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Monday, November 30, 2020

Guest Commentary

Craving connections: Pharmacology professor copes with ‘our new reality’


Pharmacology professor Samina Salim has had difficulty adjusting to a world without the everyday connections society was once used to. | Courtesy of Samina Salim

Pharmacology professor Samina Salim has had difficulty adjusting to a world without the everyday connections society was once used to. | Courtesy of Samina Salim

On this beautiful bright summer morning in Houston, I sit here in my patio with a laptop going through my emails.

My two cats rub their bodies against each other and mine, they lick, purr and periodically glance in my direction with their beautiful brown eyes. I then look at the jasmine shrub on the fence, the petals of the white flowers seem to gently embrace each other as the breeze moves the shrub into a lovely dance.

The longing for a hug and a soft embrace are central to all life-forms. The scientist in me is reminded that the mechanosensory stimulation has proven to be exceptionally important — a fact demonstrated in organisms across phylogeny.

As humans evolved into the most social of primates, touch became a language of enabling and establishing moral ties with each other. I begin to wonder when was the last time I shook hands with anyone or hugged a friend or had an in-person conversation with a friend or a colleague, or looked anyone in the eye or heard a voice without a technological barrier?

The desire for contact and proximity is a basic human need. While the technology helps and makes up for loss of physical contact to some extent, it can never replace the assurance of a touch, the vibrations of an empathetic voice and the texture of an embrace. Warm, friendly touches of appreciation make us feel esteemed, valued and satisfied. Today as we struggle to cope with a new normal, true human contact seems like a luxury.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world and brought down mighty economies to its knees, also making a radical impact on the society as a whole, creating a culture of “social distancing”. In an otherwise normal world, this form of social existence would have been frowned upon, but this is our new reality which we must live to respect our own existence as well as that of the others.

As a University of Houston professor and a mentor, the new norm has hurt us all — the students, the teachers and the academic community alike. In our attempts to deliver our responsibilities of instruction, and fulfill our mentoring duties, the community stepped up to do the best we could.

The technology helped; classroom teaching was replaced by virtual instruction, official duties switched to various virtual platforms and the semester ended on time. The stories of cooperation, collaboration and compassion are plenty, to be shared in the years to come.

But I missed the energy of our class room, the smell of coffee mugs, the vibrancies of hallway conversations, our amazing lecture halls in the brand new College of Pharmacy building, casual hellos and compliments, the chaos, the commute and everything of a normal week day. The satisfaction of a semester well-done was unfortunately amiss for many of us including myself.

As I reflect on the semester gone by, the desire to connect seemed to be the dominant theme, with some of us inviting each other virtually into our lives, which we normally would not have eagerly done. Engaging with each other through zoom meetings while sitting on our kitchen table, or sharing pictures of each other’s home grown produce or spring flowers, was reassurance of a masked normalcy, a screen bonding at least.

The craving for connection was felt by all, even by the ultra-private ones among us, with some displaying their exquisite tastes and some messy family rooms as their Zoom backdrop. Our college’s assistant dean for student affairs suggested we invite our students into our homes by giving them a virtual tour.

I loved the idea and enjoyed sharing my family’s history, artifacts collected from around the world and my Indian heritage with College of Pharmacy students, staff and faculty colleagues. The Zoom chat quickly filled with compliments, and questions, an experience driven by a craving for connection and guided by a sense of intrigue.

Virtual graduation, however, felt awkward, despite our best efforts to give the students our greatest appreciation and recognition. Virtual congratulatory messages could barely compensate for hugs and handshakes.

The quest for discovering new forms of engagement through various modes of connections is evolving as I cautiously look forward to the fall semester, hoping for a more normal week day — long commute, class room chatter, lunch at McAlister’s, water cooler conversations, walk to the Rockwell, stroll around the fountain, the noise of the landscaping crew, sprawling UH campus and so much more.

Samina Salim is a pharmacology professor and can be reached at [email protected]

[email protected]

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