Graduate student Heather Kosakowski is studying the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on social behavior and mental health.

Learning from social isolation

Graduate student Heather Kosakowski is studying the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on social behavior and mental health.

Heather Kosakowski is quarantined in Woods Hole, Massachusetts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Heather Kosakowski

“Livia Tomova, a postdoc in the Saxe Lab, recently completed a study about social isolation and its impact on the brain. Michelle Hung and I had a lot of exposure to her research in the lab. When “social distancing” measures hit MIT, we tried to process how the implementation of these policies would impact the landscape of our social lives.

We came up with some hypotheses and agreed that the coronavirus pandemic would fundamentally change life as we know it.

So we developed a survey to measure how the social behavior of MIT students, postdocs, and staff changes over the course of the pandemic. Our study is still in its very early stages, but it has been an incredibly fulfilling experience to be a part of Michelle’s development as a scientist.

Heather Kosakowski’s daughter in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Photo: Heather Kosakowski

After the undergraduates left, graduate students were also strongly urged to leave graduate student housing. My daughter (age 11) and I live in a 28th-floor apartment and her school was canceled. One of my advisors, Nancy Kanwisher, had a vacant apartment in Woods Hole that she offered to let lab members stay in. As more and more resources for children were being closed or shut down, I decided to take her up on the offer. Wood’s Hole is my daughter’s absolute favorite place and I feel extremely lucky to have such a generous option. My daughter has been coping really well with all of these changes.

While my research is at an exciting stage, I miss being on campus with the students from my cohort and my lab mates and my weekly in-person meetings with my advisors. One way I’ve been coping with this reality is by listening to stories of other people’s experiences. We are all human and we are all in the midst of a pandemic but, we are all experiencing the pandemic in different ways. I find the diversity of our experience intriguing. I have been fortunate to have friends write stories about their experiences, so that I can post them on my blog. I only have a handful of stories right now but, it has been really fun for me to listen, and humbling for me to share each individual’s unique experience.”

Heather Kosakowski is a graduate student in the labs of Rebecca Saxe and Nancy Kanwisher where she studies the infant brain and the developmental origins of object recognition, language, and music. Heather is also a Marine Corps veteran and single mom who manages a blog that “ties together different aspects of my experience, past and present, with the hopes that it might make someone else out there feel less alone.”