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One Year In, Rensselaer Experts Keep Addressing COVID-19 Challenges in Inventive Ways

March 4, 2021

One Year In, Rensselaer Experts Keep Addressing COVID-19 Challenges in Inventive Ways

Researchers available to discuss a range of topics and projects relating to the pandemic

The Rensselaer Plan 2024, the strategic plan that guides Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, dedicated the university to innovative teaching and research “that addresses the most compelling global challenges.” In the last year, no challenge has consumed the globe more than the COVID-19 pandemic — and the Rensselaer community has stayed true to its mission.

By launching new research projects and applying existing knowledge to a range of problems related to COVID-19, Rensselaer faculty, students, and staff have made meaningful contributions to the understanding of — and response to — this complex crisis. While some of these insights and activities have been shared in recent months, including in the special reports “Rensselaer Guide to Living and Working Well While Social Distancing” and “Pandemic-Proof Pedagogy at Rensselaer,” the list has continued to grow as researchers uncover new angles and opportunities.

The following menu of stories and topics provides many — though not all — examples of pandemic-related challenges currently being addressed by Rensselaer experts: 

Trapping Pandemic-Causing Viruses With Decoys: The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for more effective antivirals to hold future pandemics at bay. An antiviral strategy that has shown promise combating viruses like SARS-CoV-2, dengue, Zika, and influenza A uses a decoy to block viruses at the point where they latch onto human cells, stopping infection before it can begin. Specifically for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, tests have demonstrated the potential of different decoys, including a compound derived from edible seaweeds and variants of heparin, the common blood thinner. The work is a result from a long-standing collaboration between Jonathan Dordick, a chemical engineer, and Robert Linhardt, internationally recognized for his creation of synthetic heparin. Their research explores how viruses gain entry into human cells at the molecular level and identifies safe, effective compounds to offer as a decoy.

To learn more, watch this video.

Virtual Training for Frontline Medical Teams: With support from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a team of engineers at Rensselaer is developing an artificially intelligent agent called the Virtual Intelligent preceptor for COVID, which will train medical teams in a virtual environment, teaching them how to perform certain procedures, like how to intubate patients, and how to properly use personal protective gear — without increasing anyone’s risk of exposure.

Re-envisioning How Companies Work:  Many corporations have had to quickly assemble a patchwork of policies, procedures, and technologies to accommodate the sudden, widespread shift to remote work brought about by the pandemic. Timothy Golden, a professor in the Lally School of Management, foresees that many companies will adopt remote work on a permanent basis going forward, and they will need to devote considerable attention and focus to systematically assessing the lessons they have learned. Golden is currently initiating studies to help companies uncover best practices.

To learn more, listen to this podcast.

Equipping Masks With Antiviral Properties: With the support of a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant, Helen Zha, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Edmund Palermo, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, are examining ways to equip N95 respirator masks with antiviral properties and the ability to withstand sterilization. These improvements would better protect health care workers and enable the current supply of masks to last longer.

To learn more, listen to this podcast.

Tracking the Spread of Fake COVID-19 News: When the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to spread, researchers across the Rensselaer campus were already studying the impact of artificial intelligence interventions on the readers’ ability to assess news accuracy. This developing story provided the team — led by Dorit Nevo, an associate professor in the Lally School of Management, and Sibel Adali, a computer science professor and associate dean of the School of Science — the opportunity to collect real-time data on a major, emerging news event. They found that, when news is breaking, AI intervention with tailored messaging might be able to stop the spread of misinformation.

To learn more, watch this video.

Observing Shifts in Consumer Behavior: Understanding the effects that pandemic-induced behavioral changes among consumers will have on the economy, supply chains, and the environment will be essential. Researchers from Rensselaer are conducting a continuous series of international surveys in an effort to quantify and understand these unprecedented shifts, some of which may be long-lasting.

To learn more, watch this video.

Keeping COVID-19 at Bay on CampusesA free online tool created at Rensselaer predicts the outcome of taking specific measures to curtail the spread of the virus in school environments. The algorithm powering the app, COVID Back-to-School, was developed by computer science professor Malik Magdon-Ismail. Users can enter details about their institution — like the zip codes students come from, the size of the school, how often students are tested, the number of expected interactions during a class or meal — and COVID Back-to-School will project outcomes like the proportion of students likely to arrive infected, the proportion of students likely to be infected over time, and the number of likely new infections every 14 days.

To learn more, watch this video.

