n the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor Nadia Abuelezam has embraced a new full-time job. And while you won’t see it on her resume, it’s one that demands more attentiveness than a 9-to-5.
While Abuelezam describes this new job as being a “translator,” her fluency in Arabic has nothing to do with it. Rather, she’s spent the last several months helping the public understand one of the most important languages in 2020: the latest scientific research and literature surrounding COVID-19.
Abuelezam now has 3,277 Twitter followers and counting. Over the past five months, she’s been quoted in news stories and published in academic journals. She’s written helpful articles, partaken in panels and a weekly “fireside chat” series, created instructional videos, spoken on radio shows, conducted research on COVID-19, and even made appearances on national television.
The tenacity Abuelezam has demonstrated amid the COVID-19 outbreak isn’t new, however—it’s inherent in everything she does.
Before the pandemic hit, Abuelezam was dedicating the majority of her time to teaching in Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing as an assistant professor, a position she’s held since 2016. Abuelezam’s zeal for teaching quickly became apparent to graduate student Amy Azevedo, CGSOM ’22. Azevedo could tell that her time in Abuelezam’s epidemiology course this past semester would be rewarding from the first day of class.
“She walked in, and she owned the room,” Azevedo said. “She’s young, incredibly professional, and incredibly knowledgeable. And she’s got her finger on the pulse of public health, which is, you know, it’s just a breath of fresh air. She’s not like a cooped up professor … she’s always out there. She’s out there on Twitter, and she’s doing MSNBC clips. … She’s active.”
During the first few weeks of her self-isolation, which began in mid-March, Abuelezam was working 14 to 16 hour days, seven days a week. With a never-ending influx of research, her position as a “translator” required constant engagement. Abuelezam scoured scientists’ Twitter accounts to stay up-to-date with the most current information on COVID-19. Taking her eye off the ball—even for a day—risked her falling behind and presenting incorrect or outdated information to her students and followers.
“I have to stay on top of the literature. I have to make sure that what I’m saying is true, what I’m saying is accurate,” Abuelezam said. “And that is a big stress point for me because I never want to give false information. … The challenge has really been the time component—how is it that I can balance this outward, what I call service, with the teaching and the research that I’m trying to maintain and continue with?”
Abuelezam was juggling this fledgling role with the two courses she was teaching in CSON in the Spring 2020 semester—an undergraduate course, Public Health in a Global Society, and the graduate course she developed, Epidemiology. Additionally, she needed time to write for her research and perform her daily CrossFit workouts. BC’s transition to remote instruction in mid-March came right in the middle of exams and increased public awareness of Abuelezam.
ut growing up in Millbrae, Calif.—a small city within the San Francisco Bay Area—Abuelezam never imagined she would one day become an epidemiologist, an assistant professor in CSON, or an informer who dedicated her days to reading and transmitting the latest scientific research on COVID-19. Two things that have remained constant in Abuelezam’s life, however, are her empathetic nature and love of the sciences.
“We have absolutely no doctors in my family, but I had, I guess, always a tendency to care for people,” Abuelezam said. “I’m a very empathetic person, and I generally feel with people who are suffering. And I think that that’s where the medical aspect of it came through. I really wanted to be able to help people, and reduce people’s suffering.”
Today, part of Abuelezam’s research involves the study of health risks in hard-to-reach populations, which also encompasses immigrants. Being a daughter of refugees and a Christian Arab-American ingrained a compassion for marginalized communities in Abuelezam that would fuel her later studies, she said.
In a 2017 Huffington Post piece advocating for a Middle East and North African, or MENA, identifier to be potentially included on the United States Census in 2020, Abuelezam described the pain she felt when stereotyped as a “terrorist” by her classmates in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Her family had moved to the relatively homogenous Scottsdale, Ariz.—a sharp change from her upbringing in Millbrae—when she was in seventh grade.
After completing high school back in California, her knack for math and science led her to Harvey Mudd College—a small, liberal arts institution that is one of the seven Claremont Colleges in Southern California. Abuelezam was a first-generation college student and one of the first members of her extended family to pursue higher education. When she began at Harvey Mudd, Abuelezam thought she’d become a pediatrician or undertake another specialization in medicine. But Harvey Mudd’s liberal arts foundation required her to enroll in humanities courses despite her mathematical biology major.
“It was sort of that well-rounded education that made me realize that there was more to helping people than becoming a clinical doctor,” Abuelezam said. “I also had a passion for mathematics and really saw the importance of quantitative skills in, sort of, the aim to improve people’s health.”
While at Harvey Mudd, Abuelezam attended a public lecture to hear an epidemiologist who was studying HIV using mathematical models. Around the same time, she had the chance to visit Uganda and work for an AIDS support organization. These experiences led to an important realization for Abuelezam—she could combine her quantitative abilities with her desire to help others. So she decided to focus her further studies on epidemiology and public health.
After graduating in 2009, Abuelezam earned her Doctor of Science in infectious disease epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While completing her doctoral and postdoctoral research at Harvard, Abuelezam spent time teaching, which soon became one of her favorite components of the program. When she received an email regarding an adjunct position to teach a course in public health at BC alongside Melissa Sutherland, she didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity.
“I ended up teaching the class with her and really loved it,” Abuelezam said. “I loved the interaction with the students, I loved being on BC’s campus, I really loved hearing about the burgeoning public health program.”
In 2016, CSON was looking to grow its emerging public health program in response to increasing demand. When an assistant professor position became available, Sutherland notified Abuelezam of the opportunity and encouraged her to apply. Abuelezam did, and despite having no clinical instruction, was hired to work in CSON full time.
“It’s not a typical assignment for me,” Abuelezam said. “I am an epidemiologist, I’m not a nurse. I have no clinical training. I am one of only a few people in the department who aren’t clinically focused, but I actually think it’s a great fit because I’ve really been exposed to a lot of the clinical aspects of the work that I do.”
Since the beginning of her time at BC, Abuelezam has extended herself beyond the classroom to reach other members of the community. Within CSON, Abuelezam acts as chair of the Diversity Advisory Board, where she works closely with Assistant Dean of Student Services, Diversity, and Inclusion Julianna González-McLean.
“I know that a lot of the faculty really respect her and her work, and the changes that we have made to the culture,” González-McLean said. “It’s been really awesome to hear how much she’s impacted not just the students, but also the faculty and the staff in learning about diversity and inclusion issues on campus—and I think that’s what we need more of at Boston College right now, is changemakers that are also empathetic and unite people.”
In addition to the Diversity Advisory Board, one of the activities she’s been very involved with is Rise, a mentorship program overseen by the Women’s Center. Rise was founded in 2015 in response to the analyses of surveys taken during freshman orientation and senior exit interviews, which revealed that female students graduated BC with lower self-esteem than when they had arrived.
The program pairs senior women with female faculty and staff members, who then have small-group discussions throughout the year to encourage a positive and productive sense of self. Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, an associate professor of French and African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS) at BC, strengthened her relationship with Abuelezam as a fellow Rise mentor and female faculty member of color.
“What she’s doing in terms of teaching a generation of Boston College kids about public health in ways that are intersectional—think about race, gender, class, morality—is unparalleled,” Jean-Charles said. “I think that there’s a whole generation of kids that will come out of Boston College under her mentoring that will go into careers in public health in various ways—whether it’s becoming physicians who also do MPHs or becoming epidemiologists—or think about nursing differently as a result of her.”
espite her lack of clinical experience, Abuelezam’s emphasis on epidemiology and public health made the COVID-19 pandemic highly relevant to both of her courses in the Spring 2020 semester. With her students in mind, Abuelezam began closely following COVID-19 in early January and broaching the topic in class. Her upkeep with the most current information on the virus led her to realize the need for universities to transition to online instruction as the situation rapidly worsened.
As early as Feb. 25, Abuelezam tweeted, “Anybody teaching an ‘Introductory to Epidemiology’ online? What are resources people are willing to share? Any advice for someone doing this in the near future?”
On March 9, BC’s first day back from Spring Break, there had been no word from University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., on whether or not the University would move to remote instruction. That day, Abuelezam voiced her disagreement with institutions that had not yet made the switch in a Twitter thread. She mentioned that without moving every course online, social distancing practices would not be successful. Professors would face difficulties monitoring symptoms in students and could receive criticism for moving online without the backing of the administration.
“I think faculty were talking about it,” Abuelezam said. “They were really worried and anxious. Harvard had gone online [on March 10], and I think that that was the big one that sort of got everyone thinking, ‘Well, when is BC going to go online?’ … I was waiting, really, for BC to make that decision.”
