• Omar Rutledge

Update: 4/21/2020

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

Sunset at the Badlands, by Omar Rutledge
Sunset at the Badlands

After so many months of change, I have finally settled down long enough to be able to write a blog post. For today, I’m going to provide a little more than a summary of things since my last post in January to help bring everyone up to speed on the rather interesting turn of events in my life. Things have certainly changed for me, as I am sure they have for everyone else, due to the coronavirus. I'll warn you now, I am a bit of a verbose storyteller, so I hope you have a few extra minutes to spare.

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I left MIT and the Boston area this winter to go on a road trip to help refocus my efforts in life. I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed and slightly lost after my bike accident in October. The road trip was absolutely amazing; visiting friends and family between many days of solitude and wonderful scenery. America is very beautiful! I will share those great photos soon so you can enjoy them, but I'll have to save it for a future TBT post. Those days already seem so distant. Pre-Coronavirus. I’ll also need to make some sort of gallery for that post because there are just too many good photos to try to embed in the text itself. Here's a little preview of the photography that is to come:

The Infinite Highway, by Omar Rutledge
The Infinite Highway.

During the trip, I attempted to redefine myself in many different ways, including my appearance. Since I was going to be on the road without running water, I stopped shaving

A Little Extra, Selfie Feb 2020, by Omar Rutledge

my face and head and grew out my hair for the duration of the trip. Perhaps this was my little personal experiment to see how comfortable I would be in my own (hairy) skin. There's a lot to explore there psychologically, I am sure, but I was delighted to see my hair again since it had been years since I had let it grow. It became evident however, that I needed to relearn a few things about hair care. Did you know that body wash doesn’t work so well for hair? You should have seen the excitement on my face when I rediscovered that shampoo suds up so well! The little things in life. Upon my return to Boston at the end of January, I felt relaxed, rested, and eager to begin the next semester of my second year as a PhD student at MIT. Here's a little list of the things I was working on once the Spring Semester began:

  • Teaching Assistant: The class is Introduction to Psychology, and of the 200 or so students in the main class, my recitation class was just 10 students to which I would review, fill-in, and discuss the main points from the main class. This was my first foray into teaching, and I really started to enjoy it.

  • Final Coursework: The last class I needed to complete the academic requirements to advance to PhD candidacy was an elective medical devices course offered though the HST (health sciences and technology) program. It’s a project-based course in which we must design something new and “submit” the application for approval to the FDA. As we used to say in the Army, this is “good training” for me given the kinds of things I want to do in the future. I'm part of a great team and we have a really great project. Perhaps it could lead to something that could really help people.

  • The Brain/Body Study: This is a collaborative project attempting to describe the nature of “triggering events” for those with PTSD in the hope of designing a wearable device geared to use psychology to mitigate the effects of physiological responses to stressful events. The latest work included moving a large number of measures online to limit the amount of time needed to be on campus. This was before the outbreak. Our last submission is, at last check, under IRB review.

A Degassing System, by Omar Rutledge
A Degassing System.
  • The low-intensity focused ultrasound project: This is the project at the MGH Martinos Center that is working to find a non-invasive way to conduct neurostimulation. The first step to characterizing any ultrasound transducer's performance is to have a testing station to perform the experiments. To the right is an image of the first experiment testing the performance of the vacuum chamber I built and its ability to remove dissolved gasses from water. The idea is that the testing medium, water, must not have any bubbles (dissolved gasses) in it when the transducer is sonicating. If they are present, they could reflect the energy causing erroneous measurements, or worse, they could cause cavitation events which can cause damage to the components. The first experiment was a success in that the apparatus didn't implode, and it actually removed a significant amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

  • The CBD project: This is a new project that is still being worked out, but whose goal is to understand more about the neuroscience behind the use of this interesting cannabinoid. We were just getting started with the background on the topic and figuring out the regulatory aspects of dealing with a somewhat taboo topic.

