The following is a guest blog post that I wrote for a friend’s blog (now defunct) in 2009. At the time, I was one year into my PhD and the swine-origin H1N1 influenza virus pandemic was just beginning. I was cleaning through some old files and found it today, and thought it would be an interesting “time capsule” to share with the world. I don’t want to disrupt the flow of the piece, but I’ve added some footnotes that give commentary on what I think of my 11-year-old predictions today.

Swine flu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_swine_flu_outbreak). If you have a television, computer, or…


Have we reached the point where we can speculate about vaccine timelines?

“When will we have a vaccine?” is a question that I get asked on the regular. I think when the pandemic started, this was anybody’s guess, but with several vaccines entering Phase 3 trials, we are nearing the point where we can begin to speculate about the answer.

The first thing we need to understand is the different types of vaccines. The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are both nucleic acid vaccines; they include an mRNA that codes for critical parts of the virus, hoping to enlist the patient’s own cells to produce these components and create an immune response. …


We have been where you are and we know what is coming; we would not wish it on anyone.

By the time New York began its “PAUSE” order, we now know that COVID-19 had been spreading in the city for at least a month. By the time we had the testing infrastructure and surveillance in place to know that we had a problem, it was way too late for us to avoid the disaster that occurred.

And disaster is the right word. Even though it feels triumphant to have made it to a safer place, we lost 32,000 citizens of our state to the virus and there is no guarantee that it won’t come back. I check our new…


The conversation about this disease is being hijacked and politicized to put less emphasis on immediate risk to human life.

COVID-19 is, of course, something everyone is talking about, but I am not sure that we are paying enough attention to the words that are being used to talk about it.

The narrative right now in a lot of countries is being dominated by word choices that serve very specific agendas, and many of them are not ones that have the best interests of the average citizen at their core. Instead of presenting dangers in a straightforward way, this language uses euphemisms to hide the dangers and obscure the facts.

I’ll give you an example. Lately, I hear a lot…


As an emerging disease researcher, I learned that with new viruses you are never working with good information. The thing about emerging diseases is that you’ve never seen them before. You’re going to make mistakes. So when this thing first started, I was counting on being wrong — either because the early data would be wrong, or my instincts would.

In mid-January, I was telling my friends to wash their hands because flu was a bigger threat to them than COVID-19. At the time, this was correct. …


Between modern virology and the history of the Black Plague, I have some thoughts to offer from a life spent preparing for “the big” pandemic.

“Nothing in our lives has prepared us for this moment,” a leader at my job said yesterday on a staff call. For most people, that’s true.

I used to get sick a lot when I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time in doctor’s offices. I guess that’s where my interest in disease started; I was always curious and there’s not much else to learn about in doctor’s offices.

I got my first job in a lab — basically, doing DNA testing — when I was 16. I’ve been a biologist ever since. …


If you are just joining us here on social media, there is a new virus in town. By “town,” I mean human-inhabited Earth. At this point, there is sustained transmission of the virus taking place in multiple countries and the outbreak of this disease, known as COVID-19 and caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a pandemic in everything but name.

SARS-CoV-2 is a strain of the original SARS coronavirus that was one of the first major emerging pathogens of the 21st century. …


Living in a household with two academics is a strange experience. My wife right now is rounding the bases to complete her doctorate. I've had mine for just a few years now. It shows in how we approach life, and each other.

We’re both trained against saying things that are unsupported by evidence. So well-trained, in fact, that sometimes we’ll reflexively hedge our compliments to each other. After all, she’d need a much bigger sample size to be certain I’m really the best. Statistically speaking.

This reflexive nitpicking comes from intense, difficult training in research methods. That training instills a…


Business doesn’t have time for you to repeat the project until you’re satisfied.

Academia is far from perfect, but it is a place that attracts, and enables, a large number of perfectionists. In the academic world, real deadlines are rare and often come with a long lead time or significant flexibility. This makes sense; research is unpredictable, and the culture has had to adapt around unexpected delays and perturbations.

There’s a side effect, however: there’s often an attitude in academia that research results or other work can always be made more perfect with just a little more time investment. …


An experience with Kip Thorne taught me how to communicate tough concepts to different audiences.

“Insights into the caustic structure of a camera’s past light cone when it is near a black hole, and how those caustics affect gravitationally lensed images,” the email said.

I was writing a review of the movie Interstellar, and because he was one of my favorite Caltech professors when I was there, I’d reached out to Dr. Kip Thorne, who you may know as a recent Nobel Laureate. …

John Skylar, PhD

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at www.johnskylar.com and www.betterworlds.org. Opinions my own, impressions yours.

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