Students Respond to COVID in Their Communities

“Our expertise is science; their expertise is what they need.” This statement by panelist Elina Kostyanovskaya referred to the importance of listening to vulnerable communities. It was one of several key takeaways from the webinar “STEM Students Responding to COVID in their Communities,” which was jointly hosted by ESAL and the National Science Policy Network on November 18. 

The webinar featured three students who have spearheaded efforts to tackle challenges arising from the pandemic, including Kostyanovskaya from the Science Policy Group at the University of California, San Francisco as well as Serena Wang from CovidSMS and Alexandria Lee from Students vs. Pandemics. The event kicked off with presentations by each speaker followed by a Q&A session moderated by ESAL volunteer Rebecca Mandt.

Wang, a 4th year public health major at Johns Hopkins University, sought to fill a critical communication gap. As co-founder of CovidSMS, she helped create a messaging platform that could reach low income and disadvantaged individuals, many of whom do not have a computer or internet access, but often do have a cell phone with texting capability. Local organizations and public agencies use their platform to deliver COVID-related information to subscribers in a specific zip code. In a live demo, Wang showed the ease of using CovidSMS to receive coronavirus data or access resources such as food or rental assistance. (Read more about CovidSMS in ESAL’s interview with Wang.)

Lee, a recent graduate of Harvard’s School of Public Health, started an organization called Students vs. Pandemics together with her sister, who was also a Harvard graduate student at the time. Lee saw the early confusion of the pandemic and realized that a “student-led ecosystem” would have the energy, diversity, and knowledge to help. So far, Students vs. Pandemics has amassed over 500 volunteers across the country. They’ve worked on a variety of projects, including blog posts to break down complex topics, PPE and blood donation drives, surveys of non-English speaking communities, policy memos, and more.

The third speaker was Kostyanovskaya, a biology PhD student at UCSF. She described their initiative, Project Clean Hands, and the subsequent journey of distributing hand sanitizer and informational pamphlets to incarcerated populations. Using their own research labs, the group manufactured hand sanitizer and delivered it to county jails and state prisons across California, often meeting resistance from corrections officials who were skeptical about allowing alcohol (in the form of sanitizer) on the premises. They had to source packaging materials, manage press and publicity, and fundraise on GoFundMe — ultimately distributing over 45,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.

Both Wang of CovidSMS and Lee of Students vs. Pandemics believe there will be a place for their respective platforms once the pandemic is over. Wang sees SMS communication as continuing to provide a lifeline for populations without internet access. Lee added, “there are plenty of social challenges left to address and students are such an incredible source of ideas and manpower.” Lee believes students will remain uniquely positioned to solve monumental issues and hopes her organization can transform into students versus “name your challenge.”

In a hard dose of reality, Kostyanovskaya acknowledged the bureaucratic obstacles of working with jails and prisons, which would disallow aid to incarcerated groups beyond the pandemic. She hopes that incarcerated individuals will not be forgotten once a vaccine is available, because they are especially susceptible to outbreaks. In the future, she hopes government institutions will work to meet their basic health needs. 

A common thread in the success of all three speakers included their ability to: leverage the diverse skills of their academic peers; partner with established community groups; and pay special attention to the needs of disadvantaged populations. These strengths have become a signature of the student COVID-19 response. 

When asked what advice they would give to other scientists, the student speakers encouraged a humanistic approach and advised scientists to get outside their bubble. “A lot of community and public health work is based upon building a relationship of respect, trust, and dignity,” explained Wang. Engaging with your community and local leaders now will make everyone better off in the next crisis.

Global Solutions Start at Home

A version of this post appeared on August 30, 2017 in the Union of Concerned Scientists' blog. The original post can be viewed here. The post is reprinted here with permission.

“Think globally, act locally.”

I first heard this phrase as a child who had just learned about Earth Day at school. To my 11 year old self, it felt empowering; I could help the environment by recycling and conserving water. While the idea of taking action to solve pressing problems continued to inspire me through to adulthood, I’ve recently come to fully appreciate the importance of local action.

After I had spent several years in Washington, D.C., first as a legislative adviser in Congress and then as an analyst in the White House, life brought me to California where I now work as a technologist. Missing my connection to government, I successfully applied for an appointment to a standing task force in my city, Hayward, California. During this time, part of my technology work has included developing data-enabled solutions for distributed renewables such as rooftop solar and on-site batteries. While I left federal government believing I was leaving behind the ability to significantly impact policy issues that mattered to me, the intersection of my professional and my community work have shown me the importance of local government engagement.

Reflecting on my local engagement, two themes have emerged:

Despite its possibilities, local involvement seems to be the exception for people who are interested in science-related policy. Most of the scientists I know are unaware of how they can become involved locally and don’t realize they can have an impact. For this reason, I founded Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL).

ESAL is a non-partisan, non-advocacy organization dedicated to helping engineers & scientists increase their engagement in their city, state, and regional governments and communities. We are currently assessing interests and engagement levels of engineers and scientists. If you are a scientist or engineer, please share your interests and experiences with us through this survey. We also invite you to join our listserv to learn more about our future activities and let us know if you’d like to help expand ESAL.

The work of organizations like UCS helps engineers, scientists, and members of the broader public understand the critical role that science and technology plays across policy issues. This awareness has made technically informed discussions an integral part of policy formulation at the federal level. Local governments also grapple with important science-related issues. By getting involved as an engaged citizen, advocate, and volunteer in your local community, you can help shape local policies that align with global solutions.

