12 of Rice COVID-19 research grants awarded to Rice Engineering faculty

Fund established in April to support projects to help end the pandemic and prepare for potential future outbreaks.

covid mask

Twelve of the 19 COVID-19 research grants awarded by Rice have gone to projects proposed by teams including faculty members from the George R. Brown School of Engineering.    

The fund was established in April to support projects in biomedicine, engineering, social sciences and humanities and to help end the pandemic and prepare for potential future outbreaks. The Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee, headed by Marcia O’Malley, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Mechanical Engineering (MECH), announced the third and final round of grants on May 26.

The fund was open to Rice faculty members working on coronavirus-related projects in partnership with the city of Houston, the Texas Medical Center and other institutions. The research teams with engineers as members are:

Daniel Kowal, assistant professor of statistics (STAT), and Thomas Sun, a doctoral student in STAT, are building a predictive model for the trajectory of COVID-19 cases in Houston by using data from locations similar to Houston and further along the disease incidence curve. The model will differ from epidemiological models that are sensitive to inputs not associated with COVID-19 and have led to inaccurate predictions. The model is expected to improve the accuracy of real-time predictions and to inform policy decisions.

Laura Segatori, associate professor of bioengineering (BIOE) and chemical and biomolecular engineering (ChBE), and Omid Veiseh, assistant professor of BIOE, plan to engineer 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.

Michael Wong, William M. McCardell Professor in Chemical Engineering and department chair, and Rafael Verduzco, associate professor ChBE, with John Graf of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, will continue development of a NASA-designed prototype ventilator for rapid deployment based on an off-the-shelf automotive oxygen sensor. Wong and Verduzco will help establish the operating principles of the oxygen-sensing technology for VITAL, NASA’s ventilator. Those principles are essential for delivering oxygen at precise flow rates and pressures.

Ashok Veeraraghavan, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and of computer science (CS), Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepherd School of Music and Elma Schneider Professor of Music, Ashutosh Sabharwal, department chair and professor of ECE, and John Mangum, president and CEO of the Houston Symphony, will study proper social-distancing protocols for rehearsal and performance by musicians and singers. Using high-speed imaging, they will look at the air flow created by wind instruments and singers. Their data and analysis will be made public to benefit musical organizations and individual musicians.

Andrew Schaefer, Noah Harding Chair and Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM); Illya Hicks, professor of CAAM; Joseph Huchette, assistant professor of CAAM; and Nicole Fontenot, nursing instructor at Houston Methodist Hospital, will use optimization models to plan nursing schedules during times of uncertainty, when a hospital’s needs are highly variable. Their approach will use stochastic programming to allow for improved and dynamic decision making using forecast demand. 

Kevin McHugh, assistant professor of BIOE, Peter Lillehoj, associate professor of MECH, and Cassian Yee of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, are designing a point-of-care device for rapid identification of patients with severe cases of COVID-19 likely to require the greatest degree of medical care. They plan to automate the process of immune-cell quantification with an inexpensive microfluidic device. 

Lillehoj, Wen Hsiang Chen of Baylor College of Medicine and James Le Duc of Galveston National Laboratory are developing a mobile phone-based blood serum test for the rapid electrochemical detection of COVID-19 antibodies. The portability, simplicity and wireless data transmission capabilities of such a platform will be useful in remote and resource-limited settings, and less time-consuming than current tests.

Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE), and Daniel Kowal , assistant professor of STAT, will explore how the response to COVID-19 has affected travel and electric-power generation, how those changes affect air quality and whether they provide a glimpse into the future as cleaner vehicles and power sources replace those now in use. They will examine satellite- and ground-based measurements of such air pollutants as nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter to test understanding of the sources of emissions and how air quality responds to those changes.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of BIOE, and director of Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technology, Kathryn Kundrod, BIOE doctoral student, and Kathleen Schmeler of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, propose development of a low-cost, point-of-care diagnostic tool to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in less than an hour. The test would rely on an instrument costing less than $5,000 with a per-test cost less than $2 and a testing time of 30 minutes or less. They are working with USAID and industry partners on a plan to scale the test in Mozambique, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria, where Rice 360˚ has research partners and infrastructure. 

Jacob Robinson and Caleb Kemere, associate professors of ECE, and Sahil Kapur of MD Anderson, are working on a low-cost, easily manufactured rubber harness to be worn over surgical or cloth masks to seal them against the face to reduce exposure to airborne particles that may contain active viruses.

Lauren Stadler, assistant professor of CEE, Katherine Ensor, Noah G. Harding Professor of STAT, and Loren Hopkins, professor in the practice of STAT and chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department, in collaboration with that department and Houston Water, will collect wastewater samples from local treatment plants to monitor for SARS-CoV-2. The virus goes undetected in much of the population because many are asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms. Because infected individuals shed the virus in stool, wastewater is a pooled sample of an entire community. Data will be used to track infection dynamics in near-real-time with geographic resolution. It will also aid additional testing efforts and policy on scaling back social distancing, as well as potentially enabling early detection of subsequent outbreaks.

Daniel Wallach, professor of CS; Robert Stein, Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science; Philip Kortum, associate professor of psychological sciences; Claudia Ziegler Acemyan, adjunct assistant professor of psychological sciences; and Elizabeth Vann, director of programs and partnerships at Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership, plan to ask voters and poll workers to identify steps Harris County can take to make voting in person this November safe in case of a continued threat from the coronavirus. The team will help the Harris County election officials survey voters on how they would prefer to cast their ballots and ask potential poll workers how likely they are to show up for work at polling places in light of the pandemic. The Harris County clerk will use the research to help design changes to in-person voting, both early and on election day. The information they gather will identify ways to inform voters about casting ballots by mail and making voting in person safer.