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Interest spikes for infectious disease careers amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating increased interest in infectious disease careers and driving enrollment in undergraduate life sciences, such as medicine, according to two academic leaders from the U.S. and Israel. 

“We just went through an applications season for fellows, and we had more applicants than in recent years,” said Richard D’Aquila, director of Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, in a Dec. 9 webinar tackling the impact of COVID-19 on the research enterprise.

Itai Benhar, director of the Center for Combating Pandemics at Tel Aviv University, is also seeing the impact on his campus. 

“We had registration for undergraduate studies in life and biomedical sciences almost double from last year to this year,” Benhar said.

He added that this may be driven in part by the fact that students in Israel haven’t been able to take their usual gap year due to travel restrictions and evaporating temporary jobs amid the economic crisis. So, many of those students opted to enter university directly, he said.

Benhar foresees a long-term increase in science, medicine and pandemic-related research across the board in Israel.

The pandemic is also resuscitating certain scientific fields. 

“Virology had been considered a profession of the past. This has changed,” Benhar said. “The same is true with immunology. Epidemiology also came to the forefront of the medical professions because statistics based on large sample sizes are now becoming more and more important.”

D’Aquila and Benhar also said that although laboratory work may have taken a hit early due to lockdowns, they both saw an increase in writing manuscripts compared to the prior year. Experiments are almost back to normal now, they said.

Both experts didn’t see regular research areas facing funding cuts. In Israel, financial support for COVID-related research came from additional funding sources.

D’Aquila agreed, adding that many HIV researchers pivoted to COVID research and have made major contributions. Hopefully, as vaccines rollout this diversion from work to end the HIV epidemic will be temporary, and provide spin-off benefits, he said.

A boost in international collaboration

“A lot of long-distance collaborations are actually working much better,” D’Aquila said. “I think we’re going to stick with some hybrid scientific workplace, partly remote and partly in-person.”

But D’Aquila warned of rising populism and its impact on global research.

“There is this tendency to be nationalistic about the vaccines that I think could become a real problem. We’re all in this together,” D’Aquila said. “To me, knowledge is global and we have to take advantage of every brilliant person in the world.”

In his opening remarks, Adrian Randolph, dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, emphasized global cooperation as we fight the pandemic.

“It is clear to me that history demonstrates the dangers of unilateralism and intellectual isolationism, and the advantages — even imperatives — of international collaboration,” he said.

The webinar, “In the Aftermath of COVID-19: The Impact on Science and Research,” was moderated by Charles Whitaker, professor and dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. It was the inaugural event of the Israel Innovation Project.

About the Israel Innovation Project
The mission of the Israel Innovation Project (IIP) is to advance Northwestern’s technological and scientific partnerships with Israeli institutions of higher learning through collaborative research, interdisciplinary education and public engagement with a focus on the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s led by Elie Rekhess, Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern.