An up-close digital visualization of the coronavirus

Rising to the Moment

How has the Cal Poly community handled the challenges of a global pandemic? Six stories illustrate how Mustangs faced the crisis: with courage, creativity and a willingness to try something new.

When a global pandemic threw a wrench into normal life this spring, members of the Cal Poly community did what they do best: taking action, coming up with new ideas, and making it work.

Cal Poly students, faculty, staff and even alumni rose to meet this challenging moment. From providing supplies to fight the coronavirus, to serving those affected by the pandemic and its effects, to keeping the Learn by Doing experience going under quarantine, here are a few examples of how we responded when a crisis changed everything.

Shields Up

By Gabby Ferreira and Alex Wilson

Alan Puccinelli was running a bustling business selling accessories for 3D printers when the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, bringing normal life to a grinding halt.

The Orfalea College of Business alum and Sacramento-area resident wanted to be helpful. He noticed a demand for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Three men pose in clear plastic medical safety masks

Alumnus Alan Puccinelli and his team members model their company’s 3-D printed protective face shields.

“I just stopped and said, ‘Well, you know, maybe I can make a couple hundred of these face shields and be of help,’” said Puccinelli, who runs Repkord, a 3D printing company.

Adapting a design he had seen from a Czech company, Puccinelli printed a few face shields and offered them to emergency room doctors in his area.

“I said ‘Hey, is this helpful to you guys? I hear you’re running short personal protective equipment,’” Puccinelli said. “The answer I got was a resounding yes.”

Puccinelli and his team kicked into high gear on the effort they called Operation Shields Up. He already had some supply connections through his business that he was able to rely upon, and his all-volunteer team has come together fast — manufacturing as many as 1,400 face shields in one day.

“I’m doing it until they tell me they don’t need it anymore.”

As of April 10, Operation Shields Up has produced more than 10,000 shields.

The effort is running entirely on donations, and Puccinelli says they’re just trying to meet the need for equipment until normal supply chains kick in.

“I have no idea why it’s a small maker like me who’s able to be part of the rapid response team,” Puccinelli said, laughing. “But, you know, I’m doing it until they tell me they don’t need it anymore.”

Crisis Intervention

By Larry Peña

The coronavirus pandemic was just the latest in a string of obstacles computer science grad student Jordan Mattis had to face as he fought for his education.

Mattis (not his real name) completed his undergrad in Texas and moved to California because he fell in love with Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy and supportive faculty. He knew he wanted to continue his education in San Luis Obispo.

Sunlight reflects off the windows of a yellow and tan apartment building

Cal Poly’s Cerro Vista Apartments

But a year after enrolling in his grad program, a series of financial challenges rendered him homeless.

“I was living in my car,” he said. “I was using the Rec Center as a place to shower and the library to do all my studying and homework. Once they were closed due to coronavirus, I didn’t even have access to a bathroom anymore.”

Within days of the university limiting campus operations, Mattis knew his situation wasn’t sustainable. He contacted the financial aid office to discuss any other options that might be available, and they referred him to the Cal Poly Cares program.

Cal Poly Cares, usually funded by private donors, provides grants to students facing unexpected needs: housing emergencies, job or family losses, technology issues. In April, the Federal CARE Act allocated an extra $7 million for Cal Poly to use to address student needs connected with the pandemic, and part of that funding is being used to expand these grants.

“On one end of the spectrum, this support is relieving stress for students. On the other end, it’s keeping them from becoming homeless.”

“In the last week we’ve had more than 1,000 applications, compared to 30 to 40 per week that we usually get,” said Joy Pedersen, associate dean of students and co-chair of the university’s Basic Needs Taskforce.

That’s because the pandemic has cost many students their financial security, especially those working on campus or those depending on parents who have lost their jobs. The impact of these challenges on students’ academic success can be incalculable.

