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From Zürich with Love

How my last-minute scramble home across the Atlantic amid COVID-19 changed my life for the better

A story by Daniel Bojar, a Wyss Postdoctoral Fellow using computational techniques to develop therapeutics and diagnostics.

It’s 10:25pm on Friday, the 13 of March – perhaps the date should have tipped me off that it would be a stressful day. I’m in Logan airport, surrounded by travelers in masks, shawls, and gloves, with harried looks in their eyes as they shoot frantic glances at the TV screens that show a news broadcast about the latest COVID-19 developments. My international flight is taking off from Boston a mere 90 minutes before the travel restrictions preventing my return to Europe are scheduled to take effect. I myself am feeling nervous but calm at the same time, unsure about the next 24 hours but glad at the prospect of returning home.

From Zürich with Love
Daniel Bojar, Wyss Postdoctoral Fellow. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

The days leading up to this one were characterized by an ever-increasing level of stress, as more and more countries restricted travel due to the expanding coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, the US barred entry to travelers from Europe. On Thursday, the first European countries followed suit with announcements of closing borders. Until the very last moment, I was agonizing over whether I should – or even could – take the flight to my girlfriend in Zürich. Frantic phone calls and e-mails and great support from all sides, from my supervisors at the Wyss Institute to the Harvard International Office, eventually gave me enough hope to give it a try and board the flight I had booked more than six months earlier. Back then, we had planned that I would only spend a week in Zürich before returning to Boston. Suffice to say, our plans changed.

I’m really glad that my flight brought me gentle into that good night, so I could not rage against the dying of the light – I actually slept the whole time. I imagine that many of my co-passengers were not so lucky, perhaps eyeing every cough over those six hours with suspicion and maybe a tinge of reproach. A layover in Amsterdam gave me the chance to observe that apparently many other people had also taken one of their last chances to get home, as the airport was considerably busier than I anticipated. I fully expected that I would be turned away at some point on this journey, which led to a flurry of text messages to my girlfriend describing this gauntlet run: “passport control: check!,” “now boarding,” etc. This, and some coffee, made my flight to Switzerland much more awake and much less serene than my previous escape into slumber.

Then finally – many hours after leaving Boston – I exited the airport in Zürich, tired but happy to be reunited with my partner. In the days following my journey, nearly all European countries (including Switzerland) closed their borders to travel and the European Union barred non-essential travel from outside the EU on March 17. And, of course, travel from most of Europe to the US was banned while I was in the air. Talk about a close call.

As all the shops in Zürich closed and public life transitioned ever more to private life, it became clear that I was not going to be returning to my office anytime soon. But the social distancing measures have had a silver lining in that my partner and I now have much more time together than we had expected. Of course, life was and is very different now than, say, back in February. And we also made sure that it will stay very different even after the travel bans lift: in April, shortly before handing in her Ph.D. thesis, my partner gave me a copy for a quick final check…and hid a marriage proposal in a footnote that led to us being engaged now. Prior to that, we also found out that she is pregnant, making our engagement not only a perfect next step, but also another reason why I’m so glad that we get to spend this time together, rather than continents apart. So, I think it is safe to say that we will definitely remember 2020 as the year of change!

From Zürich with Love
My home office in Zürich – it’s not fancy, but it gets the job done! Credit: Daniel Bojar

While there have been changes galore in my life over the last few months, one aspect that surprisingly did not change all too much is work. I have been very fortunate to work computationally, so switching to a home office is no big deal in that regard. Sure, some of my projects are impeded because no experiments can be done to generate new data. Sure, social interactions and conferences are restricted to Zoom or Skype meetings. But at least some form of normalcy is provided when I open my laptop every morning. When I think, when I code, when I write, I briefly forget where I am and just enter the flow. This has been an anchor for me in tumultuous times such as these. In pre-COVID times I typically arrived very early at the office, so working alone in the mornings is very familiar to me. Of course, my meeting schedule has now shifted toward the evening due to the time difference, but I also thoroughly relish the peaceful hours before Boston wakes up and use them for catching up on emails and other work.

As many researchers have noted, there are even new opportunities to contribute our skills during these challenging times. Here at the Wyss Institute, we are repurposing some of our existing work to push for new COVID-19 therapeutics, by using machine learning algorithms to identify and test FDA-approved drugs for treating the novel coronavirus. This has been an exciting journey already (even from across the pond), as the preliminary results look promising and will hopefully aid in bringing back a normal state of affairs – or as normal as it can be.

This video shows some of the projects I’ve been working on from Switzerland – look for me at 1:04. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

European countries are currently lifting restrictions and bringing back public life bit by bit. I even got a haircut! And there will come a time when I can safely fly back to Boston. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that we’ll never quite return to how things were before. Nor do I think we should. This pandemic has shown us that working from home – at least in some capacity – is not only viable but valuable. A home office can provide flexibility and productivity, investing employees with agency to shape their work environment, rhythm, and style. We have also found that virtual conferences can work, can be more inclusive, and are at least complementary to physical meetings. I even virtually attended the NIH and FDA’s Glycoscience Research Day 2020, which I likely would have missed otherwise because of time constraints. While I’m grateful that the work I’m doing hasn’t changed much, the context in which it’s being done has changed dramatically, and perhaps for good.

I’m not sure when the “new normal” will come or what it will look like but, at least for me, it will be very different from anything that came before, and not just because I now have a fiancée and will soon be a parent. As it has been said, change is the only constant. And as times change, we change with them. Perhaps we shouldn’t even be waiting for a “new normal,” but rather “a new future.”

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