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The professor promised freedom in the syllabus he distributed at the beginning of the spring semester in January 2020. Seventeen sophomores would get to choose the subject of a capstone project in their course on health care and public policy. By midsemester, they were exercising that freedom in ways neither they nor the professor predicted as they threw out in-progress projects and switched to studying the spread of COVID-19.

“This is one of my primary areas of study and research,” said the professor, Rick Mayes, a political scientist and the co-coordinator of the health care studies program, “and when they showed me the semi-finished product, I’d never seen anything remotely like it.”

The product he’s describing is a website that traces the history of the COVID-19’s spread through interactive maps, data, visuals, and storytelling. It includes everything from an image of the bustling train station next to the Wuhan, China, market where the virus is believed to have originated to country-by-country accounts of how the pandemic spread worldwide, with particular emphasis on the United States. It’s available via bit.ly/Mayes-COVID.

“The situation was personal, and we wanted a way to address that,” said Eliza Herrenkohl, ’22, who worked on the project. She said her classmates included people who worked in health care settings or whose parents’ small businesses were affected by the turmoil. “We saw what we had been studying come to life right before our eyes, and we saw an opportunity to put what we had been learning into action.”