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January 23, 2023

A Changed World, Made Possible by Engineering

We hit a milestone over the weekend: Saturday marked the third anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States. After weeks of watching warily as the virus proliferated overseas, our worst fears were realized: the pandemic had come home. That first diagnosis set in motion a series of events that (more than likely permanently) changed how we work, how we shop, how we travel, how we educate our kids, how we administer healthcare.

And amid all this change, the engineering industry was front and center.

A clichéd question: Where were you on March 16, 2020? Most likely, you began your day like any other and headed into your workplace, completely unaware that by the end of the day, you would become part of a massive unplanned experiment in telecommuting – an experiment largely made possible by the advances and innovation of engineers. That day, as the number of COVID cases continued to rise, states began to initiate shutdowns, forcing businesses to move to remote work. As our professional frames of reference shifted from offices, cubicles, and conference rooms to spare bedrooms, kitchen tables, and Zoom, we leaned on technology more than ever, relying on platforms and systems to keep our doors (figuratively) open.

We all recall the run on toilet paper that launched a thousand memes and created a scarcity that further taxed an already-straining supply chain. Engineers were again pressed into service to create solutions to transport and distribute goods efficiently and safely. That expertise would later be called upon again, when our industry was tapped to help get life-saving vaccines developed, distributed, and administered.

Throughout the COVID-driven shortages and shutdowns, both the private and public sectors repeatedly turned to our industry for solutions. We played a pivotal role in keeping our communities healthy by retrofitting hospitals to help mitigate community spread and protect healthcare workers, and by assisting local governments with how to employ data analysis to track new cases. Engineering firms played an equally pivotal role in creating and administering the vaccines that helped facilitate our national return to normalcy. And as stories of local rates of infection and mortality gave way to stories of vaccines administered and schools and businesses reopened, we created ventilation systems, antimicrobial surfaces, and wearable devices designed to keep our kids and workers safe.

It is sometimes difficult to recall a pre-COVID world. When we left our offices and our kids began learning at home, we had no idea that we’d be doing it as long as we did – and for many of us, that we’d be doing it forever. Yet, as difficult as it is to recall a pre-COVID world, it is even more difficult to imagine enduring COVID without the technological resources we had at our disposal. We had the capacity to move much of everyday life indoors and away from others. And as frustrating – even painful – as that sometimes was, it could have been ruinous without the technology that enabled us to remain connected. It’s been said that engineers “operate at the interface between science and society.” The pandemic proved the truth of that assertion.


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