Projects Range from Developing a New Way to Detect the Coronavirus to Evaluating the Pandemic’s Impact on Student Education
By Edwin L. Aguirre
As the United States reached grim milestones this fall with the number of COVID cases and deaths, at least three biopharmaceutical companies announced the development of new vaccines to combat the disease. While this is long-awaited welcome news, it could still take some time for the vaccines to get mass-produced and distributed to the general public. In the meantime, universities, research centers and laboratories across the country have been dedicating brainpower and resources to explore other ways of addressing this urgent global health crisis.
UMass Lowell is among the institutions on the front line of this effort. Since the spring, the university’s Office of Research and Innovation has awarded three rounds of COVID-19 internal seed grants to 15 faculty-led projects, totaling more than $151,000 to faculty across all colleges. They are using the funds to conduct studies designed to mitigate and assess the effects of the pandemic.
“Our goal for funding these research projects is to boost interdisciplinary collaborations and partnerships, which could lead to breakthroughs in understanding COVID-19,” says Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Julie Chen. “The projects harness the complementary expertise of our faculty researchers, augment existing research and increase the likelihood of obtaining external funding.”
Francis College of Engineering faculty are playing a key role in some of the projects.
Civil and Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin is leading a team that received $15,000 to detect and analyze genetic markers for COVID-19 in wastewater, while Prof. Laura Punnett of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Center for Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) will use $10,000 in grant money to focus on occupational health and safety during the pandemic.
Education Asst. Prof. Hsien-Yuan Hsu will use his seed grant, totaling nearly $10,000, to evaluate student performance in engineering virtual labs during the pandemic. Collaborating with Hsu on the project is Dohn Bowden, assistant systems lab manager in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Tracking Down the Virus with Wastewater-based Epidemiology
Pagsuyoin and her team are using advanced genetic sequencing and analytical techniques to track and monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 in the Greater Lowell region during the disease’s anticipated surge in the fall and winter.
They are applying wastewater-based epidemiology, which is a relatively new approach, to detect viral and human biomarkers of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—in raw sewage samples. The data obtained can be used to correlate disease prevalence and health lifestyles of community residents.
According to Pagsuyoin, “Emerging evidence from Europe suggests that wastewater-based epidemiology is more sensitive at identifying circulating SARS-CoV-2 in a community and can detect the virus as early as one week prior to emergence of confirmed cases.”
Wastewater-based surveillance can be highly cost-efficient as it is possible to detect emerging infections simply by testing a few wastewater samples versus testing the entire population, she says.
During the project’s one-year period, the team will perform regular wastewater sampling at different sites in the Greater Lowell region, including the UMass Lowell campus and wastewater treatment plants.
Using a laboratory technique called real-time reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction, researchers will analyze the gene expression and measure the amount of viral RNA in the samples. The results will be cross-referenced with data from traditional disease-monitoring methods such as compiled case reports of community infections and related fatalities and hospitalizations.
“This approach will enable us to examine the practicality, cost-efficiency and accuracy of using waste-water-based epidemiology for COVID-19 surveillance at different population levels,” Pagsuyoin says.
Other members of the team include Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Prof. Dhimiter Bello, Biology Asst. Prof. Frederic Chain, School of Criminology and Justice Studies Prof. Andrew J. Harris, Public Health Prof. Dan Berlowitz, Biomedical Engineering Senior Biostatistician Rebecca Gore and Jack Lepine of the UML Next Generation Sequencing and Genomics Lab.
Improving Occupational Health and Safety
Punnett and her team conducted a pilot study of research protocols for remote coaching and facilitation of employee teams to improve workforce health and safety.
CPH-NEW, one of six national Centers of Excellence in Total Worker Health, is a recognized leader in conducting workplace participatory action research with real-world applications. It is funded primarily by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The pandemic is impacting CPH-NEW’s ability to conduct in-person research, so an extension to a virtual format will benefit its current and future research studies. In addition, workforce health and safety is closely intertwined with the pandemic, so gathering perceptions and concerns will benefit the teams’ ability to manage discussions on those topics.
“As the pandemic has shown, there is a need for reliable, fact-based information addressing workers’ questions and concerns about remaining at work without jeopardizing their health,” says Punnett.
She says identifying employee concerns in a constructive, actionable form is a key feature of the Healthy Workplace Participatory Program, the center’s signature approach to improving occupational health, safety and well-being.
“We will also generate valuable data from employees of educational institutions, from K–12 and higher education, which serve as a critical link in the chain of resuming ‘new normal’ activities,” explains Punnett. “Education has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the pandemic. The educators’ ability to remain healthy on the job is crucial for school functioning and for parents’ work productivity.”
She adds: “Selecting or creating suitable educational materials about COVID-19 issues in the workplace will strengthen our ability to respond to participants’ needs respectfully and accurately.”
The team includes Suzanne Nobrega, CPH-NEW’s associate director and outreach director; Serena Rice, research site liaison for CPH-NEW; Asst. Prof. Karoline Evans of the Manning School of Business and Asst. Prof. Jack Schneider of the College of Education.
Evaluating Students’ Virtual Lab Experience
Hsu and Bowden are examining how undergraduate engineering students’ limitations in digital access and digital competence—as well as self-directed learning characteristics such as self-control, initiative and motivation—affect the students’ learning outcomes, satisfaction, confidence and intent to persist in engineering programs during the pandemic.
Traditionally, students learn how to build and test physical circuits using laboratory benches outfitted with standard test equipment. However, since the pandemic began, lab projects and exercises are now required to be conducted virtually and remotely, and students make use of a handheld meter and a low-cost, portable USB device, called Digilent Analog Discovery, to do the lab work.
“COVID-19 has altered the way we perform laboratory experiments,” says Bowden. “Students nowadays need to have access to high-speed internet service, which we are finding to be an issue in some cases. This study is evaluating how digital access is affecting student performance and their overall experience.”
According to Hsu, there are concerns that learning in a virtual laboratory environment could be disadvantageous to some students who have limited digital access—that is, those with poor internet connection, limited number of digital devices at home or insufficient time or space to use the digital devices. He is also concerned with students who have poor digital competence in using information and communications technology, or lack the ability to monitor or plan their studying and learning.
“Our research will try to provide empirical data on these issues and yield important insights about how university leaders and instructors can better support student learning in virtual laboratories,” says Hsu.
At the beginning of the fall semester, the researchers sent out a survey to 361 undergraduate students in four electrical engineering lab courses that Bowden is teaching virtually.
“Results based on 217 participants showed that approximately 11% of students expressed they did not have either a suitable place or a good enough internet or Wi-Fi connection at home to do schoolwork,” notes Hsu. “Around 82% of students agreed, or strongly agreed, they can collaborate with classmates using online software, which was one indicator of digital competency.”
Hsu says the results also suggested that students’ digital limitations were not necessarily correlated to their digital competency.
“We will follow-up with participants at the end of the semester to explore the role of students’ digital limits and competency in their learning outcomes,” he says.
The shift to remote learning in the spring in the wake of COVID-19 was not planned, but the experience may be instructive for future online learning endeavors, Bowden says.
“Virtual laboratories became more prevalent during the pandemic,” he says. “Lessons learned from such virtual settings will help shape the future offerings of these and other lab courses.”