Dr. Linsey Marr is one of the few academics in the field of aerosol science who is also an expert on viral transmission. When COVID-19 became a global pandemic, everyone began soliciting Marr’s expertise, and the Virginia Tech professor became a public-health celebrity almost overnight. Early on, she argued that the scientific community shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss airborne transmission as a possible route for the virus to spread; earlier this month, the WHO finally revised its position, conceding that the virus can linger in the air indoors and spread from person to person. Marr’s research has never been so urgent, and she has never been so busy. Right now, she is conducting a pivotal study on the efficacy of homemade masks and face coverings, serving as a regular expert source for the New York Times’s COVID-19 coverage (where she even got her own profile), parenting a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old she can’t wait to get back to school, and trying to figure out the safest way to protect kids and teachers when they do. Here, how she gets it done.
On a typical morning:
I get up around 6:45 a.m. and have a little breakfast at home, usually yogurt and muesli, and then I go to my local CrossFit gym in Blacksburg, Virginia. I know people say gyms are one of the worst places to go, but my gym has garage doors all around it and everything’s opened up, and they’ve moved the workout stations so they’re by the doors. Four days a week I do CrossFit training and two days a week I’ll go running instead. After that, I shower and ride my bike to the office, which is about three miles away. I don’t wear a mask when I bike, but I almost never pass by anyone because it’s a small town. Then I put on a mask and I go to my office and close the door.
On balancing work and parenting:
For the first few months of the pandemic I was at home, and so were our kids. They did online school, which took them maybe an hour a day, and then it was just free-range, wild, crazy them trying not to be bored out of their minds, playing Minecraft with friends, reading, Legos. Getting work done was nearly impossible. My husband works too, and it was totally unmanageable. I was working more than ever before because of my expertise and I felt terrible that I was neglecting them. Now they’re going to summer camps, and I think the risk level is manageable. The most important thing to me was mandatory masks. Some people say, “Oh, kids can’t wear masks.” But they can.
On her research:
Early on, we were responding to requests from a local hospital to test different sterilization techniques for N95 respirators and verify that the respirators still worked after these different sterilization methods. Now my students are conducting a really careful study on face coverings. We’re doing it on mannequins with as realistic conditions as possible, with flow rates that are relevant to breathing, and with sizes of droplets and aerosols that we know are produced by talking and coughing. I think one of the reasons there was a reluctance to promote homemade masks early on was the perception that they’re not effective. But we were holding them up to the standard of hospitals and health care, where it’s N95 or bust. Homemade face coverings have been advertised for source control, to keep people from spewing lots of droplets and aerosols into the air, but I think we’ll find that they also protect you from breathing in viruses that might be in the air.
On becoming a media personality:
In mid-March, I had a few interviews with Wired and The Atlantic and the Times. And then it started to snowball in April, and I was getting five to ten interview requests per day. There have been days when I’ve talked to three different reporters from the New York Times. I don’t feel like I’m a media personality. I was a little embarrassed by the New York Times profile. But most of all, I’m glad that I can share scientific, evidence-based information with the public to help people cope with and understand and manage the pandemic. I will admit it’s weird, but it makes me glad I’m doing it. And I do feel some justification now for getting into this field when I first started 12 years ago. In my traditional field of aerosol science, I’m one of the very few people who studies viruses. It’s really kind of a freak thing. I feel good that this research is important and is contributing to our understanding. But I also look forward to the day when nobody cares about my research because that means the pandemic will be over.
On social media:
In January, I probably had 1,500 followers on Twitter; now, I think it’s over 15,000. I saw that there was a scientific void in the area of transmission of viruses through the air because I know there’s a very small number of people who work on this in the world. So I started putting out more information on my Twitter feed about what we’ve known about transmission of viruses through the air, and commenting on new papers as they were coming out. I see this as a big component of public service in terms of just getting accurate science out there and doing everything I can to improve our understanding of how the disease is spreading and how we can best control it. I’ve been trying to stick to the science and stay out of the politics because my area of expertise is to provide the best scientific information available.
On communicating complicated concepts to the public:
Scientists love to think about, Well, there’s this limitation and there’s that limitation, but I try to say: What does all the evidence really tell me, and what is the most important thing here that people are going to be interested in knowing? I have to distill it down because the concepts are really complex. People have been asking about indoors versus outdoors, and why it’s safer outdoors. So I came up with the analogy of putting a drop of dye into a glass of water — that’s indoors — versus putting a drop of dye into the ocean, that’s outdoors. I’m trying to keep it simple at the level that the general public can understand. Maybe there’s one or two rare cases where this analogy doesn’t hold true, but for the vast majority of cases, I think this is a good simple analogy.
On how to get kids back to school safely:
I think we’ve got to get the community spread under control first before reopening school. So in these hot spots, it’s not a wise idea. But if it is under control, then I think that masks should be mandatory and there should be as much distancing as possible. I think that the risk of kids not going back to school in person is very large in terms of their intellectual, social, and emotional development. I worry that we’re robbing a generation of their education. So that has to be weighed against the risk of going back to school. For elementary-school children, at least, the risk of your kid dying, if they do get infected, is similar to the risk of them dying in a car accident over the course of a year. And we readily accept the risk of driving in cars. So I feel like for the kids, I’m willing to accept that risk. Now, the teachers and staff are a definite concern, and we need to put their health first.
It comes down to a question of PPE for teachers. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because it’s lame to have a teacher teaching in a mask, right? It’s hard for them to talk and people can’t see their mouths, and so much of our communication is nonverbal. So I’ve been thinking about innovations, like modified face shields with a hood, so that teachers can still be as effective as possible in the classroom while also being protected. We’re going to test them very soon.
On how she manages risk in her own life:
I don’t think of things in terms of absolutely safe or not safe because there is no such thing as zero risk, unless you go to the middle of nowhere and you never see anybody. Outside of that, it comes down to a risk-benefit calculation.
We’ve been getting takeout since the pandemic started, but we have not set foot inside a restaurant. I did eat at a restaurant outdoors once. I’d be willing to do that again if it’s not crowded, but I will not go inside a restaurant or bar. We ended up canceling a lot of travel, but went on an RV trip because we felt like that was the safest way to travel since we’d have our own kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping quarters. I did go on a plane trip recently; we wore our best masks. We try to minimize shopping trips. We’ll go to the grocery store once every three weeks. We don’t do any other shopping at stores, but rather are ordering online.
In terms of socializing, we haven’t had anyone in our house since this started. We meet with my kids’ grandmother outside; she sits at the other end of a very long table for meals. Occasionally, I’ve gotten together with friends outdoors and distanced, but not often, but that’s probably more because of the workload and the kids.