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The New Beginnings sculpture at UC Merced.

UC Merced virtual Research Week focuses on COVID-19 research

UC Merced’s virtual Research Week, March 1 through 5, was held via Zoom due to the pandemic. One of the organizations presenting research during the event was the Health Sciences Research Institute (HSRI), an organized research unit at UC Merced.

Trevor Hirst, executive director of HSRI, informed the Times, “HSRI couldn’t include all of the research on COVID that’s been done, but we did have presentations on six research projects by behavioral scientists, natural scientists, and computational scientists.”

Suzanne Sindi, UC Merced associate professor of Applied Mathematics, was one of three presenters on a team that included two faculty members and a graduate student.

Sindi told the Times, “Our kick-off presentation was on mathematical models of COVID-19 which showed how the disease would spread through a community like UC Merced.

“The model calculates how many people could be infected or susceptible, how many were actually infected, and how many recovered.

“The model makes a prediction about how the infection would spread through the campus.  We were trying to predict what would happen if we had all our classes and we didn’t change anything and no one wore masks, how the infection would have spread, and then we were able to use our model to focus on in-person course sizes and student housing so we looked at different schedules to predict which would be the best at reducing the number of cases.

“What is really smart is our campus was very data driven and looked at the modeling work and they saw how even if you control things in a classroom, but if students have parties, lots of people would still get sick.

“But that was the modeling work we did for the campus last summer to advise the campus what to do for Fall 2020, and then we continued to do work to advise them for Spring 2021.

“Things started to get very bad with the pandemic so we were looking at classes of only 20, and then things got much worse so what we ended up calculating was how many students it was safe to have in on-campus dorms, and we were calculating how many people would trigger a bigger outbreak.

“There are normally students on campus at any particular time, and for the Spring when more dorm buildings were going to be available, we figured out how many people would be in single units, double units, and how many would share a bathroom, and we tried to figure out how many people could you have live there safely.”

Describing HSRI’s involvement in Research Week, Hirst told the Times, “HSRI has a designation across the whole University of California system and is approved by the Academic Senate of the University to focus trans-disciplinary research across every possible discipline in the university.

“HSRI is in its tenth year, and this was our ninth annual Research Week.

“We’ve always done Research Week on a theme, and this year it was COVID. It is the most accessible topic lately, and I felt more people would be curious to learn about COVID-19 because it has been in the forefront of our minds for the past year.”

Notwithstanding the online format, Research Week attendance has increased over previous years.

Hirst said, “We had 85 people register, and at any one time there were 50 to 55 people in the Zoom meeting, which was a really great turnout. With it being virtual, there are no limits for how many people can be there at once, and it has been nice to reach more people.”

What other work is HRSI doing?

Hirst explained, “We kind of scratched the surface of the research going on with respect to COVID on campus.

“We’re working on a new funding proposal that will look at how people that have had COVID are experiencing ongoing symptoms, post the acute phase of the disease. That’s a brand new mechanism that the National Institute of Health (“NIH”) announced about two weeks ago.

‘Dr. Fauci is the leader of one of the institutes of NIH. His institute is the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. NIH has funding mechanisms, and the R series of grants all support research and the different institutes will subscribe to those mechanisms, and with COVID, NIH comes out with these high investment risk novel studies that may not yield anything but if it does, the impact will be enormous.”

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