Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Photography by: 
Michael Clements and Angilee Wilkerson

ivot. It might be the most ubiquitous word of 2020, if you don't count unprecedented.

Businesses, of course, have had to deviate from their pre-defined paths. So have workers. Plans have done an about-face. Schedules have shifted and strained under professional and parental demands.

Cue researchers to the rescue.

Because UNT faculty, too, have pivoted to face the pandemic head on -- expanding and enriching their research to confront the most imperative issue of our day. They've embarked on interdisciplinary explorations of COVID's consequences in realms ranging from psychology to education to communications to chemistry. They've collected and scoured data, created supercomputer simulations to improve treatment options, collaborated to craft personal protective equipment -- even some that consumers can 3D-print themselves.

You could call their ingenuity, well -- unprecedented.

"As academics, our subject matter expertise is our toolkit," says Sara Champlin, assistant professor of advertising in UNT's Mayborn School of Journalism. "Your work can be made that much stronger and more meaningful by bringing together other people's expertise and passion for a topic -- especially if you're able to pivot quickly and are excited to learn on the fly."

Critical Connections
Sara Champlin
Shobhana Chelliah (at top) and Sara Champlin (above) are collaborating on a project that involves communicating health information to refugees of Myanmar.

Back in March, Champlin was looking for ways to contribute her expertise to the COVID-19 pandemic. At one meeting, there were ideas pitched from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics -- all important subjects, but none that directly applied to her work in the social sciences. And then Shobhana Chelliah, associate dean and professor in UNT's Department of Linguistics, said the magic word: communication.

"I sent her a message," says Champlin, whose expertise is in health communications. "And I was like, 'We don't know each other, but we have overlapping interests.'"

That led to the two collaborating on a project -- along with Kelly Harper Berkson, an assistant professor of linguistics at Indiana University and Ken Van Bik, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of California, Fullerton -- that aims to discover how to effectively communicate information about COVID-19 to refugees of Myanmar, who are members of the Chin language community. The research team, which recently received a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant for the project, is preparing to gather feedback from the minority language community through interviews and narratives, which Chelliah will linguistically analyze. Ultimately, those translations will be given to Champlin's students, who will create visual materials for Chin speakers.

Collaborations like theirs are common at UNT, where faculty innately understand the benefit of drawing upon multiple perspectives -- especially in a situation like a global pandemic. In April, for example, the College of Visual Arts and Design and the College of Engineering paired up to produce transparent face shields in response to an equipment shortage caused by COVID-19.

"We are a Tier One research university," says Vice President for Research and Innovation Mark McLellan, "because we have the expertise, equipment and capability of tackling world-sized problems."

Chelliah couldn't agree more. For example, she hopes that by learning how to best communicate COVID-19 information to the Chin community, the team will deduce how to better support speakers of any underserved language, particularly when it comes to their health.

"Whether you are applying the scientific methods of documentary linguistics or conducting tests in a lab, science matters," she says. "You need science to make a significant impact on things like public health."

A People-First Approach

In the months before the pandemic wound its way across the globe and gained a foothold in the U.S., Christopher Long, assistant professor in UNT's Department of Teacher Education and Administration, and fellow assistant professor Lauren Eutsler were preparing to study virtual reality headsets as part of K-12 science-based learning environments. But when public schools closed their doors following spring break, he was forced to address another question: How could he capture students' attitudes about learning environments if they were no longer physically in the classroom?

"Our entire study that we'd spent the year setting up vaporized in front of us," Long says. "But then it occurred to me that with our undergrads, we could actually look at learning environments before and after students had to start learning from home."

Long sent surveys to roughly 4,000 undergraduates from his department and the Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation, gauging feelings about their learning environments prior to the spring break closure, and after. Of the 230 students who fully participated, many reported that at-home learning left much to be desired -- they cited internet issues and feelings of social disconnectedness as primary areas of concern. Those findings, Long says, can likely be extrapolated to K-12 students.

Trent Petrie
Trent Petrie, a professor in UNT's Department of Psychology, is addressing COVID's effects on student-athletes' mental health.

