Our Favorite Stories and Videos of 2020

It may have been a bad year, but there were still good stories to tell
David Gelfand swimming in a pool, seen from below in the water. Tufts writers and multimedia producers share their favorite pieces of 2020.
“I liked the freedom of being in the water,” said David Gelfand, E21. “I didn’t need any sort of special equipment—I was able to compete on the same playing field as my peers.” Photo: Anna Miller
December 14, 2020

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At the end of every year, we ask Tufts Now writers and multimedia producers to pick the favorite pieces they wrote or produced. This year, of course, was unlike any other year, and the resulting stories and videos highlight some of the challenges that faculty, students, and alumni faced and overcame.

The Baby Needed Surgery ASAP. Then a Pandemic Got in the Way

Imagine if your months-old child needs an operation to correct a dangerous congenital condition—and just as her surgery date approaches, everyday life essentially comes to a screeching halt, and the labs that fabricate a tiny device vital to the Photo: Shutterstockprocedure have to shut down. It was an almost-unimaginable scenario, yet it was the one faced by a New England family and their surgeon, a pediatric specialist at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. While this little girl’s diagnosis had nothing to do with COVID-19, in mid-March in Boston, everything had something to do with COVID-19.

Fortunately, this situation had a good outcome, and as I learned about the race-against-the-clock collaboration between the baby’s physician and a pediatric dentist at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, I was reminded once again of the resourcefulness, dedication, and compassion that make for good medicine. By the time this story came to my attention, the doctors knew that the baby was recovering well, but hearing them describe how events unfolded, and their determination to keep the child out of the ICU—“the last place we wanted her to be,” according to surgeon Andrew Scott—was inspiring and a much-needed moment of hope during those unsettling early days of the pandemic.

And, as a “dental nerd”—I’ve been writing about the School of Dental Medicine for about a decade now—this also brought home the often-unsung role of dentists, like Assistant Professor Robert Zee, DG13, DI18, in caring for patients alongside their physician colleagues, and contributing to health care in ways that aren’t always obvious. —Helene Ragovin

My Last In-Person Assignment Before COVID

Thursday, March 12, 2020, got off to an unusual start. I was in Great Barrington, Mass., some 150 miles west of my Medford office, with Tufts videographer Anna Miller for a project to honor Tisch College of Civic Life’s 20th anniversary. COVID-19 was spreading, and rumor had it that Massachusetts schools were about to shut down for two weeks (ha!).

As a working mother of two school-aged children, my brain was swimming with questions, but I turned my attention toward the video project at hand: telling the story of Lead for America, an organization co-founded and co-run by Tufts alums that places recent college grads in local government fellowships in their hometowns. One of those fellows was Joe Grochmal, the focus of our video.

When we met Joe and others in the community, we bumped elbows instead of shaking hands and chatted anxiously about the spreading virus. While there was an element of uncertainty, there was also an element of hope, as people sung Joe’s praises for his hard work and dedication to improving the town for the people who live there.

It turned out to be the last time I was physically on location for an assignment all year. The next day was Friday the 13th, which was the first day my family began quarantining. Fitting, no? —Angela Nelson

Studying the Outdoors—Virtually

One of my favorite stories of 2020 gave me an opportunity to talk with Tufts biologists about teaching in a time of pandemic. Traditionally, the course Experiments in Ecology pivots on being up close to animals and plants. Photo: IngimageBut professors Ellmore, Crone, and Stark, with nimble creativity, kept the principles of ecology engaging for students even without the benefit of being outdoors.

I have no doubt that Tufts undergrads were looking forward to hikes through the woods of North Andover, or, closer to home, observing first-hand the sophisticated industry of honey bees and the discriminating palates of savvy squirrels (it was enlightening to learn that foraging for acorns on the Hill is indeed serious business.) But the students were fortunate to have dedicated teachers who understand that sometimes you have to make do, and if the pandemic, and nature, teaches us nothing else, it shows that humans have the ability to adapt, to flex, to adjust—and make something good from the difficult. —Laura Ferguson

How to Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely

Tell Me More, the Tufts University podcast, originated as an interview show where we talked with guest speakers on campus. When the pandemic hit and the campus closed, that pretty much dried up the flow of guests. Ronee Saroff, our editorial director, suggested that because everyone was being kept apart from family and friends, we tap people in the wider Tufts community to talk about isolation. So following leads from colleagues, cohost Anna Miller and I reached out to faculty and alumni, including a Buddhist monk in Nepal who was able to record himself and send us his reflections.

Working from home, I had to find a quiet place to record, which ended up being my closet. As I sat there among the shoe boxes and the dresses that I have no occasion to wear anymore, I got to hear how other people have confronted being alone—even embraced it. It made me hopeful that I could handle a little solitude during the pandemic—time I should probably use to clean my closet. —Julie Flaherty

Kindergarten Philosophers

When I first heard about a group of undergraduate students teaching philosophy to kindergarten kids at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, it seemed intriguing, if a bit implausible. But after talking to Susan Russinoff, whose Philosophy for Photo: Alonso NicholsChildren class has a short practicum for her students teaching the tikes to think critically, I decided it would make a great story. So one chilly late November morning, photographer Alonso Nichols and I met the undergrads and Russinoff in the school lobby; soon we all trooped into the large, open kindergarten classroom.

