‘Go find dental floss!’

Tynan's cat Wally-1
Wally—research assistant Tynan Friend's cat—made an appearance in an HPM video montage

For members of the Department of Health Policy and Management, scavenger hunts and other informal virtual offerings help keep people connected during the pandemic

January 26, 2021 – Over the past few months, as the coronavirus pandemic forced much of life onto computer screens, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management (HPM) got creative with virtual programming to keep faculty, staff, and students feeling connected even though they couldn’t be together in person.

Karen Jiang, MPH ’21, demonstrated how to make Chinese dumplings in a video

They launched a “meet the faculty” series. They served up a “quarantine cookbook,” scavenger hunt, and a dumpling-making session. They put together an online “bio book” with photos and information about faculty, researchers, staff, and students to help everyone get to know one another.

“We tried to think of ways to make up for some of the informal interactions like getting to know someone while you’re grabbing a cup of coffee or chatting with someone at the end of an event,” said Cindi Melanson, director of administration.

Last spring, Melanson put together a video montage featuring photos and clips showing what members of the department were doing while they were stuck at home. One photo showed Arnold Epstein, John H. Foster Professor of Health Policy and Management and chair of the department, reading a Harry Potter book aloud to his family. A video clip featured Benjamin Sommers, Huntley Quelch Professor of Health Care Economics, and his sons building an enormous fort in their living room out of stacked boxes and sheets—at high speed. Other photos showed people biking, hiking, or exercising. People shared photos of their gardens, their art, their cooking, and—of course—their pets.

The video was a hit and spurred thinking about other ways to stay connected. Administrative coordinator Rachel Levitt collected entries for the “quarantine cookbook”—both a summer and a holiday edition—featuring faculty and staff members’ “go-to” recipes during the pandemic. Contributor Kirkpatrick Vanda, deputy director of the Leading Change Studio, clearly had fun writing his recipe for “Lactose-free, Seasonal-Affective-Disorder Winter Solstice Enchiladas.” Step 1 of the recipe reads: “Preheat oven to 375°F. Make gin martini in a fancy glass & repeat mantra: ‘It could be worse.’ Sip gin martini forthwith.”

Dramatic readings and dental floss

“Before the pandemic, we used to do some fun events for students, like a pumpkin fest or a ‘hop into spring’ event, where we’d invite all the students and faculty and staff to gather together to spend time outside of class,” said Jennifer Moltoni, assistant director of academic programs and student services. “But it was nothing like the scale that we’ve been doing with the virtual programming.”

Some of HPM’s informal events focused on academic topics. Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management, led a series on COVID-19 and health policy; John McDonough, professor of the practice of public health, led one on elections and health care policy; and Ankur Pandya, associate professor of health decision science, led a group for students interested in earning a PhD.

Out of the closet event
Nancy Turnbull and Bill Bean hosted a closet-cleaning event

But many of the new events were more lighthearted. For instance, there was a pandemic-cleaning event cheekily dubbed “Out of the Closet with Bill Bean and Nancy Turnbull,” so named because it coincided with National Coming Out Day. “We all shared things we had found while we were cleaning out closets and drawers during the pandemic,” said Turnbull, senior associate dean for professional education and senior lecturer in health policy. “I did a dramatic reading from comments on my middle school report cards.”

Moltoni and Nicole Pires, senior coordinator of academic programs, organized the events, setting up a slew of Zoom meetings and getting the word out to students. Moltoni said her favorite event was the scavenger hunt, which the department typically holds in person during orientation. Even online it was fun, she said: “We’d say to people, ‘Go find dental floss!’ and you’d see everybody leap up from their desks to grab their floss, then come running back.”

Plans are already underway to offer more informal events during the spring semester. Said Melanson, “We got a lot of positive feedback. And I’ve been thinking that we should keep doing some of these new activities, even after we get back to semi-normal or in-person. We shouldn’t let some of these things go.”

Karen Feldscher

Images: Department of Health Policy and Management