Providing Guidelines for Public Health Messaging: Research conducted by Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor in the Lally School of Management, provides guidelines for public health officials to consider when issuing messages to encourage positive behaviors and deter negative actions. Jain has found that consumers prefer round numbers in messaging and has shown that people value difficult decisions over easy choices. His current research involves determining which pictograms are the most effective in convincing people to make more healthy decisions, such as registering for vaccinations.

To learn more, watch this video.

Predicting COVID-19 Patient Outcomes: In research recently published in Medical Image Analysis, a team of engineers led by Pingkun Yan, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, demonstrated how a new algorithm they developed was able to successfully predict whether or not a COVID-19 patient would need ICU intervention. This artificial intelligence-based approach combines chest computed tomography (CT) images that assess the severity of a patient’s lung infection with non-imaging data, such as demographic information, vital signs, and laboratory blood test results. The research team continues its development of this screening method.

Recognizing Disparities in COVID-19 Deaths: Some groups of Americans are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than others. In fact, regional disparities exist for all causes of death. An adult living in Ohio is 2.5 times more likely to die from suicide or overdose than one living in California. There are underlying social causes for the regional differences in COVID-19 mortality and these so-called “deaths of despair.” Two tools developed at Rensselaer — MortalityMinder and COVIDMinder —  help us understand regional disparities in health, and make clear that that where you live has a significant impact on your chances of premature death.

Evaluating Economic Impacts: Thomas Shohfi, an assistant professor in the Lally School of Management, uses alternative data sources like earnings conference calls, social media platforms, and other textual readouts to evaluate data from analysts and management in companies across the Wall Street landscape. In early 2020, he noticed that warning signs about the spread of a novel coronavirus were present in corporate conference calls well before the stock market began its decline. Now, he sees increased mentions of economic stimulus and reopening, vaccinations, and increasing inflation expectations.

Sterilizing Masks in Bulk Using Unique UVC Light System: A team of researchers at Rensselaer developed a machine that uses ultraviolet (UVC) light to sterilize protective masks, rendering them safe for reuse. Research is underway on the effectiveness of this machine.  

To learn more, watch this video.

Anticipating COVID-19 Spread in Smaller Communities: COVID War Room is a free online tool that can predict the spread of COVID-19 for thousands of smaller cities and counties across the United States and select international locations. Informed by an algorithm developed by computer science professor Malik Magdon-Ismail , the tool predicts local aspects of the pandemic such as the rate of infections over time and the impact of various re-opening strategies. The tool also offers more specific details for each location, including the infectious force of the pandemic, the rate at which mild infections become serious, and estimates for asymptomatic infections. 

To learn more, watch this video.

Mitigating the Side Effects of Pandemic Stress: People have been inundated with triggers of high-level stress over the course of the pandemic. According to Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist and a senior lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Science, this frequent — and for some, even constant — engagement of the stress system could have negative psychological, behavioral, and physiological consequences, such as difficulty thinking, increased anxiety, or trouble sleeping. According to Walf, techniques such as mindful breathing, meditation, and focusing on certainties allow the body to reset its physical reaction to stress and offer a path to strengthening the resiliency of the human brain.

To learn more, listen to this podcast.

Helping the CDC Forecast COVID-19 Spread: A COVID-19 transmission model inspired by gas-phase chemistry is helping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) forecast COVID-19 deaths across the country. Developed by Yunfeng Shi, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and Jeff Ban, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Washington, the model uses fatality data collected by Johns Hopkins University and mobility data collected by Google to predict disease spread based on how much a population is moving within its community.

To learn more, watch this video.

Remembering the Opioid Crisis: Studies show that opioid and other drug use has continued to accelerate during the COVID-19 pandemic and that overdose deaths are at an all-time high, but according to Nancy Campbell, a professor and head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, treatment and prevention measures haven’t kept pace with need. A leading figure in the social history of drugs, drug policy, and harm reduction, Campbell says that the pandemic has revealed — and exacerbated — the uneven terrain of harm reduction infrastructure through which naloxone and other harm-reduction technologies are made available to those at risk of overdose.

To learn more, listen to this podcast.

Raising Awareness of the Built Environment’s Role: In an article published in The Journal of Critical Infrastructure Policy, a team led by David Mendonca, a professor of industrial and systems engineering, implored engineers and social scientists to re-examine the models, data collection methods, and assumptions that their research is currently built upon. Mendonca and his co-authors revealed the ways in which engineered structures and services have contributed to society’s challenges, making the case that the built environment — including both engineered structures and services — cannot be ignored when developing long-term pandemic mitigation.

