Researchers at U seek COVID-19 answers, Part 1

Lindsay Keegan and Diane Pataki

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

As one of America's leading research universities, the University of Utah is helping us understand, respond to and treat coronavirus. In this podcast, Diane Pataki, associate vice president for research, and Lindsay Keegan, research assistant professor in Internal Medicine and a theoretical biologist, talk about research projects now underway on campus. And researchers: Diane shares information about how you can help our health care providers with personal protective equipment. Recorded on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast. This is an opportunity for you to hear from some of the leaders at the University of Utah that are helping us on our upward trajectory.

Today I have two fabulous guests. One of them is Dr. Diane Pataki. Diane is an associate vice president for research and also a professor in the School of Biological Sciences. And our other guest is Dr. Lindsay Keegan. Lindsay is a research professor and also a theoretical biologist.

Welcome Lindsay and Diane, it's such a pleasure to have you here. Diane, I think we'll turn to you first. I wanted to ask you about the seed grant program. I know you're doing many things as an associate vice president for research and maybe you could talk a little bit about that work and then specifically about what you're trying to do with the seed grant program related to coronavirus and COVID-19.

Diane Pataki: Sure. So, our office supports all aspects of research on campus. We're supporting the many researchers who are now working at home as well as the researchers who have to come to their labs to work on the COVID response and other really urgent issues. Many of our researchers can still make progress working remotely and we have a team that's teleworking to support grant applications, research education, commercialization of research—anything that doesn't involve physically coming to the lab to collect data.

Right now, we're actually getting a lot of questions from researchers who want to donate their equipment to the university hospitals and clinics because many of our research labs use the same kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE) that are needed at the hospital to protect healthcare workers. Our Office of Environmental Health and Safety is centralizing the inventory and the collection of PPE that's needed by the hospital.

If any researchers are actually listening and they have nitrile gloves and N95 respirators, safety glasses, face shields or rear-closing disposable gowns they can go to our webpage,, and our COVID-19 research page has instructions for donations so we can arrange for pickup, storage and delivery to the hospital where these items are needed because we don't want a lot of individuals overwhelming the hospital right now as they're busy helping patients.

Finally, the U has many researchers working in labs on the response to COVID-19. This is a dedicated group of people. They're working at a really difficult time, so we want to support them in as many ways as possible. And we've partnered with an exciting initiative at the health sciences campus, the immunology, inflammation and infectious disease initiative—3i. They're a group of more than 140 researchers that are working on new approaches to understanding and treating disease. So, we've partnered with 3i to fund high-priority, urgent pilot projects about COVID-19 across our entire campus, both in health sciences and across the main campus.

President Watkins: Diane, that's spectacular. Do you have any ideas about what kinds of research might be proposed through those seed grants and what you might anticipate as areas of strength for the U that we might get proposals about?

Diane Pataki: Well, we all know that we urgently need effective treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19 and we have researchers that are working on these problems. And we also know that this isn't just a physical health crisis. There are going to be long-term impacts on mental health, on the economy, on social health and community well-being, on food and housing, security for vulnerable people. We have researchers with expertise in all these areas and we have a lot of people who want to look at how this crisis is impacting all aspects of our society and how we can launch an effective response.

Our goal is to support pilot projects from teams of researchers from all over campus, from health sciences to engineering, social sciences, physical science, law, business arts and humanities. I mean really any discipline that can contribute to the COVID-19 response. And we all know that really innovative solutions come at the intersections between disciplines.

We want to do everything we can to support teams of researchers and problem solvers across the disciplines, especially teams that will link the health sciences with experts who study the linkages between disease and society at-large. And these pilot projects will help diverse teams of researchers get resources from the many outside agencies that are now mobilizing to support COVID-19 research.

President Watkins: It's really spectacular that you and your office were able to mobilize so quickly to bring our strengths to this really significant societal problem. Thank you for that. What are you hearing from the federal agencies about investments they may be making in coronavirus and COVID-19?

Diane Pataki: We're seeing a rapid increase in programs supporting COVID research from all across the federal government. And we expect many more programs in the near future. First, I should say that we already have well over a dozen, and probably by now closer to two dozen, clinical trials that are either underway or in the rapid approval phase at the U. And we're getting more applications every day.

There are already a range of projects to develop treatments and the vaccine for COVID. The National Institutes of Health wants to support many more of these projects so they're releasing funds for urgent, fast turnaround programs just for research on all aspects of the disease—its pathology, its transmission, its treatment. The National Science Foundation has asked for research on advanced cyber infrastructure that will help cope with COVID-19 and also for rapid turnaround proposals that will study its spread, that will inform and educate people about the science of virus transmission and prevention and to find solutions to the global challenge of the pandemic across the board.

