Cal Berkeley Student Athlete/Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate, Marissa Dobry, Berkeley, CA USA

“When the NCAA canceled the spring season, I became a retired athlete far earlier than I expected…I believe that this experience has allowed me to find solace in perspective…I feel grateful that my ability to graduate hasn’t been impacted, and I am hopeful for the future of science and medicine.” 

[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted on May 26, 2020]

Marissa Dobry is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, with a B.A. in Molecular and Cellular Biology with an emphasis in Neurobiology. She works as an undergraduate researcher at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and is a former student-athlete on the Cal track and cross country teams.

Marissa’s hometown is in Ashland, Oregon but she’s been living full time in Berkeley since starting college. She plans to spend the summer studying for the MCAT and hopefully finding a job in research or as a medical assistant (“best time to be looking for a job!” she jokes) to continue her education while she applies to either medical schools or a neurobiology PhD program.

Marissa fell ill after traveling to Seattle in the beginning of February for an indoor track meet, but wasn’t tested for COVID because at the time only individuals who had recently traveled internationally were allowed to be tested. “I was hard on myself because I thought I was being lazy but this experience has kind of forced me to realize that my body isn’t as invincible as I tend to assume,” she stated.

Marissa’s athletic career and final year of running track for Cal Berkeley was cut short when the NCAA cancelled the spring 2020 collegiate athletic season. She never had the chance to walk across the stage to receive her diploma (for an extremely impressive degree from an outstanding university) and now she’s facing the challenge of being a recent graduate without a job lined up post-graduation due to the pandemic. “It’s stressful to have no employment prospects at this time, but it might challenge me to question my career path which could end up being a positive thing,” Marissa shares.

She lives with three of her teammates who are also close friends, in Berkeley and they run together on nearby trails to relieve stress and keep up their fitness levels — they’ve had to deal with some unkind people who don’t realize that they’re abiding by all necessary rules and regulations since they live together — and maintain a safe distance from others on the trails.

“I feel grateful that my ability to graduate hasn’t been impacted and I am hopeful for the future of science and medicine,” Marissa said.

Read more about Marissa’s COVID Chronicle from Berkeley, California, below:

A run at Inspiration Point in the Berkeley hills

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced during quarantine/the COVID crisis?

“I actually got really sick at the beginning of February when my team returned from an indoor track meet in Seattle. At the time I wasn’t able to get tested for COVID because they were only testing individuals who had traveled internationally. I have moderate asthma so I was having a lot of difficulty breathing for about three weeks and eventually the sports doctor prescribed prednisone because my lung capacity was so low.

During this time, I was pretty stressed because I was not able to go into the lab at the Buck Institute and I couldn’t train so I had to take a significant amount of time off so I lost fitness. When I started to get better, my top priorities were regaining fitness in time for outdoor track and resuming lab work, but it was challenging because I felt like I had no energy.

I was hard on myself because I thought I was being lazy but this experience has kind of forced me to realize that my body isn’t as invincible as I tend to assume. I am bummed that being sick caused me to miss the indoor season. I originally felt okay about missing the indoor season because I was sick and realistically couldn’t finish a run let alone a race at the collegiate level. I tempered the disappointment of missing indoor with excitement for the outdoor season. I thought that maybe the sickness was a positive thing because I wouldn’t burn out at the end of a long outdoor season.

The day that I received the NCAA announcement about canceling the spring season I was in the lab (it was my first day back, a month after I first got sick) and when I opened the message, my stomach dropped. I ended up leaving early that day because I was afraid I would start crying in front of the other lab members. 

Another challenge is finding employment after graduation. I waited to start applying to jobs until the spring because I didn’t have enough time beyond class, my current research, and training. Under normal circumstances I would be a competitive applicant for a research position because I have a relevant major and lab experience, but many of the positions that I was planning on applying to have been cancelled or are not actively reviewing applications.

It’s stressful to have no employment prospects at this time, but it might challenge me to question my career path which could end up being a positive thing.”

Marissa’s team after last year’s opening cross country meet at USF

Has this experience in any way changed the way that you order your priorities in life?  