Developing Digitally To Expand Analog Games: At the start of the pandemic, people dug deep in their closets to dust off board games that could help pass the time during lockdowns and quarantines. More recently, Maurice Suckling, an assistant professor in the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program, has seen an increase in the use of digital affordances to support analog players as they play games that were once only found in a box. Technologies like Zoom, Discord, and Webex help communities stay in touch and play simple games while Tabletop Simulator, Vassal, and Tabletop Arena allow for people to prototype more complex board games.

To learn more, listen to this podcast.

Using Robots to Manufacture Overflow Health Care Structures: A new research effort led by a team at Rensselaer aims to address future shortages of medical care and quarantine facilities, as well as housing needs following a disaster, by developing a group of self-aware, human-directed robots that can help manufacture rapidly deployed structures. In this particular project, funded by the Department of Defense through the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, the Rensselaer team is supporting Pvilion, a company based in Brooklyn, New York, in producing self-erecting, solar-powered structures that can be configured to suit the needs of a specific mission, including providing critical care, shelter, quarantine, infection control, or other functions.

Creating Music Remotely: For Matthew Goodheart, a musician and an assistant professor in the Department of Arts, the majority of the last year was spent either learning new tools or adjusting immediate research to fit a socially distanced environment for the foreseeable future. By incorporating evolving technologies to allow for collaboration, expanding music exploration to include different platforms, and shifting performance and installation work to online formats, Goodheart has found that innovations required by the pandemic will likely increase the range of musical opportunities available and strengthen the community of artists worldwide.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Travel Restrictions: More strategic and coordinated travel restrictions could have reduced the spread of COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic, according to modeling conducted by a multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers at Rensselaer. The researchers evaluated the distance between countries in terms of air travel, a more complex measurement than simply mapping physical distance.

Considering the Application of Probiotics to Architecture: Ted Krueger, an associate professor in the School of Architecture, believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for people to take the concept of probiotics — creating an environment in the gut that encourages good bacteria growth — and apply it to architecture. Though the concept of designing buildings that strategically allow for development of good bacteria has not yet been implemented, Krueger said it is a potential opportunity for collaboration between scientists and architects looking to create healthier environments.

To learn more, listen to this podcast.

Responding to Overlapping Pandemics and Natural Disasters: When a pandemic and a natural disaster hit a community simultaneously, disease exposure and social distancing can limit the availability of critical personnel, leaving a community positioned for a lengthy recovery. With both types of events expected to occur with increasing frequency, a team of researchers at Rensselaer has been running simulations to better understand how communities can weather concurrent crises.

Solving Complex Problems Using Supercomputers: As an original member of the national COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, Rensselaer made AiMOS, the most powerful supercomputer housed at a private university, available to researchers engaged in the fight against COVID-19.

Manufacturing PPE On Campus: Since the onset of the pandemic, Rensselaer faculty and staff have been manufacturing face shields in the Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory (MILL) using their knowledge and machinery on campus. To date, the team is approaching 10,000 face shields, some of which have been shared with frontline medical workers in the Capital Region and others of which are being used by students and researchers on campus.

To learn more, watch this video.

Leveraging Big Data and Artificial Intelligence: AI has emerged as a powerful ally in tracking COVID-19, modeling the virus at the molecular level, and analyzing the myriad research results being published daily. James Hendler, the Tetherless World Professor of Computer, Web, and Cognitive Science at Rensselaer and director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA), is engaged in marshaling AI resources at Rensselaer. For example, IDEA and the Rensselaer Libraries have collaborated to maintain lists of COVID-19-related data sources and scholarly research publications. AI is being used to translate thousands of scientific insights from text-based research products into forms that can more easily be analyzed.

Preparing Cell Cultures for COVID-19 Blood Studies: Steven Cramer, an endowed chaired professor of chemical and biological engineering, is collaborating with Johns Hopkins University to biomanufacture COVID-19 antigens to be used in high throughput blood studies. This project, supported by the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIMBL), plays an important role in determining which blood is appropriate for use as plasma treatment — and in evaluating how new virus variants may respond to different types of antibodies. The Cramer Lab uses its facilities and processes to purify cell cultures collected by Johns Hopkins, then sends the samples back to Johns Hopkins for analysis. This work is performed under financial assistance award 70NANB20H037 from the U. S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.