Faculty pivot to meet research needs during the pandemic

Dr. Michael Muehlenbein, chair of the anthropology department, is currently working on a study of asymptomatic cases and how they affect spread. Photo courtesy of Baylor University from May 24, 2019.

By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

Though COVID-19 disrupted much this semester, Baylor faculty continues to make progress for the school’s R1 tier one research institute status with various COVID-19 research studies in their expertise.

“COVID-19 gives us a great opportunity to emphasize and focus on Baylor’s R1, tier one aspirations. Anytime you have a national — in this case, worldwide crisis — it’s very common for researchers to try to pivot and find a way to speak into that. Baylor has had a number of faculty do that, and it’s been quite interesting.” Dr. Kevin Chambliss, vice provost for research, said.

Faculty research takes a number of directions concerning public health, social behavior and economic aspects of the virus.

“You would expect universities with a medical school, for example, to be right in the middle of COVID-19 research trying to find a cure for COVID-19. Most of the work that we’ve done has not been specifically in that vein because that’s not Baylor’s expertise, but we have had a number of faculty pivot and look at things from directions that we’re able to,” Chambliss said.

Along with Chambliss’ own research in wastewater surveillance testing, Dr. Michael Muehlenbein, professor and chair of anthropology, takes a public health approach too, studying the behaviors of asymptomatic cases.

Muehlenbein said he is wrapping up his study with the Heart of Texas Family Health Center on the role asymptomatic cases had on transmission of the virus in McLennan County.

“It was probably back in February when a colleague, Eric Baker, and I started talking about how wrong some of the assumptions about how COVID-19 had been. One of them at the time that was being discussed is what’s the role of asymptomatic individuals in the transmission of COVID-19,” he said. “Even at one point in time, the World Health Organization said that it was not significant. We now know that somewhere around 40% of transmission is associated with asymptomatic individuals. We were thinking about trying to understand originally what the impact of the closures were going to have on the continued spread of the virus.”

Muehlenbein said they identified 770 asymptomatic people in different risk groups from McLennan County and surveyed them over the course of three months. They took repeated antibody tests and repeated surveys to observe any changes in behaviors or opinions towards the pandemic.

“So if their IgG levels went up, it probably means that they got exposed to the virus, or infected, but again, we’re looking for those that were specifically asymptomatic. That was the purpose so that we would be able to provide feedback at the level of local leadership about what is happening specifically here, relative to other counties, because we are certainly not the only one that is doing this,” Muehlenbein said. “I think we’ll be able to address a number of interesting factors in relation to their knowledge, attitudes and practices around the pandemic too.”

Dr. Van Pham, professor in economics, also researched the economic effect of COVID-19 on a community level. He worked and conducted research on the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, a part of the Texas Hunger Initiative that provides summer meals to families in poor school districts. After the pandemic hit and kids were sent home from school, the program funded by the USDA started sending meals to families during quarantine.

Pham said his research is evaluating the economic effects of the hunger collaborative on the community, as well as on the individual and family level. He said the theory is that it has a positive effect on family relationships and relieves some financial stress.

On a community level, he said they are researching the effects of compliance with social distancing. Using Google Maps data, Pham found less traffic flow around the grocery store areas in counties that get these meals.

“It’s a very robust finding, this is true in the states that participate: Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, in all about 17 states. So this is a very broad, clear finding,” Pham said. “So that’s what we have for now. What we want to look at next would be, how does it affect crime in the communities? That data won’t be available until after the new year.”

Pham said his research is basically a series of statistical analyses looking at how although property crime rates have gone down because people are home, there has been an uptick in domestic abuse. He said he is researching whether the emergency Meals-To-You program helps alleviate that. By evaluating Texas Star test results by school districts, Pham is also looking at how children’s performance in school has been affected.

“The immediate product would be a series of papers, and they would be published. We would present them around the country, at various conferences. These would be of interest among policymakers for what kind of effects these programs have, and people funding this program at the federal level would be very interested,” Pham said. “There’s also the bigger question of whether or not the federal interventions actually help, and I think studies like these are helpful because you go into real data, and if you’re talking about whether or not you have positive or negative economic effects, you can go to the data and see.”

Real data from Dr. Annie Ginty, associate professor in psychology and neuroscience research, has provided insight on the risk factors for negative mental health outcomes during stressful events such as a pandemic.

“Our study demonstrated that individuals who did not have a large heart rate response to an acute psychological stress task in the laboratory were more likely to show higher distress during the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic,” Ginty said.

Specifically for college students, Ginty said the study “supports work by other important organizations, such as Active Minds, demonstrating that even during the initial stages, the COVID-19 pandemic was stressful to college students.”

Chambliss said the opportunity for external funding to faculty will also contribute to research in the future for R1 tier one aspirations.

“The interests of these projects span the spectrum from applied work, delivering meals out of the collaborative is very applied in nature. Dr. Ginty’s work, while certainly relevant to COVID-19, may also have very fundamental significance in how we look at stress response and PTSD. So, it spans the game from applied to fundamental, and it’s certainly going to open new doors and new opportunities for external funding,” he said. “Typically when there is a crisis like this the federal government throws a lot of money at it in aid areas, economic areas and on the research front. This will position our faculty to be competitive for that as things move forward.”