The Department of Defense is funding researchers to develop new technologies for diagnosing and preventing and treating COVID and for modeling methods and early warning systems to detect risks. This is really just the beginning of the response of the science agencies and private foundations that are going to support the research community. Our researchers have already mobilized and in the next few weeks we're going to see more studies. We're going to see more people from a range of disciplines contributing their expertise. And, of course, most importantly, we're going to get more information about how to stop the spread and the impacts of the virus.

President Watkins: Well, I'd say it's very reassuring to hear about these investments and it's also not surprising that the great people at the University of Utah would be on it in terms of addressing this urgent problem.

Lindsay, could we turn to you a little bit? Not many of us know what a theoretical biologist is and does, so maybe give us a little background about that.

Lindsay Keegan: I'm Lindsay Keegan and I'm a research assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology. I actually got into infectious disease epidemiology during the 2009 pandemic flu and figuring out that you could use math to model the threat. I'm really excited that in the next few years I'll have amazing grad students and postdocs and hopefully more collaborators to work on this in the future.

President Watkins: Where did you come to us from Lindsay?

Lindsay Keegan: I was at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health before. My research really focuses at the intersection of infectious disease epidemiology and mathematical and statistical methods. I basically build and develop novel mathematical and statistical methods to understand the spread and control of infectious diseases. And I've worked on a number of both endemic and emerging infectious diseases, including now the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

President Watkins: Tell us a little bit about your projects related to COVID-19 specifically.

Lindsay Keegan: The biggest project I've been working on in the last few weeks has been with a team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. We've been working with four states, including Utah, to develop scenario-based projections of COVID-19. We are looking at what happens if you don't intervene at all, what will the course of the intervention be, developing that curve that everyone keeps talking about flattening.

We are drawing that epidemic curve, seeing how the disease is going to spread and then if we do intervention such as social distancing, voluntary social distancing, shelter-in-place and what happens if we scale up testing and isolate people, test everyone who's symptomatic and isolate everyone who's positive? How do these different interventions impact our ability to control COVIC-19 and potentially flatten that curve and do the best we can to not overwhelm health systems?

That's the main project I've been working on. I've also been involved a little bit in a group here at the University of Utah, in the Division of Epidemiology, looking at COVID-19 spreading in long-term care facilities and with a group in math and biology, Fred Adler's group, looking at viral interactions between COVID-19 and other seasonal coronaviruses and rhino viruses.

I guess if you are wondering what you can do out there, the best thing to do is follow your state and local guidelines, sheltering-in-place, if that's the case. I know some counties are under a shelter-in-place order as of tonight I believe. For the rest of Utah, really try to limit the number of contacts you have. You can't spread infections if you don't contact people, so the fewer people you come into contact with, the better.

And I keep getting asked by my friends, well, can I hang out with this number of people or can I hang out with that number of people? Or what's too many? The best thing to do is just to minimize the number. If you can interact only with your immediate family, you put everybody else in a much better situation—not just your immediate family, but people in the broader community who are at increased risk of severe outcomes. Let's all just do our part and stay at home. Work from home if you can, try to minimize the number of trips to the grocery store. We don't need to go out and buy a year's worth of toilet paper, but perhaps one trip to the grocery store a week instead of many—and I know I'm guilty of going every night usually.

Just try to minimize your interaction with other people. If you are going to go out and use our lovely natural resources, make sure you're following guidelines of the landowners and try not to go to crowded trailheads, try not to clump up in parking lots. Try to keep the six to 10 feet distance with your hiking friends and if you see people on the trail, pass them quickly and give them a little bit of extra space.

President Watkins: That seems like great advice and really much appreciated. I think the other things we're doing, which we've all really in a week's time become very proficient at, is engaging socially like this, using technology.

Lindsay Keegan: Physically distant, socially together!

President Watkins: It's kind of amazing how well it actually works. So, thank you, that's really well-stated and great advice. Lindsay, we thank you for your work and wish you every success. One of the things we know is that people in our country and in the world count on America's leading research universities to make a difference on big issues like this. And you're leading the way.

I want to extend gratitude to these two fabulous guests today, Diane Pataki and Lindsay Keegan. Thank you for being with us. Listeners, thank you for joining me. And you have an opportunity to also learn in the next podcast about the work of two other researchers at the University of Utah who are focusing on coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease. I hope you'll join me for that. Thank you all for listening today and best wishes to everyone for your continued help.