The following day, Abuelezam wrote an op-ed in The Heights about how the BC administration should adopt measures to combat the transmission of COVID-19 in accordance with the University’s Jesuit ideals. Abuelezam had come to her own conclusion that prioritized the safety of her students. She had begun conducting her courses online on March 9, the three days prior to Leahy’s announcement that BC would be suspending in-person classes for the semester.
While adapting her syllabus to an online format, Abuelezam tried to be as receptive as possible to students’ needs. She pre-recorded her lectures and provided students with additional materials they could use to supplement their learning. Once a week, Abuelezam held an optional Zoom session for each class to go over the subject matter and answer any questions.
“I sort of allowed students to make the choice of, ‘Do you feel like you want to interact with me? Do you feel like you want to talk to me? Here’s an opportunity to do that,’” Abuelezam said. “And at the same time, if you’re not able, if things in your life are kind of crazy, and you don’t feel like you can, then you don’t have to.”
Abuelezam found this approach to be very helpful, though it applied differently in her undergraduate and graduate courses. While very few undergraduates attended the live session, almost every single one of her graduate students participated. The level of engagement from her students, especially in her Epidemiology course, was particularly rewarding for Abuelezam.
“Every class period, I actually opened it up and said, ‘What do you have to share with me? What’s happened to you this week? What have you seen in your clinical settings?’” Abuelezam said. “It was them making the connections, and that was really, really exciting to me to be able to see that and to experience that with them.”
Looking forward to engaging with others on this topic. https://t.co/s3ADPvjVbm
— Nadia Abuelezam, ScD (@nabuelezam) May 14, 2020
Abuelezam’s approach had a significant impact on Azevedo, who was able to stay on top of the most current, credible information in large part due to Abuelezam’s “week-by-week, almost blow-by-blow COVID research.”
“She would stay online for as long as we wanted to, and I just, I really applaud that,” Azevedo said. “No other professor was able to do that, and for good reason—you know, kids, and other things that these professors are going through—but she really did dedicate quite a bit of time on Zoom for all of us. I think that was her biggest tool.”
Though teaching public health and epidemiology courses during the pandemic gave Abuelezam the unique opportunity to incorporate real-world examples, it didn’t come without its challenges. Informing students about a virus with constantly changing information offers no place for arrogance. According to Abuelezam, the most important thing to keep in mind is humility—there are no unequivocal authorities on COVID-19, and everyone is going to make mistakes.
She distinctly remembers a moment in January when she compared the virus to a flu in her Epidemiology course, telling her students not to worry about it too much. After reading revised research and realizing the mistake she’d made, the first action Abuelezam took was to inform her students that she’d given them incorrect details. In order to avoid repeating the blunder, Abuelezam dedicates as much time as she can to staying on top of new research.
“I spend a good proportion of my days now, just reading the science, keeping up with the news, making sure that I have the most up-to-date information, which can be really, really exhausting,” Abuelezam said. “But it’s completely necessary because I don’t expect my students to be able to do that level of reading and keeping up with the news that I might be able to do. So I see it more as a service to them, in a way, to be able to inform them.”
Now, Abuelezam’s audience has expanded to include the public as well. But rather than seeing herself an educator like she is at BC, Abuelezam views herself as more of a “translator” in this newfound role. Using her background in epidemiology and public health, she converts the scientific research and quantitative data into comprehensible terms that will better resonate with people.
“I think it’s an important part of our services to be able to translate things for, you know, the everyday person to be able to understand,” Abuelezam said. “And also for it to impact their health in some way—for them to be able to protect themselves, protect their loved ones, and be able to make informed health decisions.”
When Abuelezam closes out of Twitter and puts down her devices, her work doesn’t stop there—she turns to her community in Framingham to provide her family, friends, and neighbors the care they need. Abuelezam and her husband, a Greek Orthodox priest, have offered to make grocery runs for their more vulnerable neighbors, and they are always a phone call away for anything their loved ones need. Abuelezam recognizes that even with the necessity of social distancing, family and community have never been more important.
“I think that one thing to remember is that no one is in this alone—everyone is in the same exact position,” Abuelezam said. “One of the positive things about this is that everyone is going through this experience together, and in a way that should bring us a bit of comfort. … We are going through this as a globe, as not only our nation—but as an entire world.”