Getting Involved in City Government

Aimee Bailey holds the position of Principal, Grid Innovation at EDF Innovation Lab, and has prior energy-related experience in San Francisco Bay Area at PG&E, kWh Analytics, and as a Resource Planner for the City of Palo Alto. In 2012-13 she was a Henry Luce Scholar at the Global Environmental Institute in Beijing. Prior to this, she held a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, working in the Solar Energy Technologies Program at the U.S. Department of Energy. Aimee was a "guest of honor" at an ESAL Bay Area event in April.


What is your STEM background, and do you consider your current professional position to be in a STEM field?

I have a B.S.E. in materials science and engineering and a Ph.D. in condensed matter theoretical physics. My current professional position is in a STEM field. I work at the intersection of technology, policy, and business to advance the decarbonization of the energy system.

Have you engaged with your local community?

Yes! I worked at Palo Alto Utilities for more than two years as a resource planner, where I led the strategic plan for local solar energy, managed the emerging technologies program, and carried out strategic analysis to inform development of climate policy. Through that position, I regularly engaged with community members and stakeholders, commissioners, and city council members. As a city staff member, my primary goal was to develop policy proposals for the city council's consideration, and to be a resource to enable city leadership and elected officials to make informed decisions about energy policy.

How did you become interested in local government and civic engagement?

I love Amy Poehler and Parks & Rec.

What do you think is the most rewarding thing about being engaged in communities?

For me, the most rewarding thing about being engaged in local communities is the day-to-day interaction with community members and stakeholders. Local government is messy and involves people sharing their opinions and viewpoints from many different perspectives. I loved the challenge of sorting out the "mess," identifying common ground, and developing creative policies and proposals that effectively took into account the various stakeholders' concerns.

And what is the biggest challenge to having a local impact?

Patience. It can take years to enact change at the local level. Often city councils have many competing priorities, and it may not be possible for city staff and council to immediately review the issue that you care about. Having a local impact is a long-term commitment.

What advice would you give other STEM-trained professionals who want to become more involved and engaged in their local communities?

Please see my "Top Ten Tips for Getting Involved in City Government".

Anything else you'd like to share?

Being a part of your community and engaging in local government is fun. Enjoy it!

STEM-trained Professionals Engaging in their Local Communities


Arti Garg

Arti Garg is a data scientist and technologist. She is the founder and Chair of Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally. She serves as a member of the Keep Hayward Clean and Green Task Force in Hayward, Calif. In the past she has served as a legislative adviser in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she oversaw energy-related research investments in the White House Budget Office. She became interested in the intersection between STEM expertise and local policy through her professional work developing smart grid innovation and distributed energy solutions. She holds a PhD in physics and an MS in Aerospace Engineering.

Thank you for visiting Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally! ESAL is an organization dedicated to increasing local civic engagement by STEM-trained (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals. We are a nonpartisan, non-advocacy group. Our goal is to help you become more involved in your communities by sharing opportunities, organizing events, and providing you with practical information and a forum for sharing ideas and seeking advice.

I am a physicist-turned-technologist, by way of being a policy analyst in Washington, DC. I currently serve on a standing task force with my city government. I founded ESAL to build connections with other STEM-professionals similarly involved in their communities and to help others who would like to increase their engagement. I believe many of us want to be more active participants in our communities, but it can be difficult to figure out how we can make a difference. Especially when we are also balancing demanding jobs and family commitments. ESAL aims to provide you with ideas, opportunities, and resources to engage with your communities in ways that are compatible with your life.

When I tell people about ESAL, I usually get several questions. Among the most common are: (1) Why focus on STEM-trained professionals? (2) Why focus on local civic engagement (and what do you mean by that)?

To the first question, I answer that STEM-trained professionals share a common perspective and approach that ESAL can help direct toward valuable contributions to their community. Most straightforwardly, many issues impacting local communities directly tie to STEM domains. Most of us are familiar with how we can engage in these discussions as an “expert”, injecting facts into the dialogue. But all too often, we believe our role as community members ends there. I argue that even for issues that are not directly STEM-related, STEM-trained professionals can offer valuable perspectives on how to make evidence-informed decisions and can also help design community interventions around testable ideas. Initially, this kind of engagement may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to remember that we are each much more than our degree or profession. Involving ourselves more deeply in our communities--especially by listening to the needs of community members and policymakers--can reap personal, societal, and even professional benefits.

Why focus on local civic engagement? STEM-trained professionals often believe that they just need to vote--or maybe they need to go to Washington, DC, to contribute to issues they care about. While many of us may feel passionate about issues that have a national or global dimension, a focus on these aspects misses the fact that most ideas, to be impactful, have to be implemented locally. From addressing environmental impacts to fostering private sector innovation to improving digital literacy, the details are hashed out at the local level in the form of municipal building permits, urban planning, tax incentives, community volunteers, and much more. In addition, by engaging with their city or state governments or working with local non-profits, STEM-trained professionals can begin to cross the chasm that has grown between our professional communities and the communities in which we live. We are trained to approach problems by applying the methods and expertise we have gained through our work, sometimes in a way that diminishes the value of the perspectives and contributions of others. Local governance is a community endeavor requiring mutual respect and understanding. If we want our ideas to be heard, we have to listen with an open mind to others’. Working with our friends and neighbors provides a shared context for doing that.

So welcome to the Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally community. ESAL’s goal is to help you get more involved in your local communities. Please email us at with ideas for events, activities, and resources that would be most useful or interesting to you...and also sign up to receive our latest updates.