Episode 1: A Shot In the Arm

 
Rising to the Challenge: A podcast by the University of Illinois System

In our new podcast, Rising to The Challenge, host Gwen Macsai escorts you through the offices, labs, clinics, and classrooms of the University of Illinois to explore how this venerable institution has risen to the Covid challenge. And rise it has! Doctors, researchers, computer scientists, engineers and professors are all working on extraordinary things at a remarkable pace. Go behind the scenes to hear from world-renown experts, as well as students and professors who are pitching in as well, like the teacher who raised money by teaching an entire course in one 16 hour marathon — and so much more!

In this first episode, "A Shot in the Arm," host Gwen Macsai visits with University of Illinois System President Timothy Killeen, gets an update on vaccine development with Dr. Richard Novak, and checks in with University of Illinois women's tennis coach Evan Clark who is running to raise money for a COVID Relief Fund. Take a listen!

 

Rising to the challenge is produced by the University of Illinois System with production support from Illinois Public Media. (The Illinois Public Media newsroom was not involved with this podcast.)

Gwen Macsai (Host): 

We’ve divided time in the same way for millennia. Seconds, minutes, hours, days. But now there are two new categories… forget months and years, think before COVID and after COVID.

COVID was a torpedo, a bomb, a bolt of lightning that short-circuited pretty much every rhythm in the world. Order turned to chaos every day was blurs-day. Now, we not only have to get used to a new rhythm. We have to get used to a new language. Shelter in place, flatten the curve, socials distancing, SARS, MERS, N-95, PPE. We’re swimming in a veritable vegetable soup of acronyms. It’s almost like there was a new Big Bang, everything changed so radically.

Okay… that might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but it really doesn’t feel like it. More than 24 million confirmed COVID cases worldwide, more than 830,000 confirmed dead. Millions of lost jobs and businesses shuttered. I don’t have to remind you, you couldn’t forget about it if you wanted to.

And when you’re talking about something that affects every single person on the planet, perspective can be hard to find. That is where we come in.

We’re going to escort you through the offices, labs, clinics and classrooms of The University of Illinois, to explore how this venerable institution has risen to the COVID challenge… and rise it has. Doctors, researchers, computer scientists, engineers and professors are all working on extraordinary things at a remarkable pace. A vaccine in phase three trials, a saliva test given 20,000 times a day, computer modeling of what’s to come and nanotechnology that is so complicated, it’s completely over my head. Well, that doesn’t say much, but you get my point.

But wait, that’s not all! Students and staff have pitched in too. They’ve become EMT’s, fundraisers, authors, and innovators. There’s a lot to talk about. Good thing talking is one of my all time favorite activities.

I’m Gwen Macsai, welcome to Rising to the Challenge- a six part podcast from the University of Illinois System and Illinois Public Media. This is episode one: A Shot in the Arm.

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Newscast 1:

The mystery virus started here in the city of Wu Han. Chinese authorities pinpointing it’s source to this food market. Those infected are being treated in medical centers, suffering symptoms similar to pneumonia.

Tedros Adhanom:

We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci:

I think Americans should be prepared that they’re going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.

Newscast 2:

Right now we turn to alarming numbers in the coronavirus pandemic. Those numbers have set records.

Newscast 3:

The rising number of cases and hospitalizations in many areas are still mounting.

Newscast 4:

Coronavirus cases continue to climb, separately the CDC says it’s possible that the number of infections in the U.S. could be 10 times higher than the confirmed case count.

Newscast 5:

The Governor has been preaching the importance of mask usage for months, but that message is gaining urgency as the number of cases across the state continues to rise, because of what was described today, as people’s complacency.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker:

This is a make or break moment for Illinois.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

We begin our tour with a stop at the top, as we stroll over to the president’s office for a chat with Tim Killleen. We arrive early for our interview, so I go to look for the bathroom down the hall.

Now this isn’t just any hall- this is a cool, stone floor, dark hall lined with the portraits of all the past presidents- portraits, the size of barn doors.

It’s a little majestic, a little austere, a little grand and a little imposing. And just when it started to feel a little intimidating, a man came into the hallway from outside a bit wilted and rumpled from the furnace that is Champaign in August.

He was wearing glasses, a blue tie and a white shirt that matched the silver of his hair. His gentle presence was as unassuming as the portraits were grand. Even though he was, of course, masked, his eyes were bright and he seemed to be in no hurry.

“Odd times we’re in,” he said.

“For sure,” I replied.

I glanced at the Starbucks cup in his hand. There was barista scrawl on the side. It said “Tim.”

This unhurried, unpretentious, geneal man was the president of the University of Illinois System, Tim Killeen. Not at all what I expected for a man who watches over three campuses, close to 90,000 students, and has an operating budget of $7 billion.

When it comes to the enormous system he runs, one thing president Killeen is most proud of is that it doesn’t act like a typical academic, siloed, territorial organization. U of I is well known for the opposite- academic collaboration.

Tim Killeen:

It works across intellectual boundaries like breathing. It’s natural here. I’ve been in other institutions where it’s kind of forced from top down, thou shalt work with X and Y. And here, it’s the custom, the norm to work across intellectual boundaries. And that’s how this worked.

I call them servant leaders, they’re all about service and, and it’s not about who gets credit for what. It’s about identifying a problem that needs a solution and working on the solution, not just framing the problem, but attacking the problem.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

And the most urgent problem right now, needless to say, is COVID. On campus, in the community, across the state and nationally.

Tim Killeen:

We decided to innovate. We decided early on that we couldn’t import a solution to this complex problem. We tried to understand in detail the ingress, egress, cleaning, ventilation, hospital access, public health strictures, et cetera.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

And boy, did they innovate. Developing a saliva test that was up and running in six weeks. Now they can test up to 20,000 people a day at a low cost with results delivered right to your cell phone, between a few hours and a few days.

There’s contact tracing and of course quarantining. It’s an exhaustive effort. And did I mention the vaccine in phase three trials at University of Illinois Chicago? There’s a lot going on.

Tim Killeen:

No credit accrues to any one person, certainly not the president. I’m here to help everybody else do things. And administrations that do that are more successful. They’re just fundamentally more successful. You generate more loyalty, you generate more spirit, the morale is higher.

Gwen Macsai, Interview:

And was it a financial strain?

Tim Killeen:

Oh, absolutely. It still is a financial strain. The hit of COVID to the University of Illinois System through the end of June is about $175 million. We’ve had to slow things down in terms of expenditures. We’ve reduced our tuition for the new students coming in, because we don’t want to, you know, pass the burden to them. And this would be the sixth year, then have no tuition increases.

We created an emergency fund for students whose parents lost their jobs, they lost their jobs, suddenly they were in a completely different financial sector. So there’s been a lot of financial planning and hits that we’ve taken.

We want to be known at the end of all of this about how well we took care of our people.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Which includes president Killeen’s concern about increased stress during the pandemic.

Tim Killeen:

I worry a little bit about mental health for our whole community. I worry about the pressure on the young people and their families and their concerns and the isolation that everybody’s been experiencing. I know just from myself, I’m a bit stir-crazy… I’m really concerned, so we’re going to have a summit on that topic in September.

So we’re really gonna look at how we can deal with issues of mental health in a community, this complex and this large.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

President Killeen has much on his plate and it can keep him up at night, but as a scientist himself- a geophysicist and engineer- he’s reassured by the data that drives the university’s course of action.

Tim Killeen:

What’s the word… nerd, I’m a data nerd. So, I like to look at evidence, so I pour over those kinds of things. And so I’m not an epidemiologist but I’ve learned a lot about this field now and also about the DNA instrumentation and so forth. So I think data, looking at data, talking it through, understanding what it’s telling you, critiquing it, to see if there may be some weaknesses there, I think that has been helpful because we took action, not just roll with its punches, but take it on and, and give it no place to hide. And we’ll look back on this period and say, this was a fine hour for the institution.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Before we left his office, I had one more important, burning question for U of I President Tim Killeen. Are Americans completely charmed by his lovely Welsh accent?

