Understanding the World During COVID-19
Trinity students’ summer research focuses on COVID-19 and its effects
Monday, August 10, 2020
collage of undergraduate researchers via zoom researching for covid-19

Trinity students don’t just sit on the sidelines–they collaborate with professors in undergraduate research to make groundbreaking discoveries that have real-world applications. And in an ever-changing situation such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, there are plenty of unknown things to discover. This summer, Tigers have undertaken research projects that aim to better understand the novel coronavirus and how it has affected our world.

PHR project logo with student researchers
Studying how COVID-19 has influenced human rights around the globe

Kailey Lopez ’21, Katie Maloan ’22, Rachel Poovathoor ’22, and Bradley Sykes ’22 are studying how COVID-19 has affected human rights around the world. Alongside professors Rosa Aloisi, Robert Huesca, and Roberto Prestigiacomo, the students are examining how various governments have used the pandemic to oppress marginalized populations around the world. Poovathoor explains, “COVID-19, while it is very difficult to navigate, it actually presented us with an opportunity to investigate it further and to examine it and see how it is changing the lives of people who are [a part of] marginalized populations.” Sykes adds, “The end goal is really just to shine a light on some of these issues that are happening in the world and shine a light on and tell the story of the individual - these individuals being oppressed.” 

They have broken the world up into geographic segments to accomplish such a daunting task. Maloan is focusing on human rights violations in Europe, Poovathoor on human rights violations in Asia and the Middle East, and Sykes on human rights violations in the Americas. Lopez has  been documenting the process as the group’s filmmaker. The group plans to compile their findings into both a global report and a performance art piece that offer solutions to the issues they find in their research. You can follow along with their progress on their Youtube channel.

lucy pham performing undergraduate research at her computer
Modeling a protein on the membrane of SARS-CoV-2 

There is currently much unknown about the novel coronavirus, but Lucy Pham ’22 is working to change that through her summer research. She, alongside physics professor Kwan Cheng, is building a virtual model that depicts how SARS-CoV-2 enters human host cells via a spike protein (S2) on the virus’s outer membrane. Her research can hopefully be applied to the development of therapeutics that can treat COVID-19 and prevent future outbreaks.

One of the ways SARS-CoV-2 enters cells is through the host cell’s membrane. In this pathway, a spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 binds to its fitting receptor on the cell membrane. The virus then fuses to the outside of the cell and waits to be taken into the cell. SARS-CoV-2 then hijacks the host cell’s machinery to make copies of itself. Through her research, Pham hopes to understand how the virus fuses to the membrane specifically using computer modeling and visualization tools. “The topic is very fresh and challenging,” Pham says. “I hope to be able to learn more about the new virus SARS-CoV-2 and contribute something to help to find a solution for the pandemic.”

rachel morries and aria gaston panthaki video chatting for research
Studying the effect of COVID-19 on the theater industry

Due to social distancing, theaters around the country have shut down indefinitely. Rachel Morris ’21 and Aria Gaston-Panthaki ’21 originally planned to spend the summer working at a theater in Vermont and studying acting, but their plans changed with the global pandemic. Alongside Trinity professor Nathan Stith, they are now studying how COVID-19 has impacted the theater industry. Morris and Gaston-Panthaki have spent the summer interviewing theater professionals from across the country to learn about the current state of the theater industry and how professionals can use this break to improve industry conditions. Their findings indicate that theater professionals want to make the industry more accessible to people of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds-both for those attending shows and those working in the industry. Morris and Gaston-Panthaki are compiling this information into an academic article that they hope can incite positive change.

They are also looking into how the theater industry may change as it reopens. One promising option is immersive theatre, in which the audience walks through a set and interacts with the actors in a way entirely controlled by stage managers. Morris and Gaston-Panthaki are not sure what exactly the theater industry will look like when it reopens, but they know it will survive. "Theater has survived epidemics, illnesses, different fires, [and] people shutting theaters down. Theater has gone through a lot but it always manages to survive,” Morris explains. “[The pandemic] seemed like an important thing to document, and we had the opportunity to."

josefina hajek-herrera sitting outside performing research
Building a device to help study SARS-CoV-2

Josefina Hajek-Herrera ’22 is spending her summer improving a device, created by chemistry professor Ryan Davis’s research students, that has the potential to help scientists study airborne viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Working alongside Davis and entrepreneurship professor Luis Martinez ’91, Hajek-Herrera is crafting an electrodynamic balance, which is an instrument that can be used to study aerosolized particles. The device was originally intended to help Davis in his environmental and atmospheric research, but once the pandemic hit earlier this year, they realized the device could also be used to study airborne viruses.

Hajek-Herrera’s project is a collaboration between the chemistry and entrepreneurship departments, one of the first of its kind. She has nearly completed the design of her electrodynamic balance and is currently working on patenting it to sell to other universities for scientists to use in their research and doing customer discovery. Hajek-Herrera is working alongside the Stumberg Venture Competition finalists in the Summer Accelerator program,creating a startup based on the electrodynamic balance and learning the ins and outs of building a chemistry company. She credits her entrepreneurial mindset for the decision to adapt this project to help in the COVID-19 fight. “Problems like [COVID-19], this the time for entrepreneurs to start something new and pivot,” Hajek-Herrera explains. ”This is the moment to take advantage and make something to help some people out there." 

Madison Semro '21 helps tell Trinity's story as a writing intern with Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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