Campus News

Meet Carolina’s pandemic hobbyists

Employees across the University have responded to the current crisis with creativity and commitment.

One side effect of the pandemic is that people are investing more time in their current hobbies, taking up new pursuits and learning new skills. I picked up my knitting needles. (You can read about my Pandemic in Pink Sweater here.)

When The Well put out a call for University employees who have been particularly prolific, creative or dedicated in their pandemic hobbies, we received an overwhelming response! Here’s the first installment of Carolina’s Pandemic Hobbyists. If you like these stories, watch for more in the coming weeks.

Access all stories in the Carolina’s Pandemic Hobbyist series.

Birding, brewing and composting

Janna Starr, facilities and events manager and sustainability officer, North Carolina Botanical Garden

During this time, I have enjoyed spending more time in nature and have been able to learn some new things about the natural world around me, too. I thought I was an extrovert, but it turns out I get most of my energy from nature, so maybe I’m a natur-vert?

Early on in the pandemic, I made a bird-inspired workout on YouTube in an attempt to help out my friends who have kiddos at home who were looking for new activities. Birding around our neighborhood and watching bird nests emerge around our home garden in the spring was a true highlight from this past spring.

Starr has tried composting and a bird-inspired workout video. (Contributed photos)

As the pandemic wore on, my hobbies turned a bit stranger as I upped my fermenting skills and learned how to brew kombucha tea from a friend in Durham. She gave me a SCOBY, which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” to start my kombucha brewing at home and trained me on how to make my own kombucha tea. Our favorite batch was the watermelon mint.

My latest, and maybe strangest, hobby has been starting a worm composting system at home. I prepared a worm bin, added a few hundred red wiggler worms to the mix and have been watching these worms compost our kitchen veggie scraps, which has been fascinating. I look forward to adding this nutrient-rich compost to my garden in the spring. While I’ve been missing time with family and friends, I am thankful for all that I have learned during this time, too.

Janna Starr learned how to brew kombucha tea. (Contributed photo)

Pottery and painting

Tom Sowders, director of communications, UNC Children’s Hospital

After 20 years without touching clay, I have finally taken up pottery again. I now have a full pottery studio in my house, complete with kiln, wheel and glazes that I mix myself.

(Contributed photos)

I have also taken up painting for the first time. I have been prolific and post my paintings on Instagram and am about to begin my first commission piece for a restaurant. I got into painting because I love art and wanted big, colorful paintings for my house. However, large paintings are rightfully expensive! So I decided to give it a go myself. Every painting contains two things I love — skateboarding and plants.

Tom Sowders is taking up pottery again and painting for the first time. (Contributed photo)


Mary Beth Knight, director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, Gillings School of Global Public Health

I received my 200-hour yoga teacher training certification in April 2020. This had been a dream of mine for several years. We finished our teacher training on a Sunday and, as I recall, that next week most yoga studios across the Triangle closed due to COVID-19. I had only taught four classes in the studio at that point and I wanted to continue honing my teaching craft, so I decided to organize a weekly class for friends and colleagues via Zoom. I offered it free of charge starting in April.

Mary Beth Knight received her 200-hour yoga teacher training certification in April. (Photo by Amelia Cassar)

I have certainly felt purpose working for the Gillings School during the pandemic, yet I struggle to find the time and energy outside of work and family commitments to actively serve in the local community. Not doing as much as I want to for neighbors in need has weighed on my mind. I began my yoga class to practice teaching and then I quickly realized it was also a small gift I could give to those around me. I have been touched by some of my students’ responses, telling me that this class was often their refuge during challenging times. The unexpected gift has been the creative outlet teaching has given me. I now have the confidence to try and grow my yoga outreach beyond this small group, and to integrate my training in yoga and mindfulness into my work at UNC.

Horseback riding

Kim A. Boggess, senior associate dean for faculty affairs and ob-gyn professor, UNC School of Medicine

I have been a horseback rider for about two years. During the pandemic, I have continued pursuing my horseback riding hobby/passion including showing my horse (outdoors, wearing a mask at all times, except when mounted) at hunter/jumper shows in Raleigh, Greensboro and Tryon. We have won some ribbons, but it’s more about getting better with each ride since I’m still a beginner.

Kim Boggess has been showing her horse, Turtle, at hunter/jumper shows. (Contributed photo)

My horse, Turtle, a Dutch Warmblood mare, is an endurance athlete and needs to be ridden five to six days a week. I typically ride four days a week and then have others help keep her fit. There’s a lot to do before and after each ride, and you have to be completely in the moment, for safety, so I usually spend about two hours at the barn for each ride.

Horse and rider have to build a partnership. Horses are amazing creatures; their heartbeat gets into sync with their riders. Horseback riding is a great activity for the pandemic because it’s an immersive experience with another soul. Riding is also a very aerobic form of exercise, and I love being outdoors.


Megan Hunter, business services coordinator, Institute of Marine Sciences

I set a goal in January 2020 to crochet 100 baby blankets for the local hospital by 2022. I call it my “Crochet for the Bébé” project. The preference was for the blankets to go to babies in foster care or on Medicaid. Due to COVID, I have learned several new patterns. And with so much free time, I am going to meet my 100-blanket goal in about 13 months instead of 24. I am on blanket No. 101 right now. I’ve crocheted before, but this project and all the patterns are new. You can see a big difference in my first blanket vs. No. 101. Several of my friends have donated yarn or money for me to purchase yarn. After COVID, I still plan to continue my project and go past 100, but maybe not so many all in such a short timeframe.

Megan Hunter is going to meet her 100-blanket goal in about 13 months. (Contributed photo)