A small college with big data

Behind the scenes of some big decisions, a student-faculty research team is sifting through extensive amounts of COVID-19 data to provide insight to campus leaders.

Jai Pattur Shanata ’05 and Brandi Logan Shanata ’05 at their home office in Mount Vernon, where they recorded and analyzed data and mentored student researchers online.
Jai Pattur Shanata ’05 and Brandi Logan Shanata ’05 at their home office in Mount Vernon, where they recorded and analyzed data and mentored student researchers online.

When COVID-19 caused a shutdown of the Cornell College campus in March, Associate Professor of Chemistry Jai Pattur Shanata ’05 joined the college’s taskforce working on a process for the safe return of students. When he realized there would be an unmet need for understanding public health data, he turned to two of his research students.

“Very quickly we realized that if we want to make the best quality decisions for Cornell, we must have the best quality data that we can get,” Jai said.

Senior Robyn Luchesi, a biochemistry and molecular biology and philosophy major, and sophomore Gwen Paule, a biochemistry and molecular biology and Spanish major, were ready to get started.

“Neither my students nor I had the slightest idea what we were getting ourselves into,” he said.

They needed to recruit one more person—lecturer in statistics at Cornell and Jai’s wife—Brandi Logan Shanata ’05. Brandi agreed to volunteer her time as a statistical consultant to help with the project.

The group met seven days a week throughout the summer as part of the Cornell Summer Research Institute. Their Zoom sessions often lasted several hours as they first determined what data points to follow and then located the sources of the data. Next they dug into the numbers and set up a reporting structure. Since classes began they meet twice a week and the students are employed through work-study.

They 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.

The plan

Cornell College is following a phased approach to resuming on-campus operations.

To move from one phase to the next, several internal and external conditions have to be met. Some examples of internal conditions include having sufficient supplies of hand sanitizer, preparing student quarantine spaces, and ensuring COVID-19 testing is available.

The external conditions are where the data research comes in. After some testing and a lot of literature review, the team settled on three domains to follow closely.

“First, we wanted something that tells us about the spread of the disease in the area. Second, we wanted to look at the use of resources—do we have the ability to handle a surge in cases? Finally, the third domain is the severity of the disease. We want to know, for example, if the disease has mutated and is more severe, or if the severity of the disease goes down with better treatment or case management,” Brandi said.

The team has learned the importance of using positive test rate as one of the pieces of data they are collecting to answer these questions. That’s the number of positive tests in relation to the total number of tests, instead of just using the count of positive cases. They have discovered that the number of tests performed every day across Linn and Johnson counties varies widely, making the positive test rate a more reliable and consistent metric.

The team analyzes the data in their weekly report using green, yellow, and red zones to make recommendations about whether to proceed to another phase, stay in the present phase, increase campus mitigation efforts, or reverse course to a previous phase. This strategy empowers the college to move between phases in response to overarching trends in the data, rather than swinging in and out of phases because of brief spikes or dips.

The data

From the very beginning, Brandi advised that the group needed to take ownership of the data and start collecting the information that was important to Cornell’s decision-making process. Each night they add data from various public health websites in Linn and Johnson counties, as well as the Iowa Department of Public Health.

“If I could put the amount of data that they are sorting through, collecting, and organizing in terms of books, this would be an epic novel,” Brandi said. “This is not a novella. This is not a typical novel. This would be a Game of Thrones book.”

Despite the long nights spent deciphering data and writing reports, the students agree it’s a rewarding process.

“It is amazing to work with two professors who I really look up to. Their passion and wisdom is invaluable,” Luchesi said. “Working on a project that has real-world applications, especially regarding public health, is something that is showing me a lot about what will possibly concern my career in the future. I am also lucky that I get to do something in a time where it is difficult to feel like you have an impact on something. I am glad I can do something to help, especially for my fellow

This team’s main goal is to present the data in an unfiltered way so that Cornell College will know the reality of what’s happening close to home.

“We will be one of the smallest colleges to have such a large amount of customized data at our fingertips to make these very crucial decisions,” Brandi said.

They say that’s important, especially when there are so many messages about the disease and what’s happening with case-counts across the country.

Paule and Luchesi worked all summer from their homes in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago, Illinois, respectively, and earned Cornell Summer Research Institute stipends.

They say each day comes filled with challenges to overcome. Even with all of the challenges of this research, Brandi said the students have never complained.

“Their work really has highlighted what a Cornell student can do,” Brandi said. “Neither of these students is a data analyst and neither is majoring or minoring in statistics. We didn’t expect this project to be this big. The idea was just, ‘hey, we know data is in a lot of places. How do we make this easily accessible to Cornell, so Cornell can make data-driven decisions?’ These students jumped in and adapted. It was amazing. They demonstrated so beautifully what a Cornell experience will do. They were able to very quickly learn and apply everything.”

This team’s main goal is to present the data in an unfiltered way so that Cornell College will know the reality of what’s happening close to home.

Read the other stories in this series:

The story of how Cornell adapted

One online course at a time

Cornellians respond

The 1918 pandemic