“On one end of the spectrum, this support is relieving stress for students. On the other end, it’s keeping them from becoming homeless,” said Pedersen. “Making sure this funding gets to the students who need it is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”

For Mattis, it meant the difference between being homeless and likely out of school, and being one step closer to a career in software engineering.

Within two days of contacting Cal Poly Cares, he received a place of his own in the university’s Cerro Vista Apartments and some food assistance.

“Having my own place gives me the opportunity to sit and focus on school without having to be out in public,” he said. “Everyone who helped make this possible showed me such great willingness to give without expecting anything in return.”

Searching for a Treatment

By Gabby Ferreira

As scientists race to find treatments for COVID-19, a Cal Poly student and professor team are playing a role in the process.

“It was an opportunity that I didn’t see coming,” said Scott Eagon, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Eagon works in infectious diseases, and had followed the emergence of the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2. In March, he saw a paper published by a team in Germany that showed the crystal structure of one of the virus’s proteins — an important clue in figuring out how to treat it.

He reached out to the head of the German team to see if there was an opportunity for collaboration.

“Whenever there’s a pandemic like this, scientists from all over the world try to attack the disease from different angles,” Eagon said. “The hope is that, with everyone trying different methods to attack the pathogen, the sooner someone can find a successful treatment.”

Eagon also reached out to one of his students, McClane Howland, over spring break to see if he’d be interested in using their computational resources to find molecules that could act like a key in the door — something that could shut down the virus’ ability to replicate.

A young man in a lab coat and safety glasses holds up a box of vials

Computer Science student McClane Howland displays some of the samples he tested as part of the search for a coronavirus treatment

Howland, a computer science student with interests in medical research who had previously assisted Eagon with malaria research, rose to the challenge.

Howland and Eagon knew that trying to run millions of potential matches on one normal computer could take years. So Howland wrote a computer program that could run thousands of codes simultaneously, distributing the work across about 30 powerful computers in the Massively Parallel Accelerated Computing (MPAC) laboratory.

Howland, who ran the program remotely, finished the testing in about three weeks.

Howland and Eagon sorted for molecules that could possibly work in an oral treatment for COVID-19, like a pill, which would be more readily available to people around the world. They also looked for molecules that were commercially available, so they could be purchased and screened in a timely manner.

“The hope is that, with everyone trying different methods to attack the pathogen, the sooner someone can find a successful treatment.”

The pair identified the top 28 best potential matches and began ordering them from companies around the world. As of mid-May, they have received, screened and catalogued those compounds and are preparing to ship them to Germany for testing against the virus.

The goal of the project is to identify a compound that shows promise in treating COVID-19, but there’s no guarantee that this project will get that result, Eagon cautioned.

“We do have the potential to find something that works, but nothing will be available until it’s been thoroughly tested in clinical trials,” he said.

But even if the project doesn’t identify a promising compound, both Eagon and Howland said their project was worth a shot, as it will help add a piece to the puzzle.

“Hundreds of groups of scientists are working around the world and we’re a small part of that effort,” Eagon said. “Anything we can do helps.”

Feeding the Community

By AnnMarie Cornejo

This quarter, Cal Poly’s Horticulture and Crop Science Department donated more than 12,000 pounds of citrus to two local organizations that are serving San Luis Obispo County residents in need during the pandemic.

A total of 9,000 pounds of mandarins went to the San Luis Obispo Food Bank – with deliveries made weekly of about 3,000 pounds to be distributed to local residents in need.

In addition, 1,000 pounds of citrus were donated to San Luis Coastal Unified School District, which is providing free lunches for all students during the shelter-at-home mandate.

The shift to a virtual spring quarter, along with fewer students on campus, left the campus orchards inundated with fruit. Typically, students harvest the fruit, process it in small batches, and sell it at campus farm stands, in local markets and at community U-Pick events.

“For the health of the trees and the quality of the fruit, we had to hire a crew to get it off of the trees,” said Dan Chesini, plant science operations manager. “We didn’t want it to go to waste and we knew the that the food bank was facing a higher demand than ever before.”

