circumstance made it apparent that three of them are involved in health care work in different ways and then when I was doing this—the organization was called CoronaWhy, that's the data scientist organization—all of us were doing some kind of interfacing. One of them is a CNA, so she's an essential worker at the hospital and so she's still going to work, so that's the only one that's active at the moment going to work. Another was essential—it still is, though they were a lot of their work from home after a little while and they work in IT for health care—well, two of them actually, two different companies that they work for, but—right, so the coming and going in general—I think it's, I mean because we're all independent, and there's this navigation of, like, there's not enough known to be able to assert this is what needs to happen or not happen per se and everybody knows what the standards are. I wouldn't say that anybody is abusing them, but, it's sort of that individual discretion whether having one partner or something is okay to have coming over or whatever, or whether that's not okay, and I think that varies among the roommates. Personally, I think I—it's mostly an exercise to recognize we're all individuals and there's only so much that you can control.
Interviewer: You know, being at home here with my wife and my child, I don't need to worry about that so it's interesting to hear about the experience of somebody living with roommates. So, I guess I'm going to ask one more question. This is kind of just a general one: Are there any particular images or moments from the past month and a half that have kind of stood out for whatever reason for you during this experience?
Narrator: Yeah. The one that comes to mind is election day. I was, I mean I think a lot of people would agree (unintelligible) baffled that it happened. But the image, the image of going to the polling station and the, sort of, diffuse crowd of people with masks on approaching the polling station and then spread out in the polling station. We all sort of knew what the norm was and yet we had never done it before. It was really weird! It was really weird. So I'll never forget that—just like if interacting with people in an official capacity where you both have idiosyncratic masks on. Mine is—my mom made it, and it has elephants on it. It's somewhat cute and then somebody else had, you know, some hardware mask on and then somebody's got a scarf on, just making do. Yeah, that's an image I won't forget.
Interviewer: Yeah, I was one of the lucky ones to have actually gotten my absentee ballot and was able to get it in on time. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about or discuss before we're done with the interview?
Narrator: I think I'm good.
Interviewer: Well, I just want to thank you so much for sharing your story during this time. One thing that I've found comfort in is just the fact that we're kind of—everyone's dealing with this and even though we're all separated I get this strange sense of community, that this is such a massively shared experience all around the world.
Narrator: That's right, that's right.
Interviewer: So thank you for sharing your experience with us today, Mark, and I just wanted to say have a great day.
Narrator: Thank you, and I appreciate the opportunity to do so, Andres.