Awash in early COVID-19 questions from anxious friends and relatives, a few mom scientists decided to pool their knowledge and share the burden of answering them. Dear Pandemic was born.

Eight months later Dear Pandemic is a vibrant education platform for an interdisciplinary team of female PhDs and clinicians. They sift through COVID-19 science, controversy, and confusion to dish out advice for staying safe and, well, sane. “We are committed to facts,’’ they declare on the homepage.

Lindsey Leininger, wearing a Dear Pandemic mask, is the chief nerd. The Nerdy Girls find themselves discussing masks very, very frequently.

Tagged Those Nerdy Girls by an early follower, the chief nerd is CEO Lindsey Leininger who, with a doctorate degree from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, teaches data-driven health policy at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

Leininger’s head spins a bit as she considers Dear Pandemic’s rapid rise and her own role in it.

“I never could have anticipated 13 years ago using my Harris PhD to be on Facebook,’’ Leininger said. “It’s been a wild ride.’’

With nearly 50,000 followers on Facebook alone, Leininger and her colleagues answer readers’ questions via posts and weekly live-stream sessions. More than 600 are archived by topic at It is work that embodies Harris principles precisely: science rooted in data and impact.

“We rapidly get smart on emerging data and evidence and then translate it, and that’s a tried and true Harris skill,’’ Leininger said.

So nerdy they’re cool, Dear Pandemic’s 12 researchers and clinicians have become go-to sources for mainstream media organizations such as The New York Times, CNN, BBC, and The Wall Street Journal. With expertise covering nursing, mental health, demography, health policy and economics, and epidemiology, they’ve done hundreds of interviews.

“A pandemic is such a big intractable social problem that no one discipline is sufficient to tackle it, so I think our disciplinary breadth is pretty cool,’’ Leininger said. “We are a testament to generalist training, like Harris or the business school at Tuck where I am now.’’

Sensible, practical, and frequently fun, they sound like moms. Among them they have 22 children.

“I feel like we’re more relatable as a team because we are pandemic moms,’’ said Leininger, whose 5-year-old JoJo might twirl across the background of any given Zoom meeting while Max, 9, is downstairs engaged in a remote classroom.

In other words, she is juggling, too, and it’s not easy. “There is just something about contending with that stress that makes us a better messenger than someone who might not be in that milieu for parents seeking good information.’’

Dear Pandemic’s posts fall into the broad buckets of lifestyle, scientific controversy, and mental health.

Most common are lifestyle questions, such as: “If someone in my household has COVID-19, what are the chances I get it, too?’’ (Here's the answer.) Masks are discussed regularly and from every imaginable angle.

Leininger handles the “information hygiene’’ beat, striving to counteract the influence of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and bad data.

“I do a lot on media literacy and being a good critical consumer of data and evidence and the claims that you see in the news. It’s very Harris.’’

Leininger recently took on this question: “What are the hallmarks of high-quality reporting?’’ Her short answer was, “Look for the ABCs of ethical journalism: Accountability; Balance; and Credibility.’’ There’s always a longer answer, written in Dear Pandemic’s intentional style: clear, concise, smart, and a little bit funny or snappy.

Lindsey Leininger at her day job at Tuck. Photo by Laura DeCapua, courtesy of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

Two Nerdy Girls do a live-streamed Facebook conversation answering questions submitted in advance. (They don’t take live questions because they want the opportunity to consider the science before answering.)

Leininger and Dear Pandemic co-founder Malia Jones, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, delivered blunt advice on Thanksgiving and outdoor dining in one session. (Don’t be alarmed by their costumes and fake names in this episode -- it was Halloween and they are, after all, nerds.)

“Thanksgiving has all of the characteristics of super-spreader events. I am really worried about traditional Thanksgiving dinners happening,’’ Jones says, going on to detail possible mitigation by having all attendees quarantine for 14 days in advance.

“The risk here is that you could get your loved ones very sick with a life-threatening illness at Thanksgiving, which would be a true disaster,’’ Jones says. “I’m sorry I don’t have better news.’’

Leininger tackles a question about restaurant dining options as cold weather takes hold.

“I think of these plastic enclosed dining domes and every ounce of my public health scientist being goes ARGH.  That’s my short answer – ARGH!’’, Leininger says, waving her arms.

She goes on: “A plastic dome is a plastic dome – I don’t care if it’s on a sidewalk. I mean, use your common sense. How much air is flowing through there? Come on, people!’’

There is no shortage of passion when Nerdy Girls speak.

Mental health and wellness, issues such as “pandemic fatigue,’’ are important to the Dear Pandemic mission.