The San Luis Obispo Food Bank has partnered with Cal Poly since 2013, sending volunteers to the fields to glean fruit when needed and making sure that fruits and vegetables do not go to waste.

“We didn’t want it to go to waste and we knew the that the food bank was facing a higher demand than ever before.”

“It’s a really amazing partnership to have,” said Emily Wilson, GleanSLO program coordinator. “Our volunteers absolutely love the experience of gleaning at Cal Poly, and it’s great to know that the folks at the Crops Unit are just as dedicated to reducing waste as we are.”

The food bank has seen an increased demand during the shelter at home order – with many people out of work or working reduced hours, increasing the demand from local families for food resources, Wilson said.

The Cal Poly fruit will be shared at more than 50 monthly distribution sites, from Shandon to Nipomo, and at more than 40 food pantry and meal sites throughout San Luis Obispo County.

Don’t Stop the Presses

By Gabby Ferreira

When the pandemic hit in mid-March, Cal Poly’s student media leadership knew they had to find a way to keep operating and serving the community.

The students, with the help of their advisors, got creative. KCPR staff are now transmitting remotely to keep their hourlong daily newscast going and the music playing.

Mustang News is navigating the process of putting out news without a print product on campus, as students learn to report out stories and work together remotely — an experience that mirrors that of many professional newsrooms.

“This is Learn by Doing in action,” said business administration senior Austin Linthicum, editor in chief of Mustang News. “All newsrooms around the country are working remotely at this point. We’re doing what the pros are doing, not just locally but at places like the New York Times.”

Patrick Howe, one of Mustang News’ advisors, praised the students for rising to the challenge of covering their community during a crisis.

“They’ve stepped up like champs,” Howe said. “Our highest goal and aspiration is that students use Mustang News as a laboratory to learn the skills that will serve them professionally, and they are. They will emerge from the other side of this as more flexible and adept journalists.”

For KCPR’s operations, the journalism department’s broadcast engineering specialist Thomas Morales safely set up a broadcast studio in the home of journalism junior Maya MacGregor, the station’s news director. It serves as the local, distanced control room for the radio station.

MacGregor oversees a team of 16 reporters, and six of them are on deck for any newscast, according to a schedule she creates. The newscast also provides a platform for students in a broadcast journalism course as well as a senior journalism practicum to get experience being on the air.

“All newsrooms around the country are working remotely at this point. We’re doing what the pros are doing, not just locally but at places like the New York Times.”

The reporters use a product called CleanFeed to transmit their audio stories from their different locations. MacGregor mixes everything for the broadcast, which goes live daily at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday. She then transmits the broadcast via the remote KCPR unit back to the studio in Graphic Arts using a Verizon 4G modem.

“This has been a huge learning experience for me. It’s a whole new setup and it’s completely different from the studio setup,” MacGregor said. “If we didn’t have Thomas, none of this would have worked.”

Morales said the KCPR team was able to go remote through the advent of CleanFeed, as well as creatively using equipment the station already had.

“By redeploying equipment already contained within the department and the station, spiffing up some old laptops and just using what we had, we were able to make it work,” Morales said.

“Our investments and gradual improvements year after year in the facilities gave us foundational-level capabilities to be able to expand into areas we never imagined.”

The Show Must Go On

By Emily Merten

Preparation for the Theatre and Dance Department’s annual Spring Dance Concert was in full swing in March. Directors and choreographers were selected, dancers were cast and plans to fill an auditorium were underway.

But when the pandemic began to intensify in the U.S. and classes were moved to a virtual format, the directors and advisors had put their minds together to find a new way to move forward with the show.

A screen shot of a Zoom window showing dozens of dancers getting ready to practice

Dancers getting ready for their virtual performance

Those efforts culminated in a virtual concert, called “Vitalis.”

The show, which streamed on Vimeo from May 20 through May 22, consists of choreographed dance films created by a cast of more than 100 students, edited together by student directors Alyssa Gatan, Evan Ricaurté and Lindsay Eklund.

