At first, it looked like a cyberattack against UM would give 2020 its basic disastrous shape. For most of the world, the coronavirus served that purpose. Yet for me and my colleagues at IDS (Institute for Data Science), the year was colored by a tragedy of our own. 

During the fall of 2019, I worked on a grant with a postdoctoral researcher, a hard-working, vivacious computer scientist from Pune, India named Amrapali Zaveri. At Christmas, she went home to India, excited for a tiger safari. I took a break. She returned, showed off safari photos, we submitted our grant with relief, moved on to other projects.

Three weeks into January, I noticed that Amrapali hadn’t been around the office. She’s sick, a stomach thing, someone said. 

What I didn’t know is that she’d been discovered at home, unconscious. Brought to the hospital for surgery, she regained consciousness long enough to call her parents. 

Over the weekend came a call that she had passed away. 

So began the Amrapalitijd

At IDS, the year began by teaching us how to grieve the death of a professional colleague, and the experience transformed us into something more than a work group. But what? We have yet to find out. A few weeks later, Amrapalitijd was swamped by coronatijd, and we retreated to our home offices, a diaspora of grief. Around us the numbers of dead and infected grew and grew. Tossed in a sea of abstract statistics, I was anchored by the one death of a person I had known.  

Someday we’ll happily share the same rooms again. At IDS, we’ll have to face the fact that we still live inside Amrapalitijd

We are all living in a Russian doll of crises. The long emergency, an American writer once called it. The virus merely distracted us from other challenges. Yes, someday, we’ll ride trains and hug friends, go to the movies, eat in restaurants, meet face to face. Better to use those things to give us strength to address the unnamed, unfinished tijds that have been waiting for our return. 

Michael Erard, data science funding specialist and grant writer at the Institute of Data Science


Michael Erard