UMBC researchers offer knowledge, innovation during the time of COVID-19

At a time when information and misinformation are coming at us from all directions, and everyone is looking for answers, UMBC researchers are stepping up. They’re working hard to answer pressing questions about COVID-19 and sharing their expertise to help the public stay healthy and make informed decisions. By taking time to share their knowledge with local, national, and global communities, UMBC researchers are fulfilling our critical mission as a public university.

Lucy Wilson, professor of emergency health systems and an infectious disease expert, has been speaking regularly with leading national news outlets. She’s offered sobering analysis of what to expect in the days and weeks ahead, as well as practical advice to help people limit coronavirus exposure, like removing rings and switching to glasses from contacts.

As the number of cases in Washington, D.C., began to surge in mid-March, Wilson offered a reminder about the impact of social distancing. “Whatever numbers [of COVID-19 cases] we are seeing today reflect the transmission that was occurring one to two weeks ago,” Wilson told The Washington Post.  “We shouldn’t be surprised by numbers continuing to increase, and we also shouldn’t discredit the effect of social distancing until we’ve given it time to take effect.” 

Wilson has also talked about the importance of protecting the nation’s healthcare workers in The New York Times and the need to ramp up testing, also in the Post.

Dispelling rumors, sharing truths

Other faculty members are writing their own articles to help the public better understand issues in the news. Jeffrey Gardner, associate professor of biological sciences, explained “Why vodka won’t protect you from coronavirus, and four other things to know about hand sanitizer” in The Conversation. The article has been viewed more than 275,000 times across 44 different publishers. Almost overnight it has become the third most popular UMBC-authored article of all time in The Conversation.

Katherine Seley-Radtke, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, addressed whether the drug chloroquine is safe to use against COVID-19 in “5 questions answered about a promising, problematic and unproven use for an antimalarial drug.” The article, which calls on her seven years of research on coronaviruses and her career as a medicinal chemist, has been viewed more than 233,000 times across 49 publishers. It is UMBC’s all-time fifth-most-read Conversation article. 

Katherine Seley-Radtke. Photo courtesy of Seley-Radtke.

Both Radtke’s and Gardner’s articles give readers useful and accessible information they can apply today.

Other UMBC experts are helping the public understand COVID-19’s effects on our communities, and how people can better support each other. John Fritz, associate vice president for instructional technology, has contributed to the conversation around the rapid transition from in-person to online learning. In the Baltimore Sun, he called the shift “a big step for a university like ours,” requiring flexibility and creativity. He also noted the importance of focusing on the needs of students who might not yet have access to the tools they need for distance learning.

Charissa Cheah, professor of psychology, is leading a new NSF-funded research project addressing how Chinese-American communities are experiencing discrimination related to COVID-19, and how they are coping. “The negative impact of infectious diseases on psychological health is understudied but highly significant,” Cheah says. Shimei Pan, assistant professor of information systems, will lead the study’s analysis of outbreak-related social media.

Charissa Cheah. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

Alumni focused on vaccine development, testing

UMBC alumni have taken lead roles in the record-paced development of a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D. ’08, M16, biological sciences, has led a team working on the vaccine at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She and her teammates, including Olubukola Abiona ‘17, M25, biochemistry and molecular biology, received the genetic sequence of the virus early this year and developed a potential vaccine within two months. 

They’ve since passed their findings to Darian Cash ’02, M10, chemistry, at the biotech company Moderna. Moderna is already administering phase I clinical trials with volunteers in Washington state.  

On top of her research, Corbett has also been actively discussing her work with the media, including The New York Times, NPR, and Bloomberg News

Kizzmekia Corbett (center front) with her NIAID research team. Photo courtesy Kizzmekia Corbett.

Corbett, Abiona, and Cash thank the Meyerhoff Scholars program for helping them get to where they are as researchers, and to handle the intense pressures of the moment.The Meyerhoff program not only showed me the Ph.D. pathway, but also provided mentorship and guidance to make it achievable,” Cash says. “Now, I use the skills the program taught me, such as public speaking and critical thinking, in my role as a scientist at Moderna.”

Corbett and Abiona draw on UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski’s consistent exhortation to “Focus, focus, focus,” Corbett says. “The UMBC connection and the training we received there, for both of us, has been instrumental in how we are operating right now,” she adds.

By bringing their expertise to bear in solving the COVID-19 crisis, these researchers are helping the United States and the world move through this uncharted territory.

Banner image: Chemical reactions sketched on a fume hood in Katherine Seley-Radtke’s laboratory. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.