Cornell’s own research informs COVID-19 testing, protocols

Faced with a pandemic, 10 Cornell College students and faculty are applying their research skills to keep the campus community as safe as possible. 

COVID-19 testing station on campusAssociate Professor of Chemistry Jai Shanata and Lecturer in Statistics Brandi Shanata worked with two students during the Cornell Summer Research Institute (CSRI) to choose which public health data points to follow in determining a phased approach to repopulating campus. They continue to provide weekly reports to the COVID-19 crisis management team with their recommendations and data findings, so campus leaders can make informed, data-driven decisions about the next steps for the college community. 

Their research students—Robyn Luchesi, a biochemistry and molecular biology and philosophy major, and Gwen Paule, a biochemistry and molecular biology and Spanish major—worked all summer and are continuing through the school year. 

The Shanatas directed a second COVID-19 research project that helped design and develop Cornell’s testing protocol. With students Skye McCormick (a psychology-behavioral neuroscience major and biochemistry and molecular biology minor), Ravi Parekh (a biochemistry and molecular biology major and chemistry minor), and Kate Abrams (undecided major), they created a novel proactive strategy of asymptomatic testing of high-contact groups, cluster sampling by residence hall floor, and random sampling of faculty and staff. They coordinated with Pandemic Response Coordinator Nancy Reasland, who wanted a test with rapid results administered on campus.

“There are significant benefits to this stratified sampling strategy,” Brandi said. “While we can’t quantify the effect, based on models and published data we have good reason to believe this will provide a substantial reduction in transmission.”

When CSRI ended, Brandi recruited senior business analytics major Chase Sonnemaker for the implementation. “Cornell’s focus is always on our students. Sonnemaker is participating in meetings, handling real-world data, and every week we are dealing with a new data challenge,” she said.    

Finally, air exchange modifications were made across campus based on research conducted during CSRI by Professor of Chemistry Cindy Strong and junior Sydney Swift, who is majoring in chemistry and minoring in geology. They used a model from the University of Colorado at Boulder to estimate the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19 in campus spaces. The project was suggested by Tahllee Baynard ’07, who is trained in aerosol chemistry and collaborated with Strong and Swift. They recommended increased air exchanges and the use of fans and filters, which were adopted prior to the first day of classes.

The increased air exchanges and fans, as well as COVID-19 testing, is in addition to transmission reduction already being accomplished by social distancing, face coverings, hand sanitizer stations, classroom distancing, plexiglass barriers at high traffic areas, staggered meals and class start times, pre-packaged foods, and substantially diminished in-person events.