Tim Killeen:

Oh, talk to my wife about that. She thinks I get away with murder because of my accent. Yeah. And I do, I acknowledge it. I do think sometimes people stop and listen because of the accident more than they would otherwise. And, certainly my wife who’s from California thinks that that’s a big part of the reason I’m sitting in this chair and he had this lovely office as president, but despite all of that, I’m going to do my best. That’s for sure. Whatever that means. Yeah.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Oh, and by the by, one of the ways President Killeen relaxes- you know, in all of his spare time- is by playing the guitar. In fact, you’re listening to him right now as we leave his office for our next stop… Chicago.

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Gwen Macsai (Host):

The one thing everyone is waiting for- and when I say everyone, I mean pretty much everyone on the planet- is a COVID vaccine. With that in hand, or maybe in arm, we can start to get back to the way things were B.C.- before COVID.

At the moment, there are more than 150 vaccines in various stages of testing, but fewer than 10 have made it to phase three trials. Remember, phase three means that the vaccine is ready to be tested on thousands of people and if successful, can be approved by the FDA and mass produced.

One of the most promising vaccines to make it phase three trials is from the biotech company Moderna. It’s been shepherded through research and development by Richard Novak, head of infectious disease at the University of Illinois Chicago. This whole thing kind of sounds like a plot of a superhero movie. The health of the entire world, to say nothing of the global economy, depends on one thing- a successful vaccine. And Richard Novak thinks he might have it… No pressure!

Dr. Richard Novak:

Yeah, it’s really been pretty stressful. There’s not a day that I don’t go home and say, I just wish this would go away and I could go and have a vacation. Which none of us, well most of us haven’t had anyway, but it’s been really stressful because this is operation warp speed.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Warp speed is the name of the U.S. government program created to get a COVID vaccine up and running as fast as possible. But, I believe it also may describe Dr. Novak’s blood pressure.

Dr. Richard Novak:

And that means they want it to happen yesterday.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

If you’ve ever seen a picture of COVID-19, you know that it looks like a ball with spikes sticking out of it. Dr. Novak explained that those spikes are proteins and that those proteins are the dangerous parts of the virus, because those are the guys that invade our cells and make us sick.

Dr. Richard Novak:

So the Moderna vaccine is a novel vaccine design because it uses messenger RNA to code for a viral protein. So the goal of vaccines are for our bodies to make an immune response to that protein, mostly antibodies, which would bind to that protein and block it from attaching to your cells.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

You’d think that figuring out how to make the vaccine would be the hard part of this Herculean effort, but that is only step one. Then there’s all the testing.

Dr. Richard Novak:

Most people don’t know what it takes to do clinical trials, and that’s a major job. It requires a lot of expertise and an infrastructure that involves staff who know how to do the clinical trials and collect the data from the trials. It’s very different than taking care of patients. Clinical research involves much more attention to detail actually.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

So much detail. When a sample is taken from one room to another, it has to be logged out of the first room with the date and exact time, then logged back into the second when it arrives down the hall. And that’s just one example.

But Dr. Novak is used to such painstaking detail work. For the past three decades, he’s been researching HIV and an HIV vaccine at UIC, which means that the vaccine development and testing infrastructure was already in place. That made it relatively easy to switch his focus of study from HIV to COVID.

And Dr. Novak is optimistic that we may see positive results from the trials as early as December. It just depends on enrolling people into the study who are at high risk of getting the disease.

Dr. Richard Novak:

People are at risk just by nature of what they do, encountering the virus in their daily lives. And by doing that, we hope that we’ll get those clinical end point infections that will help us answer the question. If we get them more quickly, we’ll have the answer more quickly.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

The success of the vaccine depends on more than one factor, of course. It depends on enrolling people from minority populations who have historically been distrusting of the medical community. It depends on making the vaccine shelf stable to travel to countries without dependable electricity. And it depends on being able to mass manufacture the final product.

But of course, none of this compares to the single most important factor in this whole race to produce a successful vaccine- people actually have to take it.

