From Wastewater to Police Trust to Hate Speech, Wide Range of Projects Win Seed Grants

Civil and Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin with graduate student Jiayue Luo in the lab in January.
Civil and Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin with graduate student Jiayue Luo in the lab in January.

By David Perry

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cripple social interaction, upend education, endanger health and disrupt business, the university’s researchers are exploring the ever-widening aspects of the virus’ presence. 

In the latest round of seed grant funding, seven faculty-led research projects that explore the social, medical and academic factors tied to COVID-19 were awarded more than $70,000 from the university’s Office of Research and Innovation. 

The projects involve researchers from a wide range of disciplines and explore everything from the possibility of using X-rays to detect the novel coronavirus to the pandemic’s impact on how engineering students perform in lab classes. 

"It’s clear from this latest round of grants that UML’s researchers are finding COVID-19’s influences in areas we didn't predict when the pandemic started,” says Anne Maglia, associate vice chancellor for research. "That’s why fundamental research at public research universities like UML is so vital to our society."

This marks the university’s third round of seed grants to support COVID-19 research since the pandemic started. Here’s an overview of the projects:

Parsing Social Media to Understand COVID-19’s Impact

A team of researchers from nursing and computer science won a $10,000 grant to examine the experiences of nurses on the front lines of the pandemic by analyzing their posts in Facebook groups created by health-care professionals. The researchers will examine posts and comments made from April through August, focusing on the major topics of concern, such as lack of personal protective equipment, fears about contracting the virus, family difficulties and anxiety about jobs. The researchers will look at how those concerns change as the pandemic has evolved.

The research will help document the pandemic from nurses’ perspectives and could help inform future policy discussions related to nursing.

The team is led by Assoc. Prof. of Nursing Ainat Koren and includes Prof. of Nursing Lisa Abdallah and Prof. Benyuan Liu and Asst. Prof. Mohammad Arif Ul Alam, both of the Computer Science Department. 

A team led by Asst. Prof. Claire Lee of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies will attempt to map anti-Asian American cyberhate since December 2019, when COVID-19 was identified as originating in Wuhan, China. 

Using a series of filters, posts and data from Twitter and Reddit, Lee and her team members will identify online hate speech patterns, map and analyze data and determine if it has increased or intensified as a result of the virus. 

The team, which won a $8,009 grant, includes Haewoon Kwak and Jisun An, senior scientists at Qatar Computing Research Institute at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and Yong-Yeol Ahn, associate professor at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Decoding Attitudes about Government and Improving Research Methods 

A trio of assistant professors won a $10,000 grant to measure public trust in police and governmental authority across the world during the pandemic.

The project, which comes in the wake of the social unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, will include a global survey of 500 people to measure and evaluate public perception of authority during the pandemic. The research will examine how prior experience with the police and the government affects perception of those entities. It will also look at whether fear of COVID-19 correlates with trust in government and police.

Led by principal investigator Asst. Prof. Amber Horning Ruf, the team includes Asst. Prof. Joselyne Chenane Nkogo (both of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies), and Asst. Prof. of Philosophy Nicholas Evans. 

Workplace health is the focus of a research project led by Prof. of Biomedical Engineering Laura Punnett and the Center for Promotion of Health on the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW). Punnett and her team will use $10,000 in grant money for a pilot study of research protocols for remote coaching and facilitation on projects that address workplace safety. 

The pandemic is impacting CPH-NEW’s ability to conduct in-person research, so extension to a virtual format will benefit its current and future research.

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.

Education Asst. Prof. Hsien-Yuan Hsu will use his seed grant, totaling nearly $10,000, to examine how undergraduate engineering students’ limitations in digital access and digital competence, as well as self-directed learning characteristics, affect the students’ learning outcomes, satisfaction, confidence and intent to persist in engineering programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collaborating with Hsu on the project is Dohn Bowden, assistant systems lab manager in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who is virtually teaching four undergraduate ECE lab courses that will be used in the study.

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. According to Hsu, there are concerns that learning in a virtual laboratory environment could be disadvantageous to some students who have limited digital access. 

Finding New Ways to Detect the Virus

Can X-ray imaging detect the coronavirus? A $9,000 seed grant was awarded to Chemistry Asst. Prof. Manos Gkikas, who is part of a consortium that aims to develop advanced X-ray imaging techniques to detect COVID-19. The consortium includes researchers from UMass Lowell, UMass Medical School, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MARS Bioimaging Ltd., based in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The team will develop a nanoparticle X-ray contrast agent that is detectable in CT scanners used in medical facilities. This contrast agent, which accumulates in the lungs, could significantly enhance the signal for early lung injury or COVID detection. It could also be used to track the progress of lung inflammation — from mild symptoms to severe illness — through a high-resolution, multicolor imaging method, called photon-counting spectral CT, and machine learning.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin is leading a team that received $15,000 to use 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 resurgence in the upcoming fall and winter.

The team will apply 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 than other techniques and can detect the virus as early as one week prior to emergence of confirmed cases, at a fraction of the cost.”

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.