Pathbreaking Research: Rice’s Response to COVID-19

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rice University launched a fund dedicated to conducting pathbreaking research — in science, biomedicine, engineering, social sciences, humanities and other fields — to better understand the coronavirus’ wide-reaching impacts on our society.

Peter Lillehoj, left, and graduate student Jiran Li, right
Rice University mechanical engineer Peter Lillehoj, left, and graduate student Jiran Li developed a system that uses programmable magnetic nanobeads, an off-the-shelf cellphone and a plug-in diagnostic tool to diagnose COVID-19 in 55 minutes or less.

For more than a year, researchers across campus have partnered with the Texas Medical Center, the City of Houston and other community partners on projects such as the development of affordable diagnostic tools, a system to identify signs of the coronavirus in Houston wastewater and proper social-distancing protocols for rehearsal and performance by musicians and singers.

Designed to help the community deal with both the immediate and long-term effects of the global crisis, many of Rice’s COVID-20 projects have already generated published papers, additional funding and growth through new collaborations while other projects are still in the early stages.

“Rice University constantly strives to be part of the solution when we face critical challenges, whether those are local, national or global,” Rice President David Leebron said when the university’s COVID-19 research fund was announced. “We are committed to doing what we can, through research and education, to empower our home city and to improve human welfare around the globe.”

Rice Vice Provost for Research Yousif Shamoo said the pandemic-related research at Rice is a universitywide effort that involves researchers from disciplines across campus. “We have projects that can help right now and projects that can help us in the future as we recover from this pandemic and prepare against future ones.”

In all, Rice’s COVID-19 Research Fund supported 20 projects. Those projects and the researchers involved in them are as follows. For additional information about Rice’s COVID-19 research, click here.

  1. Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Mary Natoli and Kathryn Kundrod of Rice and Kathleen Schmeler of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center developed a low-cost, point-of-care diagnostic tool to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 in less than an hour. The simple-to-use test relies on an instrument that costs less than $250 with a per-test cost under $2, and a total testing time of under 30 minutes. The team is working with USAID and industry partners on a plan to scale the test to five countries in Africa, including Mozambique, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria, where the Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health currently has research partners and infrastructure. Successful development and scaling will enable broader SARS-CoV-2 testing locally and in low- and middle-income countries where trained personnel, basic laboratory hardware and reagents are not available for widespread testing. Richards-Kortum is the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and a professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and director of Rice 360˚. Kundrod is a graduate student in bioengineering. Schmeler is a professor in the department of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson. Read more about Richards-Kortum, Natoli, Kundrod and Schmeler’s low-cost, point-of-care diagnostic tool in Rice Magazine.

  2. Jacob Robinsonand Caleb Kemere of Rice and Sahil Kapur of MD Anderson designed a low-cost, easily manufactured rubber harness that can be worn over surgical or cloth masks to seal them against the face to reduce exposure to small airborne particles that may contain active viruses. Robinson is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering. Kemere is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Kapur is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at MD Anderson. Read more about Robinson, Kemere and Kapur’s rubber harness in Rice News.

  3. Lauren Stadler, Katherine Ensor and Loren Hopkins of Rice, in collaboration with the Houston Health Department and Houston Water, collected wastewater samples from local treatment plants to monitor for the presence of SARS-CoV-2. The researchers noted COVID-19 goes undetected in a large percentage of the population because many people are asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms. Because infected individuals shed the virus in stool, wastewater ultimately represents a pooled sample of an entire community. This presents the opportunity to track community infection dynamics. Data is being used to track infection dynamics in near-real-time with geographic resolution. It also has informed additional testing efforts and policy on scaling back social distancing, as well as potentially enabling early detection of subsequent outbreaks. Stadler is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Ensor is the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics. Hopkins is a professor in practice of statistics and chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. Read more about Stadler, Ensor and Hopkins’ research in Rice News. Click here to read about some of their preliminary findings.

  4. Robert Stein, Philip Kortum, Claudia Ziegler Acemyan, Daniel Wallach and Elizabeth Vann, all of Rice, asked voters and poll workers to identify steps Harris County could take to make voting in person in November safe in case of a continued threat from the coronavirus. The team helped Harris County election officials survey voters on how they preferred to cast their ballots and asked potential poll workers how likely they were to show up for work at polling places in light of the pandemic. The Harris County clerk used the research to help design changes to in-person voting, both early and on election day. The information gathered also identified ways to inform voters about casting ballots by mail and helped make voting in person safer. Stein is the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science. Kortum is an associate professor of psychological sciences. Acemyan is an adjunct assistant professor of psychological sciences. Wallach is a professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering. Vann is the director of programs and partnerships at the Center for Civic Leadership. Read more about Stein, Kortum, Acemyan, Wallach and Vann’s research, the impact of their research and some related research in Rice News.

  5. Kevin McHugh and Peter Lillehoj of Rice and Cassian Yee of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are designing a point-of-care device that rapidly predicts a COVID-19 patient’s likelihood of progressing to severe disease and need for the greatest degree of medical assistance. They plan to automate the process of immune cell quantification with an inexpensive microfluidic device. McHugh is an assistant professor of bioengineering. Lillehoj is an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Yee is a professor in the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology at MD Anderson.

  6. Peter Lillehoj, of Rice, and James Musser of Houston Methodist Research Institute are designing a mobile phone-based serological test for the rapid electrochemical detection of SARS-CoV-2 antigens. They see the portability, simplicity and wireless data transmission capabilities of such a platform as useful in remote and resource-limited settings, and far less time-consuming than current COVID-19 tests that take up to three hours and need to be performed in a laboratory setting. Lillehoj is an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Musser is the chair of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine and the director of the Center for Molecular and Translational Human Infectious Diseases Research. Read more about Lillehoj and Musser’s research in Rice News.

  7. Kirsten Ostherr and Lan Li of Rice; with advisory support from Thomas Cole of the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston; Robert Peckham of Hong Kong University; and Sanjoy Bhattacharya of York University are identifying domains of pandemic preparedness and response that benefit from an applied medical humanities approach. They are drawing upon their experience to produce a first-of-its-kind digital resource detailing aspects of preparedness that require humanities expertise, that will serve as a blueprint for action by health officials. With seed funding from the Rice COVID-19 research fund, they developed a survey to identify humanities-based translational responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have distributed the survey internationally, and have received over 260 responses. Their multidisciplinary team of postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate researchers, and collaborators have designed and developed a public-facing website and database, called “Translational Humanities for Public Health,” which will feature the results of the survey, to launch in spring 2021. They are currently preparing a grant application for submission to the National Endowment for the Humanities to support ongoing work on the project, including: expanding our global regional contacts database; soliciting additional survey responses from those contacts; conducting follow-up interviews with contributors for the website; analyzing the results for publication; and developing new data visualizations on the basis of results. Ostherr is the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English. Li is an assistant professor of history. Cole is director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and chair of medical humanities at the McGovern Medical School. Peckham is director of medical humanities at Hong Kong University. Bhattacharya is director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories.

  8. Daniel Cohan and Daniel Kowal of Rice worked with a team of undergraduate students to explore how the response to COVID-19 affected vehicle travel and electric power generation and how those changes affected air quality. They are examining satellite- and ground-based measurements of such air pollutants as nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter as a real-world experiment to test scientific understanding of the sources of emissions and how air quality responds to those changes. Cohan is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Kowal is an assistant professor of statistics.

  9. Flavio Cunha, Patricia DeLucia, Fred Oswald, Ekim Cem Muyan and E. Susan Amirian of Rice are studying how well Harris County residents are complying with stay-at-home orders, the barriers that prevent them from fully complying and what could be done to increase compliance. They are working with the county to survey residents, particularly low-socioeconomic populations who may have lost jobs due to the pandemic. Cunha is the Ervin Kenneth Zingler Professor of Economics. DeLucia and Oswald are professors of psychological sciences. Muyan is executive director of the Rice Texas Policy Lab, and Amirian is a research scientist and public health and health care lead at the Rice Texas Policy Lab. Read more about Cunha, DeLucia, Oswald, Muyan and Amirian’s research in Rice News.

  10. Sylvia Dee, Ted Loch-Temzelides, Caroline Masiello and Mark Torres of Rice are evaluating the short-term impacts of rapid environmental mitigation during the coronavirus crisis and how environmental pollution and economic activity affect each other. The crisis, they suggest, provides a glimpse of how Earth’s environment and its climate system might respond to aggressive, fast-paced carbon mitigation. It also provides an opportunity to assess which sectors of the economy — energy production, the restaurant industry or grocery supply chains — contribute maximally to environmental pollution, given explicit knowledge of closure and shelter-in-place policy timelines. Dee and Torres are assistant professors of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. Loch-Temzelides is the George and Cynthia Mitchell Chair in Sustainable Development and a professor of economics. Masiello is a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. Read more about Dee, Loch-Temzelides, Masiello and Torres’ research on their website.

Focus Photo Strip

  1. Fred Oswald of Rice, Rodica Damian and Tingshu Liu of the University of Houston and Patrick Hill of Washington University in St. Louis are examining the critical long-term effects of COVID-19 on human development following adversity across a range of social contexts including occupational, educational, community, family, lifestyle, health and financial. They are studying how people change in response to adversity, and whether adversity across different social contexts impacts people differently. Oswald is the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Psychological Sciences and a professor of management at Rice. Damian is an assistant professor of social psychology and Liu a graduate student at the University of Houston. Hill is an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.

  2. Daniel Kowal and Thomas Sun of Rice are building dynamic models for local trajectories of COVID-19 cases. By pooling information among locations similar to Houston, each at different stages along the COVID-19 curve, this approach offers new ways to study the peaks and troughs of COVID-19 cases. They expect that their model will provide more stable and precise real-time forecasts and inform key policy decisions. Kowal is an assistant professor of statistics. Sun is a graduate student.

  3. Amelyn Ng of Rice is looking into how stay-at-home orders have disproportionately disrupted the domestic lives of Houston households, particularly low-income families with children. Ng and co-designer Gabriel Vegara of Asia Initiatives produced a survey concentrating on Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward that identifies which home stresses require urgent mitigation, which may be quickly overcome through spatial reorganization and which are likely to persist or worsen beyond the emergency. Ng is a Wortham Fellow at Rice Architecture. Vegara is an architect and urban designer at Asia Initiatives. Read more about Ng’s research in Rice News.

  4. Laura Segatori and Omid Veiseh of Rice are engineering cell lines for the rapid development of clinically translatable neutralizing antibodies for infection control. This genetic “landing pad” will include a fluorescent reporter and a drug-resistance marker that will allow for evaluation of expressed antibodies and antibody fragments that neutralize SARS-CoV-2, rendering it unable to spread and reproduce. Segatori is an associate professor of bioengineering and of chemical and bimolecular engineering and biosciences. Veiseh is an assistant professor of bioengineering.

  5. Danielle King and Cassandra Phetmisy of Rice are working to better understand how COVID-19 has changed work conditions for critical human service employees who can no longer go to the workplace, like teachers, and those required to, like nurses. Her statistical analysis will help determine what personal and professional resources are most effective in reducing COVID-19-induced strain across occupational types. King is an assistant professor of psychological sciences. Phetmisy is a doctoral student in industrial psychology.

  6. Michael Wong and Rafael Verduzco of Rice and John Graf of NASA completed the analysis and validation of off-the-shelf automotive oxygen sensor technology for a NASA-designed prototype ventilator for rapid deployment. Rice’s engineers are helping NASA establish the operating principles of the oxygen-sensing technology for its ventilator, called VITAL. Those principles are essential for delivering oxygen at precise flow rates and pressures. Wong is the department chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoengineering and civil and environmental engineering. Verduzco is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. Graf is an engineer at Johnson Space Center.

  7. Ashok Veeraraghavan, Robert Yekovich and Ashutosh Sabharwal of Rice and John Mangum of the Houston Symphony investigated proper social-distancing protocols for rehearsal and performance by musicians and singers. The team studied the air flow created by wind instruments and singers using schlieren imaging. Their data set and analysis have been made public to benefit musical organizations and individual musicians. Veeraraghavan is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Yekovich is dean of the Shepherd School of Music and the Elma Schneider Professor of Music. Sabharwal is department chair and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Mangum is president and CEO of the Houston Symphony. Read more about Veeraraghavan, Yekovich, Sabharwal and Mangum’s research in Rice News.

  8. Hulya Eraslan, Rossella Calvi, Dibya Deepta Mishra and Ritika Sethi of Rice are studying how state and local officials have employed public health measures in response to COVID-19 and whether the patchwork of jurisdictions is making the response to the pandemic more or less effective. Their research is based on an original data set that combines election results with disaggregated data on policies and outcomes. The goal is to understand the impact of political alignment across levels of government on the effectiveness of its response. Eraslan is the Ralph S. O’Connor Chair and a professor of economics. Calvi is an assistant professor of economics. Mishra and Sethi are graduate students.

  9. Andrew Schaefer, Illya Hicks and Joseph Huchette of Rice and Nicole Fontenot of Houston Methodist Hospital are using optimization models to plan nursing schedules during times of uncertainty, when a hospital’s needs are highly variable. Their approach uses stochastic programming (a modeling under uncertainty framework) to allow for improved and dynamic decision making using forecast demand. Schaefer is the Noah Harding Chair and a professor of computational and applied mathematics and of computer science. Hicks is a professor of computational and applied mathematics. Huchette is an assistant professor of computational and applied mathematics. Fontenot is an instructor in nursing at Methodist.

  10. Angela Wilkins and Anton Zhang, of Rice, and partners with the MD Anderson Cancer Center are working on various projects related to MD Anderson’s Data-Driven Determinants for COVID-19 Oncology Discovery (D3CODE) effort, which collects and aggregates data into a single resource for COVID-19 research. The Kennedy Institute created a position for a trained expert, Zhang, who could get research projects moving immediately and serve as a single point of contact for both Rice and MD Anderson collaborators regarding Rice’s access to D3CODE data. The first Rice D3CODE projects will be chosen soon with a primary goal of supporting projects that could lead to long-term research collaborations between Rice and MD Anderson. Read more about Wilkins and Zhang’s research in Rice News.