A year of COVID-19: Researchers pivot to answer questions raised by the pandemic

When news started circulating early last year about a virus in China that was spreading like wildfire, Associate Professor of Biological Science Jonathan Dennis was in the middle of his normal spring semester activities. 

He was teaching classes and working on several projects in his lab related to the role of chromatin in gene regulation.  

But when the university moved all classes online and regular research operations ramped down, Dennis immediately pivoted.  

Dennis took on the monumental task of helping set up an on-campus lab to test Florida State University students, faculty and staff for COVID-19. He developed a PCR test that wasn’t reliant on test kits. The lab now runs tests from not only FSU, but also Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. 

Separately, he started holding daily Zoom meetings with his students, allowing them to talk about everything from baking bread to cell organization. Through those conversations, he and his students started to examine how SARS-CoV-2 could hijack the gene expression of human host cells.  

“This is a very productive line of research, and we will continue to work on this project for several years,” he said. 

Dennis wasn’t the only one whose work changed quickly because of the pandemic. Across the campus, university researchers found themselves evaluating their projects and wondering how they could contribute their skills and knowledge to this global problem.  

Interim Vice President for Research Laurel Fulkerson said the pandemic did have an adverse impact on many projects, particularly those dependent on travel, field work or human subjects’ research. But many faculty also saw that their skills could be applied to projects related to the pandemic.  

“While these realities presented true professional challenges, they also resulted in opportunities for many faculty members to pivot and kick-start some very interesting research endeavors in a variety of fields,” Fulkerson said. “The pandemic has affected every inch of our society, and our researchers are dedicated to using world-class science to understand what has happened and how we move forward.” 

The Office of Research stepped in to help jumpstart several projects related to the pandemic. The office hosted a Collaborative Collision event in direct response to the pandemic, which brought together researchers to discuss potential projects related to COVID-19. While some researchers focused on the biological mysteries of the virus, others looked at impacts on education, politics, the arts and mental health. The office ultimately provided $400,000 in seed funding to help faculty members who had suddenly found themselves looking at how to adapt their research skills to the reality of the pandemic.  

Vanessa Dennen, a professor in the College of Education, received funding through the Collaborative Collision process. Together with Stacey Rutledge, also a professor at the College of Education, Dennen examines how social media is used in the context of schools. With public schools closing their physical doors last spring, that presented major logistical hurdles for her research endeavors. 

“Not only was it impossible to conduct research in schools, but it also was an inappropriate time to request access to teachers and teenagers through the schools,” Dennen said. “School administrators and teachers needed to focus all of their energy on the shift to remote instruction.” 

But Dennen and Rutledge knew the shift to online learning and staying at home would have some profound effects on teens, much of which had the potential to play out on social media platforms.  

“We saw opportunities for social media to help them navigate life and thrive during the pandemic, through some combination of social connection, entertainment, and informal learning opportunities,” Dennen said. “We also recognized that the perils associated with social media use, such as anxiety, cyberbullying, depression, and addiction, could be amplified with increased reliance on social media. We felt it was important to investigate how teens are using social media across all parts of their life during the pandemic.”  

Dennen and Rutledge are still analyzing the data they collected over the past year.   

Juyeong Choi and Tarek Abichou from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering also were among those pondering how to use their knowledge to add to the growing body of work related to the pandemic.  

Abichou and Choi are part of the Resilience Infrastructure and Disaster Response Center, a multidisciplinary research center at the College of Engineering focused on building resilience in communities facing natural disasters such as hurricanes or, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. Their particular expertise relates to waste management systems and sustainability. 

The duo received $152,000 through the National Science Foundation Rapid grant program, which allows researchers to respond to issues related to their fields in real time. For Abichou and Choi, they saw that the pandemic could have potential effects on waste management practices. With many people shifting from the workplace to home, residential waste increased exponentially.  

“As a research team who has been studying different aspects of municipal solid waste (MSW) management for many years, we wanted to monitor in-real time (almost) how components of the MSW system would respond to the various challenges caused by the pandemic,” Abichou said. “We wanted to collect the adaptive strategies developed by the different solid waste systems in different areas of the countries responding to the pandemic.” 

Fulkerson said the investment both on the federal level and from the university is critical as researchers across the board grapple with the effects of COVID-19 and learn how to prepare for events in the future. Already, university researchers who participated in the Collaborative Collision event have prepared more than 35 papers and more than 40 proposals for federal funding.  

We have all been affected by the pandemic in so many ways,” Fulkerson said. “As a university, we thought it was crucial for us to support our faculty as they moved to investigate the fallout of the pandemic in many different areas. We are so proud of the work that they have done thus far and continue to do.”