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Crisis Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic Research

Research

Professor and I.D. Wilson Chair Harald Sontheimer of the School of Neuroscience and Associate Professor Carla Finkielstein of Biological Sciences and the Fralin Life Sciences Institute all but halted their regular research to focus on developing COVID-19 testing centers for medical clinics throughout Southwest Virginia (see story Page 6).

In the Department of Physics, Professor Uwe Täuber's research group in the Center for Soft Matter and Biological Physics performed numerical simulations that model the epidemic when contact and mobility constraints are implemented.

“This modeling reveals that the intensity and spatial spread of the epidemic recurrence wave can be limited to a manageable extent, provided social distancing measures are maintained for a sufficiently long duration — for the COVID-19 epidemic, for about two months beyond the time it would have taken for the unmitigated outbreak to reach its peak,” Täuber said, “and long-distance connections in the population such as travel are maintained on a low level — limited to less than 5 percent of the overall connectivity.”

The research was under peer review as of press time. Täuber also teamed with Assistant Professor Lauren Childs of the Department of Mathematics to run simulations for Virginia Tech’s Infectious Disease (COVID-19) Modeling Group to assess the risk of disease spreading.

Täuber said the group was looking at community testing, tracking, and isolation protocols to contain any outbreaks. “These studies are expected to be continued well beyond the current pandemic crisis, and will hopefully help to improve our preparation for any future pandemics,” he said.

Childs, also on faculty with the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program in the Academy of Integrated Science, had numerous other studies related to the pandemic and modeling (see story Page 11).

In the Department of Statistics, Associate Professor Jennifer Van Mullekom of the Statistical Applications and Innovations Group began research into whether COVID-19 affects people who are obese or diabetic at higher rates. And in the Department of Chemistry, University Distinguished Professor Daniel Crawford is part of a national effort through his Molecular Sciences Software Institute to build an open-source website hub for biomolecular researchers around the world to share drug-testing simulations and other vital data.

Researchers and faculty in the Department of Psychology have several research projects looking at the pandemic’s impact on mental health and education. Assistant Professor Rosanna Breaux has three projects underway, working with colleagues at Virginia Tech and also other institutions.

Breaux and Charles Calderwood, an assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology in the Department of Psychology, are looking at the pandemic’s disruption on home life as stay-at-home orders had working parents doing their jobs remotely, and having to balance care and education of their children, especially youth with mental health and/or education difficulties.

With University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Thomas Ollendick, Breaux will revisit families who previously completed a comprehensive child assessment through the Virginia Tech Child Study Center, assessing risk and protective factors for coping during the COVID-19 crisis.

Lastly, Breaux is leading a multi-university project that will focus on the resilience and challenges faced by youth with ADHD or other neurodevelopmental risks, and their families during the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic and the return to classes, in a dual format of online and in-person this fall, Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science, said she has never been more proud of the faculty and students of the College of Science. “Scientists solve problems, and COVID-19 represents one of the most extensive challenges to our nation ever,” she said. “Virginia Tech scientists stepped to the forefront and took action.”