“When you’re in the dance studio rehearsing, you can feed off the energy of your dancers. Trying to navigate through this without being in person, it’s challenging and different,” Gatan said. “I’ve tried to figure out how to surpass that and keep working and problem-solving on my own.”

While the student directors expressed disappointment that they would not have a live performance, they adapted: learning skills such as filming and editing in preparation for the virtual show.

“When you’re in the dance studio rehearsing, you can feed off the energy of your dancers. Trying to navigate through this without being in person, it’s challenging and different.”

By the time shelter-in-place orders had been put into effect, choreographers had already created dance pieces designed for in-person performances. Dance professors Diana Stanton and Christy McNeil Chand encouraged choreographers to stick to the original pieces and adapt them for the virtual format.

The choreographers had to decide the best way to teach their dancers virtually.

Some created video tutorials, and others held Zoom meetings with dancers. Each week, individual dancers submitted rehearsal videos to the choreographers, who then edited together the videos and submitted drafts for the directors and advisors.

Stanton said that while most dancers would prefer gathering in person for a performance, this format provides a unique learning opportunity for the student dancers.

“In the arts, when you restrict something, sometimes that makes you explore deeper,” Stanton said. “That’s essentially what these dancers have done. They are really doing storytelling through movement.”

Though she may not be able perform her last show as a senior on a stage, Gatan welcomed the opportunity to help provide a creative outlet for her fellow students during these difficult circumstances.

“I knew it would be challenging, but we were ready to take it on because we knew we had to preserve something so special, which is being able to dance as a community,” Gatan said.

Learn by Doing in a Kit

By Gabby Ferreira

“On your marks, get set, go!”

A balloon shoots across a line that has been strung up across a living room, a bewildered dog watching from behind a chair. A student laughs in delight off-camera.

It’s a video of an assignment for professor Leah Wood’s EDUC 590 class: a rocket balloon challenge. It’s one of several hands-on lessons she’s assigned her students, who are completing the course virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Her students work through the class assignments thinking critically about the barriers in the lesson and how they could adapt the lesson or find a new way to teach the concept for children with disabilities.

“Part of this course is pushing them to be self-determined and exhibit the skills to be a lifelong learner. Having less structure is intentional.”

At the beginning of the quarter, Wood mailed each of her students a small box with tools for different activities the class would be exploring: a balloon and string for a balloon rocket challenge, rubber bands and pencils for a marshmallow shooter, and a tiny robot, called an Ozobot, that can be used to teach children how to code.

Wood is teaching the class asynchronously, which means that the class does not have a set meeting time every week.

“Part of this course is pushing them to be self-determined and exhibit the skills to be a lifelong learner,” Wood said. “Having less structure is intentional.”

The course has translated well to a virtual setting, and Wood said she’s seeing more engagement from her students as they work through the activities on their own time. She says the format has been helpful in building more informative assessments for each of her students. For each online lesson, she makes a brief welcome video and models the type of activity they’re going to do for that week.

The students complete their activities and upload their written work and videos of the activities into an online program called Flipgrid. Wood gives them feedback through written comments, voice memos and videos.

“It’s really helped me realize that the whole class doesn’t have to be on the computer,” Wood said. “It can still be hands-on.”

A young woman writes on a handheld whiteboard

Education student Daniela Rothberg makes calculations on a whiteboard during the rocket balloon experiment for Wood’s class.

Daniela Rothberg, one of Wood’s students, said she appreciates the way Wood has organized the course.

“Each week is different, and Flipgrid has been a great way to stay connected to the cohort,” Rothberg said. “You can see everyone and hear their opinion on the various topics we get.”

Wood said that while she misses her students and teaching in-person, the virtual setting has given her valuable insight.

“I don’t want to do it this way forever, but I think there are some real positives to take from this situation,” she said. “In the case of this course, some things are going really well.”