And in discovering students' misgivings regarding online instruction, educators can look for ways to make the experience better. For example, Long says, a university in Holland employed a Discord server -- typically used for video games -- to set up virtual lab groups for students to work on projects remotely, improving both collaboration and connectivity.

"Getting it right is going to take a lot of trial and error," Long says. "One way forward is for teachers to create cooperative learning environments where students are interacting with each other rather than just teacher-student interactions. We have to make sure we're giving instructors room to try things."

Then there are faculty like Trent Petrie, a professor in UNT's Department of Psychology, who is addressing COVID's effects on the mind from a different perspective. Prior to the pandemic, his plan was to investigate student-athletes' experiences following graduation.

"Then, all of a sudden, collegiate sports shut down," Petrie says. "So we did 'pivot,' to use that term, to address the reality of this unique situation for college athletes."

Petrie began to look at how COVID-19 affects student-athletes' mental health -- everything from body image issues and depression stemming from changes in training to their concerns about returning to in-person practice. That holistic approach is important, Petrie says, because there hasn't been much nationally based research regarding college athletes' mental health and well-being beyond some NCAA studies based on single-item questions.

"One of the things that we wanted to do in this study was to use measures that have been linked to actual clinical diagnosis so we could determine the percentage of athletes who are at risk for more severe psychological distress," Petrie says. "And so that became our driving force -- to collect data on which psychologists who were working with athletes could base their interventions."

Helping Through the Hard Sciences

Interventions have proven equally important in the hard sciences. Researchers' goals largely center on the physical effects of the virus, from devising how to prevent its spread to investigating the efficacy of potential treatment options.

A team from UNT's College of Engineering, for example, used 3D-printing technology to manufacture ventilator splitters that will allow doctors to use a single ventilator to treat two patients. Using biocompatible materials that can be sterilized for medical applications, the team printed 20 splitters along with flow limiter inserts that enable medical providers to adjust air flow for each patient.

And a student research team led by Yijie Jiang, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering, has developed open source codes for a mask and nose plugs that have high virus trapping efficiency and allow for smooth inhalation. The best part? Anyone with a 3D printer at home can make their own.

"Our next phase," Jiang says, "will include researching efficient ways to sanitize the masks and nose plugs with medical disinfectant as a person breathes."

As a researcher, it's fundamental to know how to expand your research program. You have to analyze your results and let them guide you in which way to go next.
Andrés Cisneros

That impulse to use research expertise to explore the possibilities of curbing -- and potentially treating -- COVID-19 is no stranger to Andrés Cisneros, a professor in UNT's Department of Chemistry whose focuses include theoretical and computational chemistry, biochemistry and inorganic chemistry. For years, he's performed computational simulations to better understand the structure of DNA polymerase, the enzymes essential for replicating the entire genome of any living organism before cell division. After he read a study in mid-March that discussed the structure of RNA polymerase in SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that causes COVID-19 -- the proverbial light bulb switched on.

"We already know how polymerases work for DNA, so for RNA, it's not going to be much different," Cisneros says. "I talked with my team and said, 'I don't know about you, but I'm sick and tired of doing nothing for this particular pandemic.'"

The team already was conducting plenty of potentially life-changing research, including looking at cancer-related mutations on DNA polymerases. But they jumped at the opportunity to examine at the atomic level interactions between inhibitors and RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RDRP) and the main protease (MPro) in SARS-CoV-2. The idea, essentially, is this: If a drug can inhibit these enzymes, the virus could stop replicating in cells and would no longer be able to spread in the body.

Cisneros and his team applied for a grant from the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, and just three days later, were awarded 500,000 hours of supercomputer time at national labs and $250,000 in credit to run simulations on Microsoft's Azure. So far, Cisneros says, the results have been "very interesting." Right off the bat, they were able to deem two of the six inhibitors under review as ineffective and have developed a model for the RNA polymerase.

Still, much like the various vaccines that are currently being tested, Cisneros knows it's a numbers game -- granting institutions are providing scientists with access to as many resources as possible to see who comes up with the best ideas. That urgency makes it essential to change course when necessary.

"As a researcher, it's fundamental to know how to expand your research program," he says. "You have to analyze your results and let them guide you in which way to go next."

3D print the face mask and nose plugs created by Jiang’s team. 

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