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Crisis Response

The College of Science responded to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic with action, research, hard work, and data collection. Here’s the story.

When COVID-19 shook the world at the start of 2020, killing more than 800,000 people worldwide (as of this printing) and shuttering economies, the Virginia Tech College of Science took action. From providing new testing procedures to discussing economic repercussions to moving classes and labs from in-person to online to helping track data of the virus’ spread, Virginia Tech scientists — faculty, staff, students, and alumni — contributed. They moved — quickly, and without hesitation — to solve problems, help those affected, and correct misinformation with data-based facts.

The following pages will tell many of these stories — from across every department and program within the College of Science. Some we will cover in brief here, others we will explore more thoroughly in the next few pages.

Online Innovation

On March 11 when Virginia Tech President Tim Sands announced that spring break would be extended by one week and all classes and labs would move online, faculty and instructors recreated their classes and learned how to lecture via Zoom in innovative ways. Assistant Professor Michelle Stocker’s Morphology of the Vertebrates class in the Department of Geosciences was among hundreds of classes that needed to be rethought.

Before the pandemic hit, the hands-on class consisted of under-graduate students examining pieces of skeletons from dogs, reptiles, crocodiles, birds, and more. Students used handouts with figures, a list of appropriate terms, and definitions for specific features and morphological processes seen in the displayed bones. “Some [students] can learn by looking at the specimens intensely,” Stocker said. “A lot of students have notebooks in which they draw the different skull elements or specific anatomical views.”

When in-person classes were called off, Stocker grabbed skeleton specimens she thought most useful. She networked with a colleague at the University of Florida to tap into an online database of CT scans of scores of vertebrates, as well as Duke University’s MorphoSource, which has published roughly 27,000  3D models of biological specimens. She also did some good old-fashioned show-and-tell, by holding up bones, articulated and disarticulated, to her laptop camera so students could see the specimen — from her computer to theirs.

Stocker, inside her home,  holds skull up to camera
A screen capture of Michelle Stocker, at home

“We want to take care of the students and make sure they’re learning what you want them to learn, but also in times like this we want to make sure they have some sense of normalcy,” Stocker said in March. Courses were not the only thing to move online. In the Department of Mathematics, Assistant Professor Eileen Martin and a team of undergraduate students and recent alumni worked quickly to move the 2nd annual Women in Data Science (WiDS) Blacksburg at Virginia Tech Conference to an online format.

Among the students who helped reconfigure the April 2 event for a Zoom world was Iulia Voina, a junior double-majoring in statistics and mathematics. “Eileen was very quick to act. As soon as the university announced that all large events must be cancelled, she emailed everyone on the committee so we could have a meeting on it,” Voina said in April. “We discussed the changes we would have to make to turn this into an online event. After we had decided which parts we could keep, we contacted our planned speakers and notified them of the changes.”

"Scientists solve problems, and COVID-19 represents one of the most extensive challenges to our nation ever." 

Sally C. Morton

Added Martin, “The talks were fantastic, each very different. Of course, there’s always that difficult aspect of giving a talk online where it feels like talking to an empty room, but as soon as the [question and answer] portions started, you could tell the audience was really interested and that the speakers enjoyed interacting with the audience.”

Other events moved online as well, including a revamped DataFest, Hokie Focus, summer orientation, and of course, graduation.

Screen shot of zoom meeting for data fest with everyone smiling in 4 by 4 video grid.
A screen grab image of participants in the spring's revamped DataFest, which moved online with the leadership of College of Science alumni at Washington, D.C-based Socially Determined.

Seminars via Zoom

Online seminars also quickly became popular, and in many cases, necessary with students, alumni, faculty, and the public. In early April, Alumni Distinguished Professor Scott Geller of the Depart-ment of Psychology and Professor and Department Head Sudipta Sarangi of Economics joined other experts to participate in a Virginia Tech-sponsored panel that touched on the novel coronavirus’ impact on psychological health and the economy, among other topics.

Geller told viewers that stress involves factors that one can control, but distress is the perception of an utter lack of control. By shifting that mindset to actively caring for others, distress can be replaced by a focus on finding success and win/win solutions. “The message today is, we are all in this together,” he said. On social distancing, limiting shopping trips, and temporarily shuttering inside-service at restaurants, hair salons, and cinemas, Sarangi said the price of economic hardships is worthwhile against the economic crash that would have occurred had the pandemic overrun the U.S. health-care system. “We are only as good as the weakest link,” Sarangi said.

The next week, Sarangi led another panel, comprised of Economics faculty members Matthew Kovach (as moderator), Melinda Miller, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, and Kwok Ping Tsang. Topics included economic and labor force impacts from past pandemics such as the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed at least 50 million people worldwide, the effects of the current pandemic on the world economy, and the impact of stay-at-home orders on economic behaviors. The seminar had more than 200 participants watching.

man wears masks and stands in front of green tree
Sudipta Sarangi at home.

Expertise in the Media

Professor Salehi-Isfahani was among many College of Science experts to be interviewed by radio and television or write columns for newspapers and magazines. He is well known for his research on economic development issues, especially in the Middle East, and the world oil market. Speaking on the double blow of new U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus to Iran’s economy, Salehi-Isfahani told NPR in March, “Iran was totally unprepared for the return of sanctions. The government was unable to predict Trump's behavior, a bit like the reaction to the coronavirus.” Salehi-Isfahani also spoke to The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and Foreign Affairs.

Likewise, Associate Professor Tsang spoke to Reuters news agency about the effect of the pandemic on the U.S. economy’s gross domestic product index. Miller spoke with Newsweek on the toll that unemployment benefits placed on states, and whether or not a state has ever gone bankrupt.

Ron Fricker, a professor of statistics and an expert in statistical methods for use in disease surveillance, became a go-to expert on data modeling of the pandemic as it spread across the United States. He spoke to ABC News, The Verge, Newsweek, and more. (See story on Ron Fricker on Page 9.)

And Dana Hawley, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, was interviewed by BBC News, Popular Science, WTOP Washington, D.C., radio, and others, on the topic of how animals such as birds, fish, monkeys, and even ants naturally practice social separation during a disease outbreak.

“We want to take care of the students and make sure they’re learning what you want them to learn, but also in times like this we want to make sure they have some sense of normalcy.” 

Michelle Stocker


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).

man looks at camera in laboratory wearing goggles, face mask, and lab coat
Harald Sontheimer
Finkielstein wears mask, lab coat, and hair net and looks at camera.
Carla Finkielstien

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.

woman smiles wearing black blazer and green shirt, greenery background is blurred
Rosanna Breaux
man stands in front of porch wearing a black mask
Uwe Tauber

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.”