Features & Articles

Good News from 2020

While it might not feel like it, more than a few good things happened in 2020. Here are stories of Pitt people and programs that made the world better during a turbulent year.

Impressive feats

Ellen DeGeneres Helps Pitt Staff Member Pay It Forward on Mother’s Day: Ray Nell Jones, an administrative assistant in Pitt’s Office of Student Life, got quite the shock when a Zoom call turned into a giveaway from Ellen DeGeneres. Jones founded a nonprofit organization that helps single moms in need.

Meet the Women on the Other End of the Line When You Call Pitt: Through good times and bad, the University’s phones never stop ringing—ever wonder who answers? For two decades, it’s been Senior Switchboard Operator Lin Haberman and a small team. Learn how the calls have changed over the years and get a behind-the-scenes look at how COVID-19 is different from any other event the switchboard’s seen.

Still in the Fight: Pitt’s Rory Cooper Recovers from Crash to Complete Marathon: Last October, Rory Cooper crashed his handcycle during the early miles of a marathon. The director of Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories would go on to finish the remaining 23.2 miles, then spend four days in a coma. Read about his incredible recovery, and his long history of working to improve wheelchair users’ lives.

How a Simple Weekly Phone Call Delivered More than 100 Meals to Families: In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, local organizations connected through weekly phone calls to help people and businesses in need. From delivering lunch boxes to a mask donation program, the spirit of community is alive, even while residents are apart.

six people in a Zoom meeting

Working toward justice

Updates from Diversity Forum 2020: From July 28-30, the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hosted Diversity Forum 2020, Advancing Social Justice: A Call to Action. With more than 12,000 participants worldwide, the forum was a first-of-its-kind virtual symposium, complete with more than 55 interactive workshops and sessions. Pittwire covered the highlights in a live blog throughout the events.

Doing the Work: Pitt Community Inspires University to Take Action: Spurred by its community of activists and change-makers, Pitt launched a new website and dashboards to hold itself accountable to becoming a more equitable institution. But the work is just beginning.

Student Fills Void of Black Hair Care Products for Kids in Foster Care, Peers: Social work graduate student Ashlé Hall (SOC WK ’18) is a busy entrepreneur with a new line of hair care products designed to fill two very important needs.

Perspective: On Black Fatherhood, Gender and Family: Gabby Yearwood, lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in anthropology, shares his personal story as a father, son and Black man in America.


Researchers Take Filmmaking to the Health Sciences: Sara Baumann (GSPH ’19) and Jessica Burke have created a new form of public health research called Collaborative Filmmaking. The six-step process engages its participants to create a detailed, multimedia form of study rarely seen in the field.

Innovating in a PInCh: It’s only fair that the annual Pitt Innovation Challenge would itself need to innovate in 2020. See which projects won this year’s competition—which awarded nearly $500,000—and how participants adjusted to a virtual take on the event.

Faculty Members Send Student Projects Flying to Space, Thanks to Seed Funding: Two Pitt projects recently blasted off to the International Space Station to study microgravity’s effects on people and spacecrafts. The research brings together faculty, students and a tiny, see-through crustacean.

Undergrad Innovators Design Wearable Device to Aid People in Posture: Posture Perfect doesn’t just help users sit up straight—it could help people with Parkinson’s disease avoid falls. The student innovation effort that started in Joseph Samosky’s bioengineering course is nearing a pilot program in clinics. (Another invention that came from a Samosky class? A battery guard for your phone.)

a black and white photo of Wilson standing in front of a wall covered in handwritten pages

The arts

University of Pittsburgh Library System Acquires Archive of Renowned Playwright August Wilson: The late playwright and Pittsburgh native is best known for his unprecedented American Century Cycle—10 plays that convey the Black experience in each decade of the 20th century. All 10 of the plays have had Broadway productions and two earned Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

PhD Student Takes a Data-driven Look at Art: Using digital analyses, PhD candidate Sarah Reiff Conell examines cults in medieval Europe, sculptors working for French royalty and, in a first, collections at the National Gallery of Art. Her work could help museums display more diverse works of art.

Story Lab Helps Early Career Writers Professionalize: Writing can be a solitary endeavor, but for Pitt professor and award-winning author Jeanne Marie Laskas, it’s a team effort. The collaboration she nurtures has already spawned a bestseller.

a close-up of a tan-ish yellow LEGO Cathedral

Just for fun

A Monumental Task: Pitt alum Johnmichael Bohach (A&S ’06) recently applied his architectural skills to a tiny, LEGO Cathedral creation.

The Rise of Board Games in Today’s Tech-dominated Culture: From ancient war games to Candy Land and Settlers of Catan, Pitt researcher Zachary Horton explains the evolution of board games and why they’re more popular today than ever.

Non-Invasive Nerve Stimulation Boosts Learning of Foreign Language Sounds: Native English speakers often have trouble with tonal languages like Chinese. A Pitt study showed that vagus nerve stimulation allowed research participants to pick up some Mandarin tones more quickly.