John Pojman, Anthony Mai and David Spivak
As fear over the spreading pandemic grew, store shelves holding cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers became empty.
The lack of hand sanitizer was a problem for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office, who reached out to the LSU Department of Chemistry for help preparing about 5,000 gallons of hand rub sanitizer. Chair John Pojman and Ph.D. student Anthony Mai set to work making the hand sanitizer, the first two batches made 5,300 bottles that were distributed throughout the state. Following the World Health Organization’s recipe, in about a week’s time, the chemists and the workers at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center’s soap plant warehouse, mixed and bottled thousands of containers to combat the coronavirus. In addition to those large quantities, Mai and David Spivak, professor and Safety Director for the department made additional batches for use on LSU’s campus.
Why did you feel called to help?
Mai: During these uncertain times it was an opportunity to do anything to help my family, friends, colleagues and community.
Pojman: I believe LSU should serve the citizens of the state, and as Chair, I saw it was my obligation to help.
Spivak: I have been the Safety Director for the LSU Chemistry department for years, and was already working with the faculty and students of the department to implement safety measures and provide a safety seminar to address the COVID-19 hazards, when I received a call from Jason LeJeune from LSU Environmental Health and Safety. Jason, who graduated with his Ph.D. from my group some years ago, asked if we could use my laboratory to formulate hand sanitizer using components he had located throughout campus. I immediately said yes, and in a few short days he and I got to work with graduate student Anthony Mai who had already been actively making hand sanitizer for other institutions in Baton Rouge.
How did you use your expertise and knowledge to respond to the COVID-19 crisis?
Mai: With my industrial chemistry background and DIY-tinkering attitude, creating hand sanitizer on a lab/pilot scale or a 1,000 gallon vessel was relatively straightforward compared to formulas with numerous ingredients and processes.
Pojman: As a chemist, I could readily understand what reagents were necessary to prepare hand sanitizer and how to handle them safely.
Spivak: That's an easy question: protection strategies against Covid involve chemistry and biology. And, of course, we had the starting materials and the chemistry know-how on how to make proper hand sanitizer. So when the markets ran out quickly, we were the right people in the right place at the right time to bolster the short supply for other non-chemists in need at LSU, the Baton Rouge Police Department, and various Baton Rouge Hospitals.
How has the pandemic affected you personally and professionally?
Mai: Visitation and traveling to see friends and family was, of course, limited. It was definitely a paradigm shift. For example, we haven't sat down to eat at any establishment since the pandemic started. Though some things have been in the positive--video conferencing has always been used in the past, but never to the extent that it is now. I think it's great that we can do classes, seminars, or meetings from the comfort and safety of our home.
Pojman: I was not able to visit my family in Ohio this summer, and the activities of my family in Baton Rouge were severely curtailed. A major conference I have attended since 1988 was canceled. The research in the Chemistry Department was dramatically reduced for a few months and has only recently returned to close to the pre-pandemic level. As Chair, I spent all summer working with the Dean and my faculty to address the challenges created by the pandemic.
Spivak: Professionally, it took a surprisingly large effort to move to remote teaching, involving many 12 hour days including weekends for weeks at a time, just to accomplish what took half that time ordinarily. The wear and tear of this effort plus the stress has had a wearing effect that I think many people can relate to. At the same time, I think a lot of objectives of advancing education have been accomplished in a short time. Using electronic platforms and developing remote teaching strategies has been a goal that once had a timeline of a decade or so, but the pandemic has materialized a lot of these advances in mere months. I think education will continue to use a hybrid of remote and in-person experiences and we will never go back to just in-person and paper-based learning.
What are the lessons learned that you think we will take from this experience?
Mai: I think emergency preparedness is sure one we will be more cognizant about. By all coming together, it was pretty amazing to see different departments and agencies working with diligence and a get-things-done attitude. We'll also know not to take simple things for granted, like merely meeting up with some friends for a social evening.
Pojman: In a crisis, the State, private sector and university can work together to rapidly face a challenge.
Spivak: We all need to do our part in combatting the pandemic, and we are only as strong as our weakest link. So everybody needs to take responsibility in wearing masks and other preventative measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. If there are some groups that don't cooperate with the collective effort, the preventative measures won't work.
What makes LSU unique in this situation to respond?
Mai: LSU has a diverse set of backgrounds from all our areas of knowledge and has the connections with the community, state, and industry.
Pojman: Our scientific expertise in handling reagents.
Spivak: LSU is a powerful place with many good minds and lots of resources, and these clearly empowered the university to guide all of Baton Rouge through the different phases of surviving the pandemic.
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