Daniela Witten

Daniela Witten — professor of Statistics and Biostatistics at University of Washington, and the Dorothy Gilford Endowed Chair in Mathematical Statistics, mother, Peloton fan — introduces a new column, Written by Witten.


It’s been a long year and a half! Over the course of this pandemic, I have been through all of the Covid cliches: I hoarded toilet paper and canned hominy (my local Whole Foods was sold out in March 2020, so naturally I ordered 24 extra-large cans on Amazon), I tended my sourdough starter like a beloved pet (until I forgot about it and it got moldy… in related news, I’ve never had a pet), I ran a home daycare for my three kids (absolutely not an accredited childcare facility), and I purchased (and entered a committed relationship with) my Peloton. The pre-pandemic Before Times are a distant memory.

Now Fall 2021 is here, and my university has finally re-opened. It would be easy to go back into the office as though it were still the Before Times (well, except for the masks). But during this pandemic, I’ve learned a lot about the world, myself, and my job. In an effort to be more intentional about my life and work moving forward, I’m devoting this first column to the lessons I’ve learned during these past 19 months of working from home. 

Learning #1: My job is not essential. 

When the U.S. shut down in March 2020, everybody stayed home, except for essential workers: hospital employees, grocery clerks, firefighters, etc. You know who did not have to keep going to work? Me. Why? Because my job is not essential. Yes, I love my job, and I care deeply about my students, colleagues, and field. But, when push comes to shove — whether it’s a pandemic or a Zombie apocalypse — the fate of the world does not rest upon my job. I’m going to try to remember this next time I’m rushing to meet a grant deadline or devastated by a paper rejection. 

Learning #2: If it could be an e-mail, it should be an e-mail. 

Don’t get me wrong: I love my colleagues. At this point I’ve completely forgotten what they look like in three dimensions, and I can’t wait to find out. But, during the Before Times, I also spent a ton of time commuting to campus, getting lost in the UW Health Sciences Building, changing out of my pajama pants, etc. For some meetings, this was worth it. But for others, it was … not. Sometimes an e-mail (and other times, a Zoom meeting) is enough. I’m going to save the in-person meetings for settings where the in-person component improves the experience: white-boarding with a grad student about research, lunch with a colleague, etc.

Learning #3: Make healthy lifestyle choices. 

It’s hard to find time to exercise and eat healthy food and sleep well when I’m in the office 8+ hours per day, and spend every other waking moment taking care of my kids, dealing with household chores, responding to work e-mails, editing manuscripts, etc. During the pandemic, because there were fewer other things to do, I was able to eat better, sleep more, and integrate regular exercise into my daily routine (did I mention my Peloton?). Shout-out to my collaborators and students who pretended not to notice when I showed up at Zoom meetings out of breath and sweaty from a work-out. I am going to find a way to maintain this in the future. 

Learning #4: Travel less. 

After 19 months of extremely limited travel, I have a huge backlog of personal travel: to visit my family, to take my kiddos on vacation, etc. And I’ve also come to realize that a lot of work travel in the Before Times was really not necessary. In the future, I am going to drastically reduce my work travel: to decrease my carbon footprint, and to be more present in my life in Seattle (which is hard to do when I’m traveling too much). Win-win. 

Learning #5: Practice gratitude and kindness.

I’ve been very fortunate these past 19 months: I spent quarantine with my four favorite people (husband and kiddos), I collaborated (on Zoom) with talented colleagues and students, and (most importantly!) my close family and friends stayed healthy. Others have not been so lucky. Life is a hard battle, and some people’s battles were particularly hard during this time. I will be grateful for my good fortune, and kind to others.

Alright, that’s what I’ve learned. Message me on Twitter (@daniela_witten) to let me know what I missed, or the name of your favorite Peloton instructor (the answer is Cody).