Dr. Richard Novak:

There’s so much misinformation on the internet, or disinformation, that relates to the anti-vaxxers and such that people tend to believe that rather than believe science. And so they don’t take the vaccine and they forget that, you know, vaccines actually have probably saved more lives than any other medical intervention on the planet. In fact, you could pick just about any vaccine and will save more lives than any other medical intervention.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

When we spoke with Dr. Novak in mid-August, recruitment was already underway for the phase three trials and volunteers would soon be rolling into the UIC labs and clinics. Dr. Novak was eager to get the ball rolling.

Dr. Richard Novak:

I take great pride in having the ability to do this work and having the expertise to make this have to be part of the solution to this problem that’s affecting the whole world.

And I think that it brings much deserving credit to the University of Illinois. We have great capabilities here and great science and that often doesn’t get recognized, but, I think this is an opportunity for us to showcase that we can do all this.


Gwen Macsai (Host):

As we leave Dr. Novak’s office, we’re itching to get into the lab and clinics where all the magic will soon be happening. Unfortunately, Dr. Novak has to jump on a call. Fortunately, grad student Nick Llinas can’t say no when Dr. Novak asks him to show us around in his stead.

Gwen Macsai, Interview:

Glad we ran into you!

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Unfortunately, as we make our way down the hall, I realize on the one day we’re recording, I have worn my orthotics. Which makes a lot of unwanted noise… rookie mistake.

Fortunately, I’m not alone! Our guide has even squeakier shoes. very normal.

Gwen Macsai, Interview:

And why are the shoes so noisy again?

Nick Llinas:

They have rubber roles. They’re camper brand. So they’re famous for their non-slip soles.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

A few hallways later, we arrive at the clinic. It’s quiet… not great for radio. But this is the calm before the storm, the room where it happens. Soon, it will be a virtual hive of activity. But for now, there’s only a skeletal staff manning the phone that isn’t ringing. There’s a wall of boxes filled with PPE, multiple darkened exam rooms, and rolling blood pressure machines standing in a row, like a regimen of soldiers at the ready.

It may sound corny, but I don’t really think it’s an exaggeration to say that the world is waiting with bated breath for the results of the research that will be coming out of this clinic- tall order. But, first things first… gotta get it up and running.

Nick Llinas:

It’s already went from three weeks ago, we weren’t too crazy, just sort of general paperwork. And now this week I’ve got eight things on my agenda to get done.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Before we left, we asked Nick to briefly show us the lab where the researchers are a little surprised to see people with microphones walking in. We didn’t want to interrupt them. They seem busy pipetting red cell growth solution into test tubes, but after a minute or two of talking, one scientist summed up the feeling everyone in the department had expressed to us in one way or another.

Researcher:

And then the bottom line is, we all do our part to make sure that at the end, you can have an effective vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 and other diseases we encounter.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

We thank the researchers, our gracious hosts- Dr. Novak and Nick Llinas- and snake our way through the hallways out onto the city streets. But we’ll be back to check in on our friends at the Illinois College of Medicine to get an update about the moderna vaccine phase three trials.

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Gwen Macsai (Host):

Some people are running ragged in their efforts to prevent, contain, test and eliminate the coronavirus at the University of Illinois. And some people are just running… and running… and running. Literally!

In an effort to raise money for the Champaign County United Way’s COVID Relief Fund, University of Illinois women’s tennis coach, Evan Clark, decided to do something he loves- pound the pavement.

But he didn’t just say… run a marathon. Nope. He ran the equivalent of 18 of them, in one month.

Let me help you with the math here. If you run 14 miles on the 14th and 25 miles on the 25th, at the end of one month, your total is 465 miles in 30 days.

Gwen Macsai, Interview:

Are you the happiest man on the planet that April only has 30 days?

Evan Clark:

Yeah, I did think of that as well. I ran 30 on the 30th and then a couple of days later, just to test myself, I ran another 30.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Sitting in empty seats, outside 12, beautiful but empty tennis courts- with the ever present construction machinery in the distance- Coach Clark explained that long distance running is a personal passion, in this case really long distance. But, he claims he came to it late.