“It’s real,’’ Leininger said. “This chronic angst basically is very bad for our brains. And cognitive scientists have shown it really impairs our decision-making.’’ This leads to everything from bad food choices to lack of vigilance in wearing masks and social distancing.

Dear Pandemic seeks to counter the popular narrative “that you’re a bad person because you have pandemic fatigue,’’ Leininger said. “We all are fighting something very real in our brains, and some people are coping with it better than others. But we have to stay vigilant.’’

Finding purpose is one strategy for coping with pandemic fatigue.

“My purpose is Dear Pandemic, but it doesn’t have to be as grand as launching a public health campaign. It can be, ‘my neighbor is sick and needs their dog walked, and that gets me out of bed every morning and it’s a way I can contribute.’’’

Charting an unusual professional path, Leininger brings a rare mix of skills to Dear Pandemic -- management experience in addition to public policy and data analytics expertise. She credits her native Texas for two critical influences.

A community service project in Latin America made a lasting impression on her as a high school student. Digging latrines and vaccinating dogs and cats against rabies “was my first awakening that public health is a force in the world.’’

And growing up in a culturally and politically conservative state has made her more effective in the policy world.

“So many people in this profession are pretty liberal. Most of the people I knew growing up are quite conservative. And so I think it’s just kind of easy for me to build bridges across the political aisle.’’

Lindsey Leininger and family. Brian Melzer, a former Booth student, was her grad school sweetheart. They're with 5-year-old JoJo and 9-year-old Max. Their teamwork at home has made Dear Pandemic possible.

She wrote about that in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, teaming with Harold Pollack, professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, to address the need for public health experts to do a better job talking to conservatives.

Dear Pandemic is decidedly non-partisan. “We do not talk about politics, ever. I am ferocious about it. It’s the native Texan in me saying science, not politics, is the point.’’

Leininger earned her undergraduate degree in economics and Latin American studies at Princeton University. After Harris, she did post-doctoral work sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She spent half of her week doing translational research and half working in cubicles at the state’s Medicaid agency.

She found her way back to Chicago where she spent eight years in roles still focused on research for Medicaid policy makers -- staff scientist at University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, assistant professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, and senior health researcher at Mathematica Policy Research.

Joining the Dartmouth business school in 2018 might have seemed an odd move. But her teaching intersects public health, analytics and the health care industry, which accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. GDP. “It’s not as weird a fit for me as it might actually seem,’’ Leininger said.

“My MBA students are always interested and surprised to learn that often the policy regulator is the market maker in health care, so decisions in Washington about Medicare and Medicaid actually drive markets in healthcare,’’ Leininger said.

Tuck’s motto is “bettering the world through business,’’ and leaders there have supported her work as Dear Pandemic CEO. Her Medicaid policy research is on hold for now, and she is designing a new course on public health in the private sector, aimed at elucidating the business and society link in health care.

Leininger’s husband, Brian Melzer, her grad school sweetheart, is an economist at Tuck. They met at Princeton and started dating when both were in PhD programs at University of Chicago, she at Harris and he at Booth School of Business.

Rather unintentionally, Leininger finds herself in charge of what essentially is a media brand. While Jones acts as editor-in-chief, establishing voice and style, Leininger is the management and strategy lead.

As CEO, Leininger eyes external partnerships, including other scientists whose work can be highlighted on the platform. Dear Pandemic established its first and closest strategic partnership with a team of Chicago-based physicians led by Dr. Vinny Arora, whom Leininger met at Harris. 

Leininger recently secured grant funding to create new content for racial and ethnic minority audiences disproportionately affected by the pandemic. A fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will bring an early-career Black scientist to the team.

Dear Pandemic is a two-sided platform, where the scientific establishment comes in conversation with lay people on social media. Leininger works to further engagement on both sides.

She tracks consumer metrics such as followers and reach. On the scientist side, her goals include, for example, Nerdy Girls speaking at scientific conferences to further amplify female voices.

“Lifting up female scientists is something of a true labor of love for me,’’ Leininger said. “I am deeply committed to developing these women to be the face of science in the media going forward.’’

What happens after the pandemic?

“That’s the existential question: Are we a campaign or are we a social enterprise? Is this a pandemic thing or are we a science education enterprise?’’

There are varying and vacillating views among the Nerdy Girls.

Leininger, on one hand, doesn’t see herself doing this kind of work forever: “I am a die-hard data educator and policy wonk.’’ On the other hand, she says, “it was never my intention to use my Harris training on Facebook, so who knows?’’

Whatever comes next, she hopes her non-traditional path is inspiring and instructive.

“I hope Harris students are brave enough to chart their own paths, to break the rules,’’ Leininger said. “I just know that I would not trade my training for anyone else’s right now.’’