Quickly the undergrads started their lessons. One in particular attracted me: a trio was taking their kids through the trolley problem—a philosophical thought experiment first devised in 1967. Let me back up a minute. Philosophy isn’t something I knew much about before watching NBC’s terrific sitcom The Good Place, set in the afterlife, with a major story arc about a moral philosophy professor teaching an Arizona “trash bag of a woman” (her words) how to be a good person. One of the lessons was just this: the trolley problem. So here I was, as the undergrads used toy animal props to take the thought experiment down to little kid level, seeing philosophy in action. —Taylor McNeil  

Sailing the Native Hawaiian Way

My favorite video I produced this year was one featuring a Native Hawaiian student, Jonah Apo E22. As a visual storyteller and multimedia producer for Tufts, my goal is always to tell meaningful and impactful stories while educating, entertaining, and elevating the audience. For this piece, I saw a great opportunity of elevating the teachings behind the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Hōkūle'a. 

I’ve been always fascinated by the philosophies behind our indigenous ancestors, and I learned that the Hōkūle'a travels with the message of “Malama Honua” or to care for “island Earth.” There are only a limited number of resources, and together we need to be able to live on this island Earth sustainably. 

I loved how by combining music, sound effects, beautiful B-roll, and a strong narrative this video was able to transport us to the Pacific Ocean, and particularly helped us learn about the philosophy behind “Malama Honua,” and that’s why I love what I do. I love transporting our audience to magical places. —Jandro Cisneros

The Quest for Justice

My favorite story of the year wasn’t a single story—and I didn’t write it. Let me explain. As the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others shone a spotlight on police brutality and systemic racism this year, I was looking for ways to reflect Illustration: Adriana Belleton these problems and learn about solutions. I figured our readers probably were, too. I turned to Tufts experts to help us make sense of the moment and find a constructive way forward.

The result is a series called “The Quest for Justice,” in which Tufts professors and alumni describe actions they would like to see to create a more fair and equitable future. Their ideas range from steps an individual could take to changes in politics, health care, urban planning, and policing—a range of efforts that could help bend the arc of history toward justice.

The response to this series was overwhelmingly positive. A Tufts alumna who’s a middle school assistant principal shared the stories with the equity team at her school; other graduates commented on how powerful it was to see a Black woman featured on the cover of Tufts Magazine, where the series appeared in print, and to hear from diverse people addressing concerns about equity. Their reactions confirmed my belief that there’s an ongoing need for such conversations. —Heather Stephenson

Tokyo Dreams

One of my favorite projects to work on this past year was a video profile of Paralympic swimming hopeful David Gelfand, E21. My goal was to capture his passion and journey as a world-class athlete, and also give a glimpse into his world as an engineering student and supportive teammate on the Tufts Swimming and Diving Team.

The most exciting and challenging part of this shoot was learning how to gather underwater shots. I gave myself a crash course in underwater photography, and practiced setting up the equipment in my home bathtub to avoid any water leaks in the pool!

It was a fun piece to shoot, edit and produce, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with David before he left campus to train at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. —Anna Miller

Tufts Celebrates Veterans Day

One of the few things that I was able to film in person this year was the Veterans Day Pass the Flag ceremony, a very special event that honors those who have defended our country. The event showed a positive aspect of how the pandemic has changed things. The Pass the Flag ceremony is always held on Memorial Steps, but this year it went digital, so those far away could take part, too.

My job was to film and produce a virtual storytelling of the occasion—something visually beautiful and engaging—as well as to create something that would reach a larger audience. The event also provided a rare opportunity to work in person with my colleagues this year. On the day of production, almost everyone in our group joined in to help, from flying drones to wrangling students away from the Memorial Steps. It was a memorable day for all involved. —Jenna Schad

Summer Projects Allow Students to Combat COVID-19, Racial Injustice

Earlier this year, we decided to do a story on Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Student COVID Response Summer Program, which funded students from any Tufts school looking to do COVID-related work benefiting their communities. I Photo: Alonso Nicholsvolunteered to write about it because I was curious about what kinds of projects students would come up with, especially now that many travel and internship plans had fallen through.

I had some interesting conversations about what it was like to scramble to put together a proposal while adjusting to quarantine, and about some really creative projects, including research into remote veterinary care for pets and Zoom seminars teaching youths of color to grow home gardens.

But one of the coolest things to me was that the whole program was proposed and run by a student, Alex Lein, A21. He didn’t really khow it would work financially or logistically, he “sort of just took a shot in the dark” (his words). He did his Zoom interview with me from the back of a moving car, which tells you something about how crazy his life was this summer. The original idea was to tell the stories of the students who got the grants, but I ended up leading with Alex’s story—even though he didn’t get funding, his summer project was as much work as anyone’s, and made a huge difference. —Monica Jimenez

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