UVA Today Stories That Captured Your Attention in 2020

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December 16, 2020

A year ago, some of the most-read UVA Today stories included one about music megastar and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams being chosen as the keynote speaker at the University of Virginia’s Valedictory Exercises, one on UVA’s new early decision admissions option and a piece on the Cavaliers’ run to an NCAA basketball championship.

Suffice it to say, readers’ attention turned to some different things in 2020.

As one might expect during a pandemic, content appearing on UVA Today’s emergency response page received the most clicks.

However, there were still plenty of non-COVID stories that captured readers’ attention.

As we prepare to switch our calendars, here’s a small sampling of top stories – some COVID-related, some not – that resonated during these unusual times.

Class of 2020 Celebration

Due to the pandemic, members of the University’s Class of 2020 gathered in front of screens and monitors around the world to celebrate their achievements in the only way possible.

The virtual celebration and degree ceremony included surprise appearances by rock star Dave Matthews, who got his start playing around UVA and Charlottesville, and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as remarks from UVA President Jim Ryan, speaking solo on the Lawn in full academic regalia, and performances by student groups.

Matthews played a new song, “Singing From the Windows,” that seemed perfectly written for these times of quarantine, accompanied by images of quarantined fourth-year students posing in their windows.

Also in May, an academic year in review video highlighted academic achievements, research accomplishments and the joys of life on Grounds, from the 2019 Lighting of the Lawn to the year’s first snow and UVA’s first Orange Bowl appearance, before chronicling the abrupt halt of such normalcy – and, most important, honoring the resilience with which students, faculty and staff carried on. 

Four Reasons For Autism Optimism

Through his research, Kevin Pelphrey – whose 16-year-old daughter, Frances, was diagnosed with autism in 2007 – plays a key role in UVA’s efforts to better understand autism spectrum disorders and develop new treatments, as well as a wider strategic research effort focused on the brain and neuroscience.

In this story, Pelphrey, who holds dual appointments in the School of Medicine and the School of Education and Human Development, and also works with the Brain Institute and the Supporting Transformative Autism Research, or STAR, initiative – highlighted four breakthroughs that have shaped his career thus far and brought us closer to understanding and successfully treating autism spectrum disorders, which affect one in 59 American children.

The Case of the Missing Purse

As Alderman Library was getting ready for its renovation, a purse that had been reported as stolen 27 years earlier was discovered inside ductwork that was being removed from the stacks.

The purse was returned to former graduate student Lisa Anne Severson, who now goes by Lisa Swales and has three children, including a son at UVA.

Among many artifacts still in the purse was a checkbook, address book, a UVA Library user’s card and a ticket to Old Cabell Hall to hear the neo-modern jazz ensemble Either/Orchestra in the WTJU jazz concert series.

UVA Health Develops Own COVID Test

In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, when there was a national COVID testing shortage, UVA Health – in collaboration with its research laboratories and other partners across the University – developed its own test.

The new testing capability allowed UVA Health to more broadly and immediately advance its service to the public during the early days of the crisis, providing health officials a more complete picture of the spread of COVID-19 in the Charlottesville area.

Black Twitter 101

What is Black Twitter?

Meredith Clark, an assistant professor of media studies who is writing a book and teaching a course on the subject, was a good person to ask.

Clark’s tutorial ranked as one of UVA Today’s most-read stories in 2019, and it did so again in 2020.

In the story, Clark explains how Black communicators have used Twitter as a digital counter-narrative for the way that Black life in the United States is depicted in mainstream media.

Former Virginia Gentleman Makes Voice Finale

Micah Iverson, a 2016 UVA graduate and former president of the Virginia Gentleman, soared past 35 competitors to land in the top five performers on the finale of NBC’s “The Voice” singing competition.

Iverson was the last remaining member of “Team Kelly” – as in mentor and musical superstar Kelly Clarkson, who has sold more than 25 million albums and 40 million singles worldwide.

Iverson performed live three times at “The Voice’s” Los Angeles soundstage before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country – and the show’s normal production. His last two performances, of Elton John’s “Your Song” and Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” took place from his Atlanta home, with the celebrity mentors observing from their homes and viewers voting online.

The Crucial Math Behind Social Distancing

In March, physics professor Lou Bloomfield created a video explaining how social distancing can decrease the exponential growth of the virus.

“From a statistical point of view, every time you keep your distance from others during this crisis, you are saving lives,” the popular physics professor said.

What Happens When Paint Peels Off Beta Bridge?

Huge chunks of paint periodically peel off of Beta Bridge, the UVA community’s informal concrete canvas, and that’s just what happened in August when the UVA Facilities Management staff had to dispose of a 4-inch-thick, approximately 500-pound layer that peeled off the west side of the Rugby Road bridge and temporarily blocked the sidewalk.

In this story, landscape superintendent Rich Hopkins explained the phenomenon, and how his team was able to clear the debris in just under four hours.

While the paint peeled off the bridge frame, it did not expose the original concrete; there are still layers and layers of messages, painted by student groups from years past.

Exercise May Protect Against COVID-19 Complication

A review of medical research findings by a top exercise researcher showed that regular exercise may reduce the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a major cause of death in patients with the COVID-19 virus.

Zhen Yan of the School of Medicine said medical research findings “strongly support” the possibility that exercise can prevent or at least reduce the severity of acute respiratory distress syndrome, which affects between 3% and 17% of all COVID-19 patients. 

The story, originally published in April, appears to have caught on with exercise enthusiasts – and would-be enthusiasts – in the social media world, where it periodically gets reposted and shared anew.

Write It Down

In the early days of the pandemic, history professor Herbert “Tico” Braun suggested that his students keep a record of their lives during these unprecedented times in a form of their choosing – perhaps a journal, or a blog, an e-portfolio, a film, a series of artworks, a short story, poems, a series of haikus.

The project was part of Braun’s “The Individual and Society” course, falling under the Engaging Differences menu of the College of Arts & Sciences’ curriculum that launched in 2017.

“The mantra of our course is, ‘Write it down,’” Braun wrote. “When you do, much of your life and who you are will be different than if you don’t.”

Media Contact

Whitelaw Reid

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications