GW Researchers Explore COVID-19 Impact through Intramural Funding

The COVID-19 Research Fund is helping launch research projects to study COVID-19 across various disciplines. 

January 6, 2021

Professors Gate

By Kristen Mitchell

Among the myriad COVID-19 research and scholarly activities taking place across GW are twelve research teams supported by the university’s COVID-19 Research Fund.

The early-stage research projects examine the various ways COVID-19 has impacted emergency medicine, health care, education and more. Faculty from across the university were awarded funding to pursue projects that have the potential to prevent suffering, inform policy and responses to future outbreaks, and strengthen the resiliency of individuals and communities.

The Office of the Vice President for Research developed and launched the funding program in collaboration with the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“GW’s exceptional faculty produce research and innovation that are driving forces in advancing our society and the world,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs M. Brian Blake. “The projects funded by the COVID-19 Research Fund are impactful due to their timeliness in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, and they will establish our researchers as leaders in future conversations about pandemic response and policy in a variety of fields. These projects are the definition of groundbreaking.”

Here are a few of the funded projects:

An Intersectional Study of Stressors on Black Americans
Michelle Stock, an associate professor of applied social psychology, received a COVID-19 Research Fund award to look at how the mental and physical health of Black young adults in Washington, D.C., are impacted by COVID-19-related stressors, and how the pandemic exacerbates ongoing stress related to heightened discrimination.

“There have been many news articles about the disparities in the toll that COVID-19- and racial-related stress is having on Blacks and African Americans, not just in our country but also in our local community” Dr. Stock said. “However, empirical research is needed to understand the true impact these stressors are having on the health of young adults who are experiencing exacerbated stressors.”

Dr. Stock is interested in how these different forms of stressors interact, and how they might vary by gender identity and on what a person’s role is in their household or community. Her study will identify what factors in the social environment the public health community and local government can support to increase positive coping and healthy outcomes, including COVID-19 protective behaviors, while also decreasing the impact of negative stressors on mental and physical health. Positive coping mechanisms are things that build resilience, such as social, institutional, and community support. Also, prioritizing healthy sleep, diet and exercise habits. Losing sleep is a common response to stress, but it can also make a person more susceptible to COVID-19.

Dr. Stock was working on a large grant proposal involving Black adults and discrimination-based stress when the pandemic took hold in March. 

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we realized this was adding a whole other layer to what we’re interested in, to the multiple forms of stress they were experiencing and how the pandemic was exacerbating racial disparities in our country,” she said. “This needed to be incorporated because this really is important right now in order to inform future interventions.”

The COVID-19 Research Fund will enable Dr. Stock and her research team to reach out to the local community and gather data that will be necessary to eventually expand the scope of this work beyond D.C. in a larger study. 

Wearable Device to Detect COVID-19 Symptoms
Luyao Lu, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science Department of Biomedical Engineering, received funding to develop a wearable device that integrates multiple sensors to detect COVID-19 related symptoms, including coughing, fever and sudden drops in blood oxygen levels.

Dr. Lu, who runs GW’s Advanced Bio-integrated Electronics Lab, envisions a flexible device that could be continuously worn without needing to be removed for hours at a time for charging. This device could be used by healthy people outside a clinical setting and could monitor three important vital signs for early COVID-19 detection, Dr. Lu said.

“We want to develop a tool that can help people’s ability to detect those symptoms in time, before it's too late,” he said. “We want to pick up those signals as early as possible. Because the device is wearable and wirelessly operated, we can do continuous monitoring. You can just attach that to your wrist and continuously monitor those important vital signs.” 

Dr. Lu envisions a soft, stretchy, and multimodal sensing platform that conformally adheres to the skin could monitor and track COVID-19 with high accuracy, with performance and capabilities outperforming existing wearables on the market.

Dr. Lu plans to build on his lab’s previous research on flexible devices and optical electronics, a discipline that combines applications of light and electronic signals. The prototype will combine commercially available components and novel technology developed in his lab. The device will ultimately be able to wirelessly send data to the wearers’ smartphone so they are aware of their evolving symptoms, Dr. Lu said. 

Understanding Global Supply Chain Disruptions
Meghana Ayyagari, professor of international business and international affairs in GW School of Business and the Elliott School of International Affairs, received funding to study how trade across the world has been disrupted by COVID-19. Dr. Ayyagari is using the funding to obtain and analyze millions of records detailing imports and exports from 16 countries.

These records show what types of companies and firms are importing or exporting items, what countries are involved and what trade routes were used. Early analysis has revealed a 10% decline in global trade in March and April compared to 2019, a decrease primarily linked to disruptions at Chinese ports. Global trade has since bounced back, Dr. Ayyagari said, meeting and even exceeding previous levels.

“There’s been a pretty quick bounce back, so now the challenge is understanding, did this happen across the board, was it certain types of firms, was it certain types of industries and has there been a shift in trading routes to new ports?” she said. 

The data shows a significant increase in U.S. imports of medical supplies such as masks. 

Dr. Ayyagari wants to understand how global value chains are impacted by the pandemic. Understanding what types of firms are affected and what tools and policies have been effective in restoring trade will provide critical context to plans for supporting future economic recovery, she said.

Dr. Ayyagari is working on this project alongside Ariel Weinberger, assistant professor of international business at the GW School of Business, and second-year Ph.D. candidate Yuxi Cheng. The team hopes to develop a working paper by early summer and down the road submit a paper to a top economics journal.