Researchers adapt in face of pandemic

Posted on August 03, 2020

Researchers in mask
Researchers in mask
Lauren Bailes (left), doctoral student and research assistant, works with Dr. Esther Leerkes (right) on the iGrow research project. The research team resumed data collection when North Carolina transitioned to Phase 2: Safer at Home and has implemented new practices and procedures to keep researchers and participants safe.

The shift to online in March didn’t just affect classroom instruction or student activities. Faculty research – much of which involves community partners, human subjects, labwork, focus groups, and interviews – also shifted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some researchers were able to continue their work online, while others had to press pause on their projects. 

With North Carolina now in Phase 2: Safer at Home, some research projects have been able to slowly and safely resume data collection – complete with masks, social distance, and a variety of other safety procedures. But for many faculty, research has become a primarily online, remote practice, requiring more creativity and flexibility than ever before. 

How have researchers altered methodologies and processes? Will COVID-19 have a long-term impact on research at UNC Greensboro? Faculty from across campus share their experiences and perspectives below. 

Head shot of Ayesha Boyce

Dr. Ayesha Boyce
Assistant professor
Department of Educational Research Methodology

I am a program evaluation teacher, scholar, and practitioner. My research focuses on attending to value stances and issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, access, cultural responsiveness, and social justice within program evaluation – especially multi-site, STEM, and contexts with historically marginalized populations. I also examine teaching, mentoring, and learning in evaluation. I have evaluated over 45 programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Department of Education, National Institutes of Health, and Spencer and Teagle foundations.

I used to travel to conduct interviews, observations, and focus groups in person. I now collect all data virtually, including surveys. Collaboration has been challenging because people are starting to have Zoom fatigue; it is difficult to sit in virtual meetings for eight hours. I currently evaluate the NSF-funded Engineered nanoBIO Node project. They are developing an online tool to simulate the replication dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus/COVID19) in a layer of epithelium.

The pandemic has impacted every area of personal and professional life. My sense is that there will be no in-person observations of classrooms, nor will we conduct in-person town halls or focus groups for a long time. In the past two years, I had begun to utilize the photovoice methodology. I will continue to use this methodology because it has empowered research study participants to share their experiences and tell their own stories through photos they take.

Portrait of Sally Koerner in field

Dr. Sally Koerner
Assistant professor
Department of Biology
Plant and Pollinator Center

I’m a community and ecosystem ecologist, and the Koerner Lab aims to understand how biodiversity can contribute to long-term stability and sustainability of working agroecosystems. My students and I work primarily in herbaceous dominated ecosystems such as the longleaf pine savannas of North Carolina and the African savannas of Southern Africa as well as tall, mixed, and shortgrass prairies of the mid-western U.S. where herbivores play a dominant role in structuring the plant community. Our lab investigates the role of biodiversity in ecosystem function with the most recent work aiming to elucidate the consequences of network connections and trophic linkages.

Our research has really changed in structure and is reduced this spring and summer. However, since the majority of our work happens outside, we have been able to get permission to continue with our field data. This means that one graduate student and a technician are working down at the Sandhills Gamelands, and there are actually two students who are out in Montana collecting data on some grassland plots we have out there for a USDA-funded grant looking at the effects of multi-year drought on the sustainability of working rangelands. Otherwise, work is pretty much all gone on to computers! We’ve started some really exciting meta-analyses this summer, which were never part of the plan. But it’s been a good way to keep the graduate students on track, and to teach the undergraduate researchers in the lab some new skills (literature reviews, meta-analysis techniques, and coding).

Head shot of Nir Kshetri

Dr. Nir Kshetri
Department of Management

My current research looks at how radical innovations and technologies are bringing about a fundamental shift in the global economy. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the Fourth Revolution (4R), and my focus is mainly on the effects of these technologies on disadvantaged groups.

Since the onset of the pandemic there has been a higher level of interest in research in the topic of pandemics. I was invited to write an editorial for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) flagship publication, IEEE Computer. My editorial “COVID-19 Meets Big Tech” will appear in the August 2020 issue. I was also invited to contribute an article related to the side effects of COVID-19, such as increased cyberattacks on U.S. universities. The article “Ransomware criminals are targeting US universities” was published in July in The Conversation and many other media outlets. 

Looking to the future, I think the pandemic will change the focus of my research to emphasize more of the potential effects of pandemics on businesses and societies. I am also collaborating with international agencies such as the United Nations in a number of projects related to COVID-19, especially potential uses of 4R technologies in health care for the world’s poorest people. I am also incorporating COVID-19 in my upcoming book projects. 

Doctoral student Lauren Bailes in PPE
Doctoral student and research assistant Lauren Bailes

iGrow Research Team
Led by Dr. Esther Leerkes, Dr. Cheryl Buehler, Dr. Susan Calkins, Dr. Lenka Shriver, and Dr. Laurie Wideman Gold
School of Health and Human Sciences
Office of Research and Engagement

iGrow (infant growth and development study) is an NIH-funded study in which we are following 300 women from the third trimester until their infants are 2 years old in an effort to identify prenatal and early life predictors of risk for childhood obesity. 

When the pandemic struck, we had 175 women enrolled in the study. Based on CDC recommendations and state mandates to stay at home, we stopped all activities that required in-person contact, which included recruiting new pregnant women into the study and conducting in-person assessments with mothers and infants. During this time, we made several changes to collect as much information as possible online. 

