Weinberg College seed funding accelerates COVID-19 research projects

The global outbreak of COVID-19 is calling upon researchers to respond with their best efforts to address the crisis. And the speed with which the pandemic has unfolded demands that they do so quickly.

Weinberg College is responding to the call, with a new initiative to get COVID-19-related research up and running as soon as possible.

The College is making special seed funding available to Weinberg College researchers across disciplines, from the natural sciences to the social sciences to the arts to the humanities. Whether the research has the potential to lead to treatments or a cure, or to yield a greater grasp of the social impact of the pandemic, the College is providing up to $15,000 in funding for work that has a bearing on the understanding of the disease.

Early seed funding is often key to attracting additional funding that can allow a project to scale up quickly. For example, one of the first COVID-19 projects to receive College seed funding, sociologist Beth Redbird’s CoronaData U.S. project (see below), was granted additional funding from the National Science Foundation soon afterward. The survey is already yielding insights into how the pandemic is shaping the way we work, think and live.

The six COVID-19 projects to receive Weinberg College seed funding include:

Putting an Outgroup Face on a Viral Threat: Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Prejudice and Stereotyping in the U.S.

Researchers: Galen Bodenhausen, Natalie Gallagher and Jordan Daley, Department of Psychology

“As COVID-19’s shadow lengthens over the United States, reports of physical, verbal and interpersonal anti-Asian racism and discrimination are increasing. Consistent with prior evidence that threat increases prejudicial attitudes, the pandemic seems to be encouraging Americans to position a racially-defined subgroup of Americans as a derogation-worthy outgroup. In this research, we aim to empirically test the size and strength of this pandemic’s effects on attitudes towards Asian Americans.”

The Stay-at-Home Chem Natural Experiment

Researcher: Franz Geiger, Department of Chemistry

“The COVID-19 outbreak has now led to stay-at-home orders in most states. As a result, Americans are now spending the vast majority of their time in the same location, namely their homes, and, in many cases, with family members who would otherwise live elsewhere. Therefore, there is a need to determine how anthropogenic indoor emissions — ranging from skin-oil constituents to emissions from baking and cooking and cleaning) — are changing relative to the ‘business as usual’ condition. This research will explore how such a change can be quantified in an actual, as opposed to hypothetical, setting.”

Coping with COVID-19: Impact of Access to Nature on Health and Wellbeing

Researchers: Teresa H. Horton, William Leonard and Vidya Venkataramanan, Department of Anthropology

Michelle Birkett and David Victorson, Department of Medical Social Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine

William Miller, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science

“A growing body of research documents the physical and mental benefits of engaging with nature. These beneficial effects are being observed anecdotally nationwide, as people deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic by turning to nature to engage in physical activity and for emotional, psychological and spiritual restoration. However, access to nature is not equitably distributed. We hypothesize that inequities in material and social conditions related to access to nature are strongly associated with inequities in the ability to cope with the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. This research aims to develop and administer a nationwide survey to assess perceptions of the material and social opportunities, constraints and barriers encountered when attempting to engage with nature.”

Identification of Antiviral Agents and Therapeutic Targets for SARS-CoV-2 and the Next Pandemic

Researchers: Curt Horvath and Robert Lamb, Department of Molecular Biosciences

Sara Fernandez-Dunne, Matt Clutter and Chi-Hao Luan, Northwestern University High-Throughput Analysis Core Facility

“The primary goal of this research is to develop and deploy cell lines harboring SARS-CoV-2 subgenomic replicons with selectable fluorescent reporter genes for use in high-throughput screening. These safe and non-infectious replicons will be used to identify new antiviral agents with the ability to inhibit coronaviral genome replication and will probe the host cell genetic loci that modulate virus susceptibility and pathogenicity by controlling virus RNA replication. This work is expected to generate new therapeutic agents and cellular targets for COVID-19 therapy as well as future Coronavirus outbreaks.”

Global Governance in the Age of COVID

Researcher: Ian Hurd, Department of Political Science

“The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the fragility of international organizations and an urgent need for new global institutions. Life in a world with pervasive SARS-CoV2 and future unforeseen pathogens requires new institutional arrangements at the local, national and global levels. This project addresses the need for new forms of governance in post-pandemic public international affairs. Past international crises have driven changes in authority and governance among governments. The COVID crisis may do the same for international public health: it is becoming clear that mechanisms for diagnostics, information sharing and research are urgently needed on a global scale and that neither governments nor traditional inter-state organizations are well suited to meet them. By assessing the successes and failures of existing international organizations, we will identify these gaps and then propose a new generation of institutions.”

The Social and Behavioral Impact of COVID-19

Researcher: Beth Redbird, Department of Sociology

“The United States is now experiencing an exponential spread of the COVID-19 virus. There will clearly be public health consequences from COVID-19. However, there will also be social consequences. On March 12, a national survey effort was begun, seeking to capture the social, cultural and behavioral changes resulting from the coronavirus. Collecting data on the social impact of COVID-19 has the potential to benefit research in sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, journalism, public policy and public health. But moreover, COVID is already creating significant disruptions in the lives of Americans. It has shaken our public health system, our economy and our faith as a nation. As scientists, we are responsible for monitoring these changes, so that months and years from now, we might understand the full impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. This will not be the last event of its kind, but with a thorough understanding of its effects, we can be better prepared for the next one.”