Our Year of Living Dangerously | Quave

My Pandemic Zoo

By Cassandra Quave
Quave is an ethnobotanist, herbarium curator, and associate professor at Emory.

An illustration of a woman in a plant-filled home office working at a desk, from the back, with her pet miniature pig looking up at her.

Headphones in place, I’m in yet another Zoom meeting, taking notes and wondering when I’ll be able to get back to writing my next grant. A loud series of squeals pierced the barrier of the headphones. It had begun to rain, and Frankie, our pet mini-pig, wanted inside. My youngest child opened the back door, and in they raced: the pig, followed by our dog, Togo, a large American Staffordshire. I set my microphone to mute. 

The melee of hooves and paws racing across the tile was followed by high-pitched squeals from the pig and barking from the dog, and then shouting and laughter from the kids as they chased the animals through the house with towels to dry them off, creating quite the cacophony. At least our colony of silkworms isn’t loud. 

Our pets have been a source of comfort and entertainment during the pandemic. I got up to intervene; half a banana in hand for Frankie and Togo was enough to lure them for a rest in their dog beds. “I live in a zoo,” I thought, as I wiped mud from the kitchen floor.

I returned to my desk in my home office, aka the sunroom just off of our kitchen. I’ve made the room as comfortable as possible, filling my bookcases with a mixture of tomes ranging from science texts to memoirs to cookbooks. 

Tear-drop shaped leaves cascade from the shelves; philodendrons keep my books company. Plants make me happy, and in a year where an awareness of the vulnerability of life has been ever present and stressors are running high, I grasp on to any source of joy I can find. I’ve planted a hulking monstera, wispy parlor palms, hanging pots of ferns, a peace lily. 

My once bare transitional office has slowly transformed into a mix between a quirky library and greenhouse. There is no door or privacy to this new office. 

Each day I balance running a drug discovery research group and the Emory Herbarium, teaching an undergraduate course, mentoring graduate students, and supervising remote learning for my four children, ranging in age from 8 to 17. 

It’s hard to believe more than a year has passed since they last attended school in person. Each day comes with a constant stream of disruptions no amount of careful planning can prepare for.

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I canceled all of my upcoming travel for talks and a field research season to collect medicinal plants in the Mediterranean. I temporarily closed my research lab and canceled countless experiments to transition the team to remote work. Despite the pandemonium that had begun to encircle our lives, we were productive during this early phase of the pandemic, secure in the safety of our homes. 

This level of productivity, though, is an accomplishment I know won’t be possible in 2021. Although my team is back in the lab now, things are slow. Shipments of basic supplies are chronically delayed and, for most of the past year, we had to work in limited shifts due to occupancy restrictions. In a normal year, the research group gets as large as 30 members spread across the herbarium and labs. Many are undergraduate interns and international visiting scientists. These additional members haven’t been able to join us; we’ve been operating with six core staff for most of the year, drastically decreasing the number of experiments we can take on. 

Complicating things even further, I’ve largely been unable to return to in-person work with a household full of kids, only recently squeezing in Fridays to work in the lab.

Like many others during the pandemic, I’ve had to come to grips with my deep grief after losing three loved ones. The stress has been overwhelming at times. As a principal investigator (PI), I am responsible for ensuring the lab meets contractual deadlines, stays on track with projects, and most important, secures funding to keep team members employed. When I fail, we all lose, and that is an incredible burden to carry in a normal year, much less this one.

As a mom, I’m the glue that holds our family together and my mom duties have vastly expanded. I’ve had to become the chief motivator, P.E. coach, counselor, teacher, cook, maid, and chore supervisor.  We’ve shared special times at home, such as growing and tending to the vegetables and herbs in our backyard garden. But, like a sponge, I’ve also absorbed my children’s anxieties, and I hurt for the loneliness and fear they’ve battled over the past year. I worry about their ability to reenter the “new normal,” postvaccination, and how this period will affect their academic and athletic trajectories, and their social relationships.

Likewise, each member of my lab team has struggled with individual difficulties during this challenging period. I’ve offered what support and counsel I can. We’ve developed individual goals that address both work and well-being, emphasizing the need to dedicate time for sleep, exercise, and wellness.  

Not many of us are emerging unscathed from the pandemic, which continues to flare around the world. We are survivors of a historic event, one that impacted our families, our work, and our psyches. But I’ve been reminded that, in dark and anxious times, it can be helpful to find solace in the growth and renewal that is all around us.