  • The MRI coil project: This is my long-standing project from Stanford that I have been trying to publish for a while now. It’s a great invention, but when am I going to get it out there? My goal was to have something out to the reviewers by the end of the semester.

  • Fellowships: It is not exactly mandatory to secure your own funding as a PhD student, but it is highly recommended for so many reasons. I submitted my first application in December. The results were due out in April.

  • Consulting: I do have quite a bit of experience with running clinical trials, and it has turned out to be helpful not only in designing my own studies, but also to help others who may not have the experience but wish to get into the clinical research space. I began providing more research support recently for a good team working to treat TBIs in veterans.

That was the mountain of work that I was coming back to after the trip, but I was working it out with some careful time management. I had made a schedule that attempted to touch each of the projects at least once a week. Monday was TA prep and coil writing day, Tuesday included my class and going to the ultrasound lab. Wednesday: the Brain/Body study and the CBD project. Thursday it was back to class and TA prep for Friday, when I would teach my class and work on anything else that was pressing. The weekends were mostly free, which allowed some catch-up time. Of course, this was the ideal schedule. Inevitably, someone would need a report that would take hours to prepare, or a letter was needed within a short time frame, or a meeting would be called in the middle of something else, but I felt that I at least had a handle on things. It was a lot, yes, but it was just at the brim of my cup...

…and then came the coronavirus.

We started hearing about the outbreak in China around the first few weeks of February. A good friend of mine in our lab is a visiting student from China, and he was giving me real-time information about the statistics in the Wuhan area. We both thought it was pretty intense, but hoped that it wouldn’t spread too far. He showed me that China was rapidly building several hospitals to house those with the virus. At first, I thought that was ridiculous. Why would they need so many beds so rapidly? And how would they staff these hospitals once they were built? I was pretty impressed with the speed in which they completed these hospitals though, and I thought that construction like that could only happen in China. While their government is quite controlling of the people, it seems when something much larger than the individual must be considered, they are rather efficient in implementing change, for better or worse. I’m not supporting their choices or form of government. I’m just observing with an open mind.

The Brain/Body Study is a collaborative effort and half of our team is in Hong Kong. We had been conducting teleconferences with the team and hoping for calm amidst the anti-government riots that had been happening there. Their universities had been shut down already as a result of the riots, but just as things started to calm down, the pandemic spread to Hong Kong. Soon, everything was shut down and everyone was ordered to quarantine in their homes. At that time, I clearly remember hearing on NPR that if the virus would spread to the US, we would be woefully unprepared. I also remember saying to my colleagues in Hong Kong that they are setting the example for the rest of the world. I didn’t necessarily feel good about saying that; the United States should always be the leader in the world for all things “good”, but with our current political situation, I was seriously doubtful that our country would be ready. As you all know, it seems NPR's assessment was correct.

by Omar Rutledge
Billboards around the Boston Area

Within a few days, the virus had spread to Europe, and it wasn’t long at all before it came to Boston. There was a conference held by Biogen, a company whose headquarters and laboratories are located just two blocks away from my building, where apparently the majority of the first infections in Boston took place. Once we heard of this, and the potential impact this would have on our local hospitals, measures started being taken to limit the spread. Rumors were heard that Harvard was going to close their school and that MIT would possibly do the same, and the very next day, Harvard announced that classes were suspended and all undergraduates must leave the dormitories before the end of the weekend prior to Spring Break. MIT followed their example the following day. The class I was teaching was now going to move online, which none of us had prepared for. All of a sudden, each of our students was faced with housing insecurity while still trying to maintain their coursework. I really felt for them and thought this rapid move was unfair. I also started to worry about my own housing situation.