We also worked diligently to modify our procedures to be ready to resume data collection when NC moved to Phase 2: Safer at Home. To do so, we modeled our visits after well-child visits in pediatric offices. For example, we screen mothers and infants for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure at the time of scheduling, the day before a visit, and in the parking lot upon arrival to campus. We require that mothers wear masks and to wash hands upon arrival. Our staff are fully clothed in PPE. After vetting our plan with pediatricians and an internal review committee, we resumed visits in mid-July. We have 150 delayed visits; and our goal is to catch up in six to eight weeks. At that point, we hope we can begin to enroll additional participants in the study to achieve our goal of 300.  

COVID-19 has drastically delayed the progress of this study and our resources are wearing thin given the added expense of PPE, cleaning supplies, etc. It has also provided unique opportunities to examine how COVID-19 may be related to prenatal stress and subsequent outcomes for mothers and infants, which will likely lead to future research opportunities for our team.

For more information about the study, click here

Head shot of Tim Sowicz

Dr. Timothy Joseph Sowicz
Assistant professor
School of Nursing

My research focuses on identifying experiences and aspects of people’s lives who are living with opioid use disorder (OUD) that are amenable to interventions by nurses; it is also concerned with understanding nurses’ roles and practices with persons with OUD. 

Currently I am collecting data for two studies. The first is a dimensional analysis (a methodology for developing a situation-specific theory) about living through one or more opioid overdose reversals. The second is a qualitative descriptive study about pain management nurses’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with ethnic and racial minorities and older people.

The pandemic has affected my dimensional analysis study. Data collection was to include field work and in-person interviews. Given the pandemic I have transitioned to conducting telephone interviews. While this is an accepted practice for collecting qualitative data, not being present with participants physically does not allow me to observe nonverbal communication patterns and participants’ behaviors, their appearances, mannerisms, etc. Typically, following an interview I write memos in which I reflect on the interviews, including my feelings and impressions about it. I also like to include details about the interaction between me and  participants. This can be challenging when I am not able to draw on face-to-face communication with participants. 

Overall, I do not think that the pandemic will impact my program of research in the long term. Researchers often have to get creative, especially when designing plans for data collection.

Head shot of Dom Amendum

Dominick Amendum
Program Coordinator and Smart-Tillman Artist in Residence
Musical Theatre Program

My research involves professional work in the theatre outside of our UNCG community and classrooms. This past year I’ve been working to bring “The Prince of Egypt” to life onstage in London on the West End. After a 7-year development process, the show finally rehearsed and premiered in London at the Dominion Theatre. I provided arrangements and musical supervision for the show.

Like literally every other show in London, New York City, and beyond, “The Prince of Egypt” was forced to close as the pandemic spread around Europe and the world. Sadly, our show had only just opened, and was only able to run a few weeks before the mandated closings in London. This was particularly painful as the show was just beginning to find its legs and a wide audience (selling out a theatre seating over 2,000 people nightly!) and was beginning to look like it could enjoy a healthy run. Luckily, we have an intrepid group of producers who are committed to re-opening the show once it is safe to do so, and have already released a new block of tickets for (optimistically) November and beyond that are on sale now.

While I hope for, and look forward to, a return to “normal,” I think the theatre industry is going to be among the slowest sectors to return. People are just not going to feel comfortable or safe sitting in close proximity to hundreds of strangers in an indoor space for a long time, and it is unreasonable to do professional theatre in masks and with social distance onstage. Can you imagine “The Phantom of the Opera” where the Phantom has to stay six feet away from Christine (12 feet if they’re singing!)? I take heart knowing that performance, storytelling, and diversion have survived many industry changing events of the past, and I believe that people yearn for entertainment and the comfort and happiness that comes through human connection from shared theatrical experiences. So I am confident that theatre will return. But when it does, it will be with trepidation at first. Additionally, so many friends and colleagues have made the decision to relocate from NYC and other theatrical centers during this time. So when shows return, I suspect there will be a need for some personnel changes as many may have settled into new jobs, homes, etc. In the meantime, it is a great time to focus on training and different methods of storytelling, which is precisely what we are focusing on with our students in the Musical Theatre Program at UNCG!

Head shot of Nadja Cech

Dr. Nadja Cech
Patricia A. Sullivan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Our research group is seeking new ways to treat diseases caused by viruses and bacteria. 

Our group has worked on infectious diseases, including viruses, for many years, but we never worked with coronaviruses. Since the pandemic, we have initiated a collaboration with Dr. Steve Polyak, a virologist at the University of Washington, that seeks to identify molecules from plants that may be useful for curing COVID-19 infections. We submitted a grant over the summer to fund this work and are crossing our fingers that it gets supported. 

Our biggest challenge at the moment is keeping our momentum going with reduced time in the research laboratories and reduced time together as a research group. During the shutdown, we stayed connected through regular video conferencing calls as a research group, and spent a lot of time writing up papers and talking about existing data. It’s been so helpful to be back in the research laboratory again after several months of remote working and we are really grateful to the UNCG administration that worked so hard with faculty to come up with safe procedures for the continuation of lab work. We have only a few people in the lab at a time, and they wear masks at all times, but it’s much better than it was. It’s hard to run lab experiments over Zoom!

Compiled by Alyssa Bedrosian, Chloe Blythe, Matt Bryant, and Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
iGrow photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications


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