Research, community support continue despite pandemic

Researchers propel the University of Maine’s state and international impact, even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. While the outbreak of COVID-19 forced students and faculty to stay at home, their work persists. They continue to help improve the fields of health care, manufacturing, climate science, psychology and more from their off-campus locations.

The outbreak has also inspired a call to action across the campus community. Experts from the university and their students are assisting local health care providers using their knowledge, skills and resources.

Kelley Strout, interim director for UMaine’s School of Nursing, has been working with the University of Maine System and other state universities to offer surge response staffing to local health care organizations. They plan to send a survey that will allow any of the 1,600 nursing students and more than 300 faculty and adjunct faculty across the university system to opt-in and become surge response staffers.

As protective wear for health care workers dwindles, UMaine’s Advanced Manufacturing Center aims to help them restock. The center has been working with manufacturers and hospitals to design and produce face shields and face masks, testing face mask material and designing special boxes that can protect a provider from patients during special procedures.

Different university schools and centers have also donated resources to help combat the pandemic. The UMaine School of Nursing provided local health care organizations all of its personal protective equipment. The Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center), lent its 3D printers to the Challenger Learning Center of Maine, Bangor, to print face masks for health professionals.

Some UMaine researchers, like Caitlin Howell, assistant professor of biological engineering, are gathering information to help health care providers during the crisis. Howell shared a list of contemporary research on decontaminating N95 masks with all hospitals in the state, which will help them develop decontamination and reuse protocols. Dan Regan, a Ph.D student of biomedical engineering, and Justin Hardcastle, an incoming graduate student, assisted in the effort. The School of Nursing hopes to form a team that will investigate case study reporting on preserving personal protective equipment, health care workforce management and other pertinent topics in other states and countries.

Medical researchers have even used tools developed by UMaine like the Climate Change Institute’s Climate Reanalyzer to combat the outbreak. A research team wrote in a study titled “Temperature, Humidity and Latitude Analysis to Predict Potential Spread and Seasonality for COVID-19,” that weather modeling could help predict community spread of the coronavirus in coming weeks, and that the restricted latitude, temperature and humidity bounds of the initial disease spread are consistent with the behavior of a seasonal respiratory virus.

Researchers from the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing are using another asset from UMaine for COVID-19 research: the Emera Astronomy Center. The visualization computer cluster in Emera’s Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium will be used to model coronavirus proteins and predict their three-dimensional shapes as part of the Rosetta@home project from the University of Washington. Studying COVID-19 proteins has helped guide the design of novel vaccines and antiviral drugs for the virus.

Students not only still complete classwork during the pandemic, but also engage in activities that showcase their talent. After the seminar in Washington D.C. they planned to attend was canceled, six UMaine trainees from the New Hampshire-Maine Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (NH-ME LEND) program participated in virtual meetings with staffers from the offices Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden.They also presented a policy brief they developed with their program cohorts for protecting medicaid coverage for children with disabilities and special health care needs.

In lieu of presenting their research posters at the UMaine Science Symposium, which was canceled as a result of COVID-19, students taught by Melody Neely, an associate professor of molecular and biomedical sciences, will showcase them to faculty for judging at a virtual symposium hosted through Zoom on April 17.

The coronavirus has not diminished UMaine’s commitment to research and education, or dedication to serving the people of Maine. Support and studies from faculty continues to assist the state and cities, towns and villages in it both during and beyond the outbreak. Kody Varahramyan, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, noted: “We strive to expand the depth and breadth of knowledge and creativity by working with our sister campuses, businesses, and communities,” and UMaine’s persistence toward that goal remains.

More examples of Maine’s public research university’s service to the state during the coronavirus pandemic are online.