Alex Chen’s lessons from Ebola

The doctoral candidate in anthropology, studies emerging disease preparedness.

Many viruses travel effortlessly through air. To curb their spread indoors, hospitals use sophisticated ventilation systems and provide clinicians with personal protective equipment, like the coveted N95 masks that have come to symbolize the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Alex Chen stands wearing biohazard suit, gloves and mask.
Alex Chen, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, is researching U.S. hospitals’ emerging disease preparedness. (Image: Omnia)

If you ask Alex Chen, a doctoral candidate in School of Arts & Sciences’ combined M.D./Ph.D. anthropology track, the best defender against airborne disease is air itself.

“You know those big hoods that are like helmets—the PAPRs [powered air-purifying respirators] people wear when studying dangerous pathogens? They have a constant flow of air that pushes contaminants away from your face,” Chen says. “The thing that will protect you the most is not a solid object—it’s a moving wall of air.”

Chen’s interest in the relationship between air and disease inspired him to apply for a graduate fellowship with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, which is currently engaged in a yearlong conversation about the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. The fellowship has supported preliminary research for his dissertation on U.S. hospitals’ emerging disease preparedness—a topic he homed in on well before the novel coronavirus surfaced.

“I was doing a master’s program in design studies when the West African Ebola epidemic struck, and at the time I was learning more about anthropology,” says Chen, who found that exploring the Ebola crisis allowed him to synthesize the knowledge he had developed as an undergraduate architecture and pre-med student at Cornell. “I could think about issues involving infrastructure and space, as well as issues related to caring for individual patients face-to-face.”

This article is by Karen Brooks. Read more at Omnia.