Evan Clark:

My dad was always a runner and I never could get into it. I thought, you know, I was lazy as a kid and… I was super, super lazy and my dad would try to get me to track and run with him and I never would. And then in my early twenties, something switched after I quit playing tennis and I really got into it.

It’s a passion for me. I think it’s really healthy for me, just mentally it’s someplace where I can get away for an hour and get my thoughts together. I feel like I’m a better person, a better dad and better coach once I get one in. Some people maybe say I overdid it a little bit and the mileage, which they’re probably right, but it was kind of… it was fun. And, uh, obviously I wouldn’t do that to every month of the year.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Okay, I’m just going to say… personally? I may want to get my thoughts together over something like an ice cream sundae. But I digress.

This March, as we all know, wasn’t just another month of the year. The University of Illinois, along with almost every other college and university in the country, shut its doors. No more in person classes, no more dorms, no more Big 10 tennis. It was confusing, sad and isolating.

Evan Clark:

I wasn’t coaching and then the whole team was home, we weren’t practicing and I was home and we couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t recruit. So I had a lot of time on my hands. So I said, hey, I’m going to pick up running again and get some mileage in. So I did it for a couple of weeks and it was, it was good, but I wasn’t really running for a purpose. And then a friend of mine said, hey, have you ever heard of the month running challenge? And I said no, you know, what is it? And he says you just run, you run the mileage on that day and you see how long you can go. So I had built up a pretty good base, been about almost a month since the quarantine hit. And so I had built up a pretty good base and I felt good about it.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

The idea clicked. The gauntlet had been thrown.

Evan Clark:

My wife and I, we’ve been here for about four years now and we’ve been trying to find… we’ve been really wanting to do something and give back. The community’s fantastic here. They’ve been really supportive of us since day one. Athletics, academic community, we love it here. And so to add the piece of raising money and donating for each, donated a dollar for each mile, I ran and then encouraged other people to do that every day. And I think we raised close to $15,000 in just that month period, which is which I was really happy about.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

Every penny went to the Champaign County United Way COVID Relief Fund which helps feed those facing food insecurity, prepare children for success, and connect those in financial distress with resources to pay bills and stay in their homes. But even when the challenge ended, coach Clark’s mileage did not.

Evan Clark:

So just yesterday, actually I got to 2000 miles from quarantine running. So from March 15th to August 20th, I got 2000 miles in.


Gwen Macsai, Interview:

Do you have another one of these months in you? Do you have another 450, 65 mile month in you?

Evan Clark:

I think so. I think so. ‘Cause my mind is working, I’m so excited to be back right now and I’m thinking how excited I am to have the team back on campus and to get back to practicing and getting back together.

And so if that’s taken away again, I think I’ll need a pretty good mental space or a pretty good release.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

In addition to the clarity the coach gets from running and the money he was able to raise, there’s one more important reason he pushes himself toward these tough finish lines.

Evan Clark:

It’s all mental you know. Your body, your legs are telling you to stop, and are you gonna have the ability to trick your brain and, and talk yourself into it? And a lot of times that’s what tennis is too. And so yeah, of course I think it helps me as a coach just because, you know, I think players see what I’ve done and obviously they see the work I’ve put in the discipline that it takes and the mental aspect. I think they know that I can help after going through something like that.

Gwen Macsai (Host):

We said goodbye to coach Clark and climbed back into the car, which was blistering hot. We crank the AC, pulled out of the parking lot, out of the university and then out of Champaign to head home. But we’ll be back soon for the next episode of Rising to the Challenge. It’s called testing, testing, one, two, three… testing!

Rising to the Challenge was produced and engineered by Libby Foster with editing help from Cheyna Roth. Special thanks to Tim Killeen, Moss Bresnahan, Lillie Duncanson, Laura Clower, Robin Kaler, Kirsten, Ruby, David Mercer, and Tom Hardy.

Rising to the Challenge is a production of the University of Illinois System and Illinois Public Media.

I’m Gwen Macsai. Thanks for listening.