“When the NCAA canceled the spring season, I became a retired athlete far earlier than I expected. It’s been an adjustment to realize while I will continue to run for enjoyment, it’s no longer the commitment that it was when I was a Division 1 athlete. I always tried to be a student first, and then an athlete but the two commitments were often equal priorities.

Even though I have no reason to train for anything in the near future, I have maintained almost the same intensity of training that I would in the off season. I’ve kept my weekly mileage the same and I still do double workouts because I have no idea how to run differently. Although I’m still training, I prioritize school far more than I did when I was an athlete because I no longer have the competing interests of race performance vs good grades when I’m weighing whether to stay up at night to study or sleep so my body recovers.”

Where are you living right now? Is this where you permanently reside or is it a temporary living situation due to the pandemic? Who have you been quarantining with?

“Throughout the shelter in place I have been living with three of my teammates in our apartment in Berkeley. We are really close friends so it’s helped to stick together because being with them makes things feel more normal than they are. Two of them are people that I’ve always lived with but one of them was going to be living in her apartment alone so we told her to just move in with us since two of our housemates moved out.

It works out nicely because we’re actually all living together in the house next door starting in June so I’m excited to move even if it’s super close for a bit of a fresh start. The rest of the team went home before the shelter in place order went into effect so it’s just us in Berkeley. Our boyfriends hang out with us too, but that’s the extent of our social circle.” 

A run at the top of the Berkeley fire trails

What has your community been doing to fight the rate of transmission? 

“People in Berkeley are diligent about wearing face masks in public and staying at home unless it’s necessary to leave. The Bay Area has had stringent restrictions compared to the rest of the country, but they feel pretty reasonable.”

What has been your general daily routine so far during the pandemic?

“I was surprised to find that I’m pretty busy in quarantine so I actually haven’t felt bored. I have been able to be more productive because I save time that I would normally spend traveling between classes on campus, practice, or commuting to Marin for lab.

On a regular day, I go running with my housemates shortly after waking up before there are a lot of people out exercising and then we usually zoom our other teammates for a weights workout that our strength coach organized for us. By the time I’m done with exercise for the day and have showered it’s eleven am so then I spend the rest of the day until six or seven pm studying/working for the lab from home.

We have an almost nightly ritual where we all convene in the living room and choose a movie to watch on the projector before bed.” 

Freshly baked lemon ricotta cookies. 

What have you been doing to keep your spirits up on a day-to-day basis?

“The biggest thing that has helped me feel happy in quarantine is driving to run on the trails that are nearby. It’s a little bit of a splurge because I could just run from home but I enjoy running far more if it’s in a beautiful place. Plus, I enjoy seeing other people’s dogs.

I feel self conscious sometimes because we receive a lot of judgement from people on the trails who don’t realize that me and my housemates live together. We always make sure to run single file and stay six feet from anyone else, but it hasn’t prevented people from being kind of mean. It used to put me in a bad mood the rest of the day, but people have gotten friendlier since they’ve started to come to terms with the current situation.” 

Has this travel ban/quarantine situation impacted any important plans you had laid out for the near future?

“This week was supposed to be a fun week where I finished finals, traveled to Eugene to compete at Pac-12’s and then flew out the same night back to the Bay for graduation the next morning and then to Maui right after… All of this is canceled but I kind of expected it right away when things started to close so I prepared myself for the trip to get canceled. I’m thankful that I was able to do a lot of traveling last summer (we hiked the TMB in the Alps and then stayed in Mallorca and Nice for a few weeks) before this happened.” 

Is there anything you feel that this experience has taught you that you’d like to share as inspiration?

“I believe that this experience has allowed me to find solace in perspective. I am incredibly fortunate to have secure access to food, shelter, and health services as well as my housemates for social interaction. Living this way has been a major adjustment, but at the same time it was made easier by the reality that I had no choice but to adjust.

Losing my final season and the experience of graduation is minor in comparison to the challenges that others are facing. I can’t imagine the hardship of losing a loved one or having to work on the frontline. I feel grateful that my ability to graduate hasn’t been impacted and I am hopeful for the future of science and medicine.” 

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