Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

In a Time of Darkness, They are Brandeis' Brightest Lights

June 12, 2020

Brandeis alumni wearing PPE
Brandeis alumni have stepped up to help out during the pandemic.

Since the pandemic cast its pall, Brandeisians have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 as healthcare professionals and first-responders. They have pitched in to collect masks and personal protective equipment for hospitals and firefighters, and to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid students in crisis.

They are among the researchers racing against time to counter the virus. They even have arranged a delivery service to bring kosher meals to Jewish front-liners.

“I have seen a beautiful outpouring of support from Brandeis students, alumni, professors, and the community coming together to connect people in need with those who can help,” says Jonathan Goldman ’19, an organizer of the Waltham Mutual Aid Network, formed to deliver groceries and medicines to neighbors during the crisis.

Brandeisians have been bright lights in a dark time.  

Professional Pivots

Everywhere you look, Brandeisians have been pitching in by pivoting their businesses and expertise to meet new needs.

Brenna Schneider, MBA’12, founder of Lawrence, Massachusetts-based apparel company 99Degrees, pivoted her company from making athletic wear to producing isolation gowns, 500,000 a month, providing critical PPE to hospitals coping with an influx of COVID-19 patients. 

Nobel laureate Michael Rosbash, the Peter Gruber Professor of Neuroscience at Brandeis, is part of a panel of 12 world-famous scientists, backed by business titans and billionaires, working together on solutions to the health crisis. They’re billed as a Manhattan Project to fight the coronavirus.

Rev. Mary Eaton ’96, a minister to the homeless on Boston Common, has described for the Washington Post her experience during Holy Week helping “a group of people whose isolation and hardship is worsening with the pandemic.”

Eaton’s husband is Fenway Park organist Josh Kantor ’94. With the Red Sox baseball season on hold, he has been performing a daily concert, the “7th Inning Stretch,” streamed live from his living room via Facebook. 

When the coronavirus forced Boston caterer Marc Epstein ’79 to shut down his Milk Street Cafe for the duration, he sent vans filled with all the cafe’s perishable food to shelters and senior centers.

In Salem, Massachusetts, the Rumson’s craft rum distillery operated by Alyse Richman-Barbash ’87 and her partners switched its manufacturing lines over entirely to the making of hand sanitizer.

And Brandeis grads are sharing their expertise by volunteering to lead virtual programming for fellow alumni, details of which are available at the Brandeis Virtual Event Library.

In Hospitals and Health Centers

Alumni healthcare professionals have been on the front lines of the response to COVID-19.

Dr. Erik Blutinger ’09, an emergency medicine physician at Mount Sinai Queens in New York, shared a video diary giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the battle against the coronavirus at his hospital.

For her efforts, another doctor on the front lines in New York City, Brandeis softball alum Dr. Melissa Leber ’04, received a special Mother’s Day thank you from Yankees legend Derek Jeter.

In Los Angeles, Barbara Ferrer, PhD’94, has been fighting the spread of the virus as director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

In Boston, Audrey Etlinger Cohen ’07, MPP’10, high-risk nurse case manager at the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, is helping some of the city’s most vulnerable residents who have been diagnosed with COVID-19

Dr. Ihsan Kaadan, MS’16, is drawing on experience gained in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, while treating coronavirus patients at Boston Medical Center.

On and Off Campus

When the pandemic hit, a crowdfunding campaign launched by Brandeis raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help students who needed help paying for plane tickets home, groceries, rent and needed computer upgrades for online classes. As many as 800 students have benefited from the Student Emergency Fund. 

Hundreds of masks, N95 respirators and gloves collected from on-campus science labs and art studios were redirected to local hospitals and fire departments. 

With the move to all-remote classes, Brandeis professors were challenged to maintain high-quality education while teaching online and they have adapted and innovated

Some students from around the world who have been unable to leave have remained living at Brandeis with support from their Community Advisors. The student-operated Brandeis Emergency Medical Corps (BEMCo) continued to operate round the clock during the spring semester. Alumna Mary (Casady) Ballegeer ’08, MBA’16, went online to Etsy to buy masks that she delivered to campus for students in residence who needed them.

Local Brandeis students launched a kosher delivery service for Jewish medical personnel who might not otherwise have access to Passover meals. The service was dubbed Jewber: “like Uber, but for Jewish frontline heroes serving COVID-19 patients,” said one of the founders, Ana Sazonov, MA/MBA’21.

Sophia Wang ’22 and James Smith ’22 founded a non-profit organization, Supporting Superheroes, to provide healthcare workers with care packages dubbed SUPER bags. Donations have been made to Lawrence General Hospital and are planned at hospitals in the Boston area.

In the Lab

Brandeis researchers are putting COVID-19 under the microscope. Virologist Tijana Ivanovic's lab is looking at how the virus infects cells, while computer scientists Pengyu Hong and Hongfu Liu are using machine learning to map its genetic code. 

Alumni, too, are involved in research with potential implications in coronavirus treatment.

Dr. Terry Freeman Plasse ’69, P’00, medical director at RedHill Biopharma Ltd., announced the company has entered into an agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institute of Health, to provide two investigational drugs for the treatment of COVID-19

Dr. Andrew E. Shao ’93, senior vice president of global scientific and regulatory affairs at ChromaDex Corp., announced promising results from preclinical research on cells and animals infected with COVID-19, and the role ChromaDex’s patented drug may have in supporting innate immunity to coronaviruses. 

And Dr. Shoshana Shendelman ’99, founder, CEO and chair of Applied Therapeutics Inc., announced the company is conducting studies of a drug to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients. “Our mission is to develop life-saving drugs for patients in desperate need of treatment,” she said.

In Pop Culture and the Arts

Claudiane Philippe ’13, MA’14, is helping drive business to local bars and restaurants struggling during the pandemic through her popular drinks blog Nail the Cocktail.

Practicing “safe sets” for laughs at the Create@Brandeis Living Room Fest in May were standup comedian Myq Kaplan ’00 and his friends from Socially Distant Improv: Dana Shulman ‘00, Kim Alu, Langston Belton, Nick Carrillo, Micah Sherman and Jessie Shinberg ’17.

Harley H.L. Yanoff ’08 founded Broadway From Home, a virtual theater workshop company hosted on Zoom that offers shut-in kids lessons in dance, cartoon voice acting, and improv from the pros. 

Quarantined after developing COVID-19 symptoms, comic Noam Shuster-Eliassi ’11 performed a standup routine in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel where every guest was a coronavirus patient. 

Actor Tony Goldwyn ’82 hosted a star-studded comedy fundraiser, COVID IS NO JOKE, to benefit the emergency-aid organization Americares.

Meantime, Best-selling author Mitch Albom ’79 is helping to raise money for Detroit's coronavirus fight with the serialized story, "Human Touch," a fictional tale of hope during the pandemic.

Brandeisians are doing their part in many different ways. These have been only some of their stories. For more, visit these Brandeis websites: BrandeisNOW, Brandeis Alumni & Friends, The Heller School.

If you know of a member of the Brandeis community who has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in an extraordinary way, please let us know.