‘Dear Pandemic’ co-founder and Tuck professor reflects on a year of offering reliable information

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    Lindsey Leininger, co-founder of "Dear Pandemic" and clinical professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, outside Tuck Hall in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Leininger was inundated with questions about the virus from friends and family at the beginning of the pandemic, and along with three fellow PhDs, she started a social media campaign to address those public health questions for a broader audience. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/3/2021 10:51:27 PM
Modified: 7/3/2021 10:51:32 PM

HANOVER — As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in the late winter of 2020, Tuck School of Business professor Lindsey Leininger’s friends and family started coming to her with questions about the new virus and how to navigate the world as it bore down.

Leininger, a public health scientist with expertise in health policy, was not alone. Two friends and fellow Ph.D.s, one at University of Pennsylvania and the other at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, were also getting inundated with questions about how to interpret the latest information about COVID-19. A third Ph.D., from the University of Oxford in England, joined up at the same time as Leininger, and together they became “those nerdy girls” and co-founders of a social media campaign called “Dear Pandemic.”

“We thought we’d be at it a couple weeks,” said Leininger, a 43-year-old Hanover resident who’s been at Tuck since 2018.

Little did they know that “Dear Pandemic” would come to have tens of thousands of followers, helping to guide readers through a glut of information about the virus. The team has since grown to include nearly 30 “nerdy girls,” who specialize in varied fields including immunology, health policy, epidemiology, demography, behavioral science and mental health.

Posts cover topics as varied as “How to think like a scientist” and “If masks work, why can I still smell farts when I’m wearing one?” A recent post was titled “What is burnout?” They aim to combine scientifically accurate information with accessibility.

“I think she’s done something extraordinary with this,” Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at Tuck, said of Leininger. “This is one of those things that a lot of people relied on during the crisis.”

There were times during the height of the pandemic when politicians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and medical professionals were sending out different messages, so it became important for people to have a reliable source of information they could use to make decisions such as how to travel safely with children, for example, Argenti said.

The female scientists approached the project as experts in their fields and also as mothers living through the pandemic themselves. Combined, the nearly 30 women have about 40 children, said Leininger, who has two, ages 5 and 9, who attend Crossroads Academy in Lyme. About 90% of the readers of “Dear Pandemic” are also women seeking assistance managing the cognitive load of making COVID-19 safety decisions such as “what mask do I buy my kid?” she said.

It was happenstance that the group began as an all-female team, but then they built on that, said Leininger, who served as the group’s inaugural CEO, also known as Nerdy-Girl-in-Chief, through Wednesday. They started calling themselves “nerdy girls” after a reader gave them that moniker, which suited them as they were known individually as the “friendly nerdy girl next door,” she said.

Leininger, a Texas native, said she’s heard from acquaintances from middle school who have told her, “So glad you studied hard.”

Leininger earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1999, a master’s from Northeastern University 2001 and a doctorate from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy in 2007.

Coming from Tuck, Leininger approached the project as a startup. They began by experimenting with different formats and deciding which social media platform would be primary. They sought partners and found a fiscal sponsor, the California-based Giving Back Fund.

As the “lead external-facing person,” Leininger has done hundreds of interviews ranging from a middle school math class to a recent talk with the World Health Organization, she said.

There were times when colleagues in academia questioned why she was spending so much time on social media rather than publishing academic papers, Leininger said. But she said she thinks the effort has clearly filled a need. At this point, they’ve received about 3,000 questions and published 1,000 posts.

Like Argenti, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said that Leininger and the rest of the “Dear Pandemic” team stepped up to fill “a void of effective public health communication” when “the CDC fell down on the job.”

“Dear Pandemic” also answered questions in a way that helped people apply public health guidelines to their daily lives, Nyhan said.

The “CDC doesn’t reason about cost and benefits the same way you do,” he said. “Maybe you do want to take a trip to see the grandparents you haven’t seen in a year.”

Using social media allows the people to share “Dear Pandemic” posts, which Nyhan said are written by “neither a government organization or some random person from the internet” and they’re “written in a way you understand.”

Though Leininger is stepping down from her leadership role with the campaign to focus on publishing academic papers about it, she said she and her collaborators plan to continue “Dear Pandemic” beyond COVID-19 and have already begun answering questions on other health topics.

It’s “not like confusing (and) misleading health headlines are going away anytime soon,” she said.

Leininger is co-editing a new academic publication called the Journal of Medical Internet Research. As such, she said, she’s going to be thinking a lot about how people get their information and how scientists can be better communicators.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which she called the first pandemic of the digital era, has illustrated “how fragmented (and) downright scary the information ecosystem is.”

An educator at heart, Leininger said she hopes to build curricula for public health and medical schools that helps in the fight against medical misinformation. Beyond the many myths to debunk related to COVID-19, Leininger said there’s work to be done debunking those related to vaccines, miracle cures for cancer and fad diets.

“Sadly, wherever there’s sort of fear and vulnerability ... it’s like a playground for bad actors,” she said.

In contrast, Leininger said the “bright spot is people really do trust their local news. Trust is highly local. There’s a role for really hyperlocal solutions to misinformation.”

The pandemic has shed light on the power of the school librarian, school nurse and community health worker in rural areas, she said.

In spite of “Dear Pandemic’s” online presence, Leininger said, “Hope really lies offline in these connections.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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