I haven’t mentioned this on the site before for a number of reasons, but I suppose at this point, it really doesn’t matter given the situation. I live in a van. I bought a cargo van back in 2018 in California when I learned I’d be moving to Boston to attend MIT and remodeled it inside to be able to live comfortably. After my terrible landlord experience in 2014 and subsequent rises in rent costs, I felt disgusted to need to pay out thousands of dollars a month just to sleep under a roof for six to eight hours a day. It seemed like such a waste, and “vanlife” was a real thing in California. While I was working at Stanford, I saw many people parking RVs and vans at the edge of campus and living in them, and after my experience as a mechanized infantryman who made many unauthorized modifications to my vehicles to make them a little more enjoyable (like adding speakers or an Xbox), and after living in a dry cabin in Alaska for several years, I thought I could build a house inside of a van and save a little money. It was a big decision, but I went all-in. I sold my car, bought a brand-new cargo van, and spent many hours and dollars making that empty cargo van into something that would keep me comfortably warm in the New England winters. Here's a photo of the first road trip with the van, moving from California to Massachusetts in 2018.

by Omar Rutledge
A photo of the van on a road trip

It worked out well, especially since I had taken such a dramatic pay cut to become a student again. I lost more than two-thirds of my income from Stanford once I started as a student at MIT. Since my prior debts didn’t disappear, living in the van on my small stipend would be the only viable option for me to stay financially afloat. I used the gym every morning to exercise and take a shower. I used the kitchen sink for all of my cooking needs. My office in the lab was my workspace. I had a very lean and perfectly-balanced life, which worked for over a year and a half, but as we are now learning the weaknesses in lean production and streamlined global supply lines, any serious perturbation in a lean and balanced system will quickly throw it into disrepair. My problems started once it was announced that the gym would be closing by the end of the week.

Our lab had one last meeting to discuss the nature of the school’s closing. People started to talk about the grad students staying home, or running scenarios about what should be done if one of us became infected, and I started worrying about the same, except I had no place to quarantine. What sort of recovery would it be like to be sick and stuck inside of a vehicle? Where should I go to quarantine? What should I do in the meantime? I had no answers, but things were shutting down quickly and decisions needed to be made. The class I was TA-ing was going to continue, but I wasn’t going to have an office to conduct meetings or prepare my lessons. The other class I was attending was also moving online, but I wasn’t sure I’d have internet access to participate in the meetings wherever I was going to be. My life was beginning to unravel, and this was only the beginning.

By Friday, the 13th of March, I emailed everyone to announce that I would be “working from home”, although I had no idea what that was going to look like. I still maintained my key card access to the building, so I planned on coming in the early morning to do all of my personal grooming and get breakfast, avoiding all contact with anyone, then go to my storage unit and camp out there while I tried to hold meetings and conference calls. I also wanted to work on improving the van because it seemed inevitable that I would probably be leaving Boston again soon. I learned a few things on the prior road trip in January and wanted to make some small changes before leaving again. I use a storage unit as my garage to work on the van, and this was where I spent the majority of the following two weeks.

I began to have a bit of a routine after the first week, showing up early at MIT for all of my water needs, then heading to storage to work on the van. Then one morning I walked up to the building, tried my key card, and found that I was locked out of my own building. No more running water. I suppose I was deemed "non-essential". Rather than panicking or feeling despair, I thought about my time in Alaska and the Army, remembered the many ways I made water flow, and quickly started devising ways to have water in the van. Drainage would always be an issue, but for the small things like getting hot water, cooking, and brushing my teeth, I had a solution. The bathroom was the biggest problem. I learned that Home Depot and Lowe's opened at 6 am on the weekdays, and if I got their first, I would likely be one of the first people to use the bathroom and hopefully limit my exposure to the virus. My rationale was that if this virus lives in the air and on surfaces, but only for limited amounts of time, being the first in a public place should have less of a chance of catching this thing. I must admit, MIT locking me out directly put me at greater risk for becoming infected, which I am sure was not their intention.

I also needed to stock up on food and water, which everyone else was thinking about too. Luckily just the week before the shutdowns began, I had purchased a large bottle of hand sanitizer. I’m so happy I did, because more than a month and several stores later, I have yet to find another bottle anywhere. Water was quickly taken off the shelves, but I did manage to find one store that didn’t limit purchasing and obtained about 10 gallons. While people who didn’t know how to prepare were going for the toilet paper, I was taking the canned foods while they still remained. Within a few days, I had enough food and water to last about a month. The modifications in the van were primarily geared toward making more space to contain all of this extra stuff.

While I was camped out at the storage facility, I listened to NPR as much as I could tolerate to keep myself informed, but the stories and the slow, continual tragedy wore on me. The lack of government leadership was disgusting and frustrating. The dismissiveness of so many people was infuriating. MIT locking its doors was disappointing. I began to think that I am really out on my own and have no real support network to rely on. Even those friends I made in Boston were avoiding all contact with everyone, and since I was relegated to using public restrooms, I didn’t really want to expose anyone either if I were an asymptomatic carrier. I didn’t become depressed though, which I do struggle with from time to time. Actually, quite the opposite. I moved into “survival mode”. The world is dangerous, and I needed to get away from everyone as much as possible. Once I finished the modifications, I prepared to leave the Boston area although I had no idea where I was going to go. At the end of March, I started my second road trip in as many months.

by Omar Rutledge
Visiting the Green Mountains

My first instinct was to go to the National Parks. They are open spaces that have limited vehicular access, generally have outhouses, and given my infantry experience, the woods seemed like a natural place for me to isolate. The nearest place was the Green Mountain National Forest, so I plugged in the coordinates, and slowly drove the back roads to Vermont. Once I arrived, I realized the State of Vermont really loves their forests and prohibits vehicles from traveling inside the forests. While I slept in one of their parking lots for the first night, it wasn’t going to be a long-term solution. I needed less regulation and more open space. The White Mountains were in New Hampshire, and the neighboring state wasn’t too far, so the next morning I drove East only to find that no one was observing any form of social distancing there. That was disconcerting and I wasn’t going to stop. I keep driving East towards Maine, which I had always wanted to visit anyway.

Maine has always held a special place in my heart after living in Alaska, thinking it would be something similar, just on the East Coast. After a bit of snow, it was pretty similar and the lack of populated cities was wonderful. Less people = safety. I used the satellite imagery on Google Maps to find a decent isolated space in the middle of the State. That evening, I came upon a dirt road and turned in. Once the snow chains were on, I drove ten or so miles into the vast wilderness, found a path that looked like it wasn’t plowed (and thus wasn’t someone’s private property), and drove into the snow. I figured with my weight and the chains, the van would be able to easily navigate the snow, but when I started to go down a slope into an area that looked like tree branches were covered in snow ahead of me, I stopped and put the van into reverse. Then I got stuck. The rear-wheel drive didn’t have enough traction on the four-inch sheet of ice that was below the fresh snow. It was cold, I was stuck, and it was dark. I decided to stay the night and try to get myself out in the morning. The slope wasn’t that comfortable, and I was a bit worried about being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, but I did manage to get enough sleep that night to tackle the problem in the morning.

An Unplowed Road, by Omar Rutledge
An Unplowed Road.

The next day I woke up to the loud sounds of trucks driving by. What was this? I got out and saw that there was an active logging operation that was cutting down trees to make roads in this wilderness. In one respect, that was good because I could reach out for help if I couldn’t get out, but on the other hand, it was someone who could spot me and perhaps kick me out. I didn’t exactly know if this was public land, although Google said it was. I spent the majority of the day shoveling snow out from under the van as well as along the path out to the main road. There was a significant amount of snow, but the ice was the real issue. It must have rained a few days before the fresh snow. I think I spent about five hours chipping the ice underneath the tires, making a path up the slope so the tires had a way to grip the ground and pull the van over the hill. It worked. After all that energy was burned, I cooked a little dinner and fell asleep again, this time with a little more confidence in my situation. The next morning, I woke up and a pickup truck with flashing yellow lights was behind me. They knocked on my window. “Are you stuck?” the older man said. “Yeah, but I think I might be able to get out today. Maybe if you back up, I can give it a try,” I said. “Okay, well if you need help, we can hook you up to our truck. We need you to back up because we’re plowing the road today.” Of course, I thought. Right after I plowed the road behind me by hand. “Great, thanks! Well, let me give it a try.” I had to put some pine boughs under the van for some additional traction, but once I started up the hill, I kept up the momentum, and like a bucking bronco, I rode that thing in reverse, up and around the slushy slope, until I arrived in a muddy mess at the main road. I broke a link in one of my snow chains, but I made it! The construction guys laughed and said that was a good show. I’m glad they were friendly, but I needed another place to stay. This wasn’t going to work. I also noticed I needed some additional things for survival, so I decided to head back to Boston, restock, and this time, head out towards the West.

