Columns From Quarantine: Gene Block navigates small joys, pressing challenges as a chancellor in isolation

The decision to move spring quarter online was incredibly tough for Chancellor Gene Block, and one of the toughest decisions in UCLA’s history. But the sudden break in Block’s busy traveling schedule has allowed him time to pursue personal hobbies like inventing and tinkering. (Kristie-Valerie Hoang/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Gene Block

April 28, 2020 at 4:11 p.m.

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically upended life in the most unforeseeable of ways. At UCLA, our community is remarkably united by similar feelings of loss, confusion and concern, but also by light, hope and perspective that the pandemic has brought to the forefront. In “Columns From Quarantine,” Daily Bruin staffers and community submissions highlight the personal stories that mark this unprecedented moment. If you have a quarantine story to tell, you can submit it here or email [email protected].

(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)
(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)

I will never forget that it was March 13 – three days after we had made one of the biggest decisions in UCLA’s history to move the whole campus to remote learning – when I found out that someone I had recently met with had been diagnosed with COVID-19. I certainly had not expected to be exposed so quickly, but the only appropriate action was to immediately self-quarantine and hope for the best.

I ultimately never developed symptoms, but quarantining in the chancellor’s residence, my wife, Carol, and I fully appreciate that we don’t face the difficulties that many of our employees and fellow Angelenos deal with every day, like self-distancing in more confined housing, sometimes with young children. These challenges understandably place enormous strain on them, and I am so grateful for their resiliency and flexibility. We are fortunate and have no basis for complaint.

What is strange, however, is the eerie quiet in the residence each night. For decades, the residence has been a busy place, especially in the evenings. It was designed and always meant as a place for large gatherings and for people to connect. Some weeks, we host events every night on behalf of UCLA – inviting faculty, students, alumni, donors, members of the community and visiting dignitaries to be honored and recognized for their achievements. Long before Carol and I moved in, the residence was hosting national and international leaders, including Albert Einstein, who visited almost a century ago.

Now, as I look upon the empty spaces where so many inspiring people would often join us, I wonder how long it will be until all of our lives and activities return to something more normal.

Carol and my days have changed rather dramatically since we have been staying at home. I normally do a lot of traveling, with regular monthly meetings in Oakland, California and several meetings a year in Washington, D.C., representing UCLA with our national associations, numerous fund- and friendraising trips, and visits with alumni and Bruin friends throughout the U.S. and around the world. Thus, staying home week after week is highly unusual.

I guess on the positive side, staying at home has led to improvements in my self-discipline. First, my lifestyle is healthier. Carol and I take regular walks around campus, and we can plan more regular and healthier meals now that we’re not always rushing off to events. Perhaps most attractive, the lack of travel has freed up a little time to pursue my passion for tinkering. I was able to repair an old tube radio from the 1920s, and it was pretty exciting to hear music from a 100-year-old radio.

I also had a chance to do some inventing. I recognized one of the problems we all have is that we touch our faces many times in an hour, inadvertently putting ourselves at risk for viruses. I thought it would be interesting to design a simple device that warned us each time we touch our faces. I took advantage of an inexpensive pyro detector that is normally used in intrusion alarms and built it into a pendant that can be worn from my neck. Each time I went to touch my face, the alarm sounded. The alarm is annoying, so I have gotten pretty proficient at not touching my face with my hands!

During quarantine, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block has spent time making inventions such as this pendant, which sounds an alarm when the wearer touches their face. (Courtesy of Gene Block)
During quarantine, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block has spent time making inventions such as this pendant, which sounds an alarm when the wearer touches their face. (Courtesy of Gene Block)

I even demonstrated it on video for our grandchildren, who were working on their own science projects at the other end of the country. Tinkering has been a nice break from the tension of the current situation, and it gave me high marks with my 8- and 5-year-old grandchildren.

Obviously, most of my time – day and night – is taken up with focusing on the enormous crisis facing our campus, our city and beyond. The crisis has required administrative and faculty leaders to engage in more regular and demanding meetings and decision-making. As an example, prior to COVID-19, the 10 UC chancellors and the president met as a group once each month in Oakland. For the past month, the group has met three times per week on Zoom. And even though our UCLA leaders typically met twice a month as a full group, we now meet three times per week. The chair of the Academic Senate also participates in these meetings. The enhanced contact underscores the point that the situation in Los Angeles is evolving quickly, and the decisions we make now have significant implications for the future of the campus. As you can imagine, the situation in our health care system is even more challenging, and our health care professionals at every level are doing extraordinary work. We owe them our most sincere gratitude.

We can be thankful for the powerful information technology infrastructure that allows us to connect with one another without holding a physical meeting. The UCLA team that 50 years ago sent the first message over what would become the internet certainly deserves some credit!

I cannot begin to imagine how those overseeing large organizations did this during the 1918 flu pandemic, back in early days of the telephone, before conference calls – much less Zoom calls – were an option.

I think we are all learning how best to use videoconferencing technology. I deeply appreciate the forbearance of students and faculty as we adjust to this new instructional platform. I am confident that our faculty, students and staff will continue to innovate, modify and create new ways to learn in this virtual space.

While we are still reviewing what fall quarter will look like, I encourage all of you to find your own creative outlets as we go through this. I have no doubt many of you will create amazing works of art, your own inventions or other solutions that could have broad positive impacts.

I’ve already seen some wonderful examples of this, such as our student who developed a low-cost ventilator with parts he bought at The Home Depot!

Seeing how our community has pulled together, supported one another, gotten creative and demonstrated their UCLA pride is so inspiring, particularly at times like these.

I thank all of you for showing the world what it means to be a Bruin. Take care of yourselves and each other and I have no doubt you’ll be very good to all those around you.

Go Bruins!

Gene Block is the chancellor of UCLA and is from Monticello, New York. Before stepping into the position in 2007, Block served as vice president and provost of the University of Virginia.

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