The van after getting unstuck, by Omar Rutledge
The Van After Getting Unstuck.

Rather than feel defeated by my experience in Maine, I looked at it as a preparation trial. I almost had everything I needed, but not quite. After one day of recovery, and one day of work, I embarked on the next phase of my COVID-19-induced journey. Some friends of mine in the Colorado area who I had been consulting are also veterans, and when they heard of my situation, they both quickly offered their places for me to stay while I figure out what’s next. I had avoided making such a drastic move because I was hoping to get back to my regular life, but as we all know, that’s not happening anytime soon. Colorado was also more than half-way across the US and I had just done that trip, but after my experience in Maine, it seemed like staying in New England was a bad idea and it wasn’t like I really had a reason to remain in the area. Colorado seemed like a decent destination, especially since open-space camping is allowed. With a final sigh and no clue what would lie ahead, I packed up, closed my storage unit, and drove towards the sunset.

Sunrise in Illinois, by Omar Rutledge
Sunrise in Illinois.

My plan was to find a state or national park to stay in twice a day. Around noontime, I’d find a spot to cook and have a break from driving, and in the evening, I’d find another spot to sleep. Luckily, I was able to find both spots each day as I traveled across the country. It took about a week. I tried to avoid interstate highways as much as possible and took the slowest (and much more enjoyable) route through the small towns and large fields of our country. I began to feel myself relax a bit as I got used to the road. The isolation with the changing scenery was peaceful. I am quite an introvert, despite my public persona, so the solitude in nature was almost invigorating. Vermont, Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and finally Colorado. What a trip. I didn’t want it to end.

A view of the Badlands National Park, by Omar Rutledge
A View of the Badlands National Park.

During the trip, I kept listening to NPR through each of the states I passed through, and heard so many heart-wrenching yet familiar stories of people trying to make ends meet during the pandemic. I started thinking about solutions to this whole problem. The biggest issue is that people need to get back to work, but the only way that could be possible would be through massive, repetitive testing of everyone. A test that every person could take upon entry of a building, with rapid results in minutes. Think about it. If each person entering a building knew they were negative, they could get back to work without worrying if they would catch it from someone else at work. That's obviously not happening right now. I'm not a virologist or a biologist, but I have had experiences where not being an expert in something can be a benefit. Sometimes those with formal training become locked into a way of thinking that limits their possibilities for thinking "outside of the box". I know there are a lot of labs currently working on developing better tests, but I started to think of novel ways to create a specific test that everyone could have and use. One that could really allow the world to open back up.

I arrived in Colorado last week, and after a few days, I'm beginning to get my bearings here. Now that my basic necessities are taken care of (shelter, water, etc.), I’m trying to formulate a plan that will take me out through the next few months, but I have to admit that it’s quite hard. I'm starting to move forward on figuring out how to develop a new test in a very short time period. It's a total long-shot, but I am surrounded by supportive people who are convinced that testing will be the only way out of this situation.

I will try my best to continue updating posts and making changes to the site. Again, if you want to share this or any of my other posts on social media, I would certainly appreciate the publicity. Take care, friends. Stay safe out there.


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