A Surge in Scholarship

How faculty and student research continues to survive — and thrive — amidst the pandemic.

An illustration of a microscope, a cell phone, a plant and a graduation cap
By Robyn Kontra Tanner

In March, as educational institutions transitioned to virtual learning during the first wave of stay-at-home orders, universities across the nation debated the fate of their research programs. In the face of so much uncertainty, some schools shuttered large portions of active research and locked campus labs. Many universities halted undergraduate projects in order to continue master’s-level and doctoral research.

Cal Poly performed a different set of calculus, said Elizabeth Lowham, interim dean of graduate education in the division of Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education, and deemed research essential. She said the university considered unique factors like its geographic location and the fact that so much of Cal Poly’s research was quite literally alive when considering how the campus could safely support the continuation of research, scholarship and creative activity.

Crops, animals, cell cultures and fungal lines represented years of work, significant investments, and untold potential discoveries. Beyond physical projects, hundreds of students — mostly undergraduates — also depended on a spectrum of research endeavors for critical Learn by Doing experiences and course credit as research assistants.

“All those students should have the opportunity for learning, but also all of them are knowledge producers,” says Jane Lehr, director of the Office of Student Research. “We don’t think of our undergraduates as separate from knowledge production and problem solving — they’re integral to the research.”

The decision set the stage for a swell of bold scholarship ready to adapt to the logistical realities of the pandemic and address the COVID-19 virus itself.

Within days of spring quarter’s start, Cal Poly defined an approval process to continue critical research safely across a variety of formats. Faculty responded to the new circumstances with dogged enthusiasm, submitting more research proposals for a greater sum of funding compared to the same period in 2019 and securing two patents.

Over summer, the division collaborated with college deans to greenlight work on even more face-to-face data collection, analysis and collaboration. The team also helped researchers pivot projects and experiences to virtual formats to support student access and participation. Four hundred students in the College of Science and Mathematics engaged in research projects over summer, while the College of Engineering found success with their virtual Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

Wesley Khademi, a computer science student, worked on one such team in the College of Engineering that developed a self-supervised, deep learning model to improve the accuracy of low-dose CT scan images. The result could boost the clarity and utility of scans that expose patients to less radiation. Thanks to sponsorship from the National Institutes of Health, his team was able to test and refine an algorithm while working from home using projection data from real CT scans.

“The project allowed me to learn more about the biomedical field and the possible applications of machine learning within it, which was exciting!” said Khademi, who plans to pursue a computer science PhD. “Having a biomedical engineer as a collaborator was extremely insightful as they were able to understand how we could work with and manipulate CT data much more quickly than I was.”

During fall quarter, 130 face-to-face research experiences were up and running in carefully-adapted environments on campus, engaging more than 700 undergraduate and graduate students. Another 17 in-person research projects moved forward in field areas across California. Meanwhile, many studies progressed virtually.

“We know that Learn by Doing — even in non-pandemic times — includes a wide variety of approaches and methods, different types of data, and analytics tools,” said Lehr. “I think because we were already operating in that way, and because our faculty and students are incredibly creative and adaptable, people were able to continue forward.”

Responding to COVID-19

One on-campus research project has become the basis for a new coronavirus testing method that Cal Poly plans to leverage in the coming months.

A saliva-based COVID surveillance testing, which was developed by a group led by biological sciences professor and virologist Nathanial Martinez, is set to become the primary method of testing for the campus community. Martinez says the group started with a saliva testing protocol developed at Yale, and modified it to be run on existing lab equipment at Cal Poly.

A lab assistant scans a barcode on a collection of vials

Cal Poly’s on-campus lab tests a batch of saliva samples for the SARS CoV-2 virus.

The test uses a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) test that can detect RNA from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The speed of pooled testing will enable Cal Poly to test 4,000 people per day — and leaders are calling it a game changer for campus health and safety efforts during what could be the most critical months of the pandemic.

With the testing technology in place, Cal Poly launched a coordinated effort to ensure the new Cal Poly SARS-CoV-2 Surveillance Lab located in the Fisher Science building would meet government regulations to operate accurately, reliably and in a timely fashion. Biological Sciences professor Jean Davidson has led the effort to automate many of the labs functions, using robotic technology to identify, pool and run the samples; student lab assistants will play a major role in running the lab and validating the results.

Cal Poly says the test will help health officials find and isolate new cases faster than before.

“Our hope is that, because of the high levels of testing that we will be able to achieve, that we will be able to have our campus back, and that by better monitoring potential outbreaks we can quell it before it turns into a wave of infections on campus,” said Martinez.

Adapting to the Pandemic

When the pandemic hit, food science and nutrition professor Amy Lammert was in the midst of running the on-campus Sensory Testing Lab. She conducts a variety of research projects with students on topics like alternative protein sources and fear of new foods among children, in addition to fee-for-service projects with partner companies looking for consumer insights.

A person in a hair net, face mask and gloves spoons food into a cup

A student researcher assembles tasting samples in the lab in 2019. Courtesy of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

In June, Lammert and her team found a way to keep gathering data with an in-home usage testing plan. Hundreds of participants now pick up meticulously packed food kits – including fresh fruit, yogurt and energy drinks – from the lab on campus, sample them at home, and supply feedback in an online form.

While the at-home taste tests give Lammert and her team less control over factors like food temperature and ambient conditions, she knows she’s getting feedback from more realistic eating and drinking experiences outside the lab.

“This year has been a blessing from a teaching and learning perspective,” Lammert said of the labor-intensive pivot her team has made.

In the College of Liberal Arts, psychology professor Jay Bettergarcia, who uses they/them pronouns, has adapted how the Queer Community Action, Research, Education and Support (QCARES) team trains licensed therapists to better support people in the LGBTQ+ community. Bettergarcia conducted several face-to-face trainings with the program’s first cohort before it had to shift online. Now educating the second group of 30 professionals, they found the virtual format has opened doors in terms of accessibility, technology and connection.

“We were forced to figure it out, and we did,” they said, “and it’s better than I could have ever imagined it could be.”

Now the sessions are paced differently to prevent digital fatigue as speakers from different regions share their experiences. The virtual format has actually allowed professionals to be more vulnerable as they learn, Bettergarcia notes. While the trainings build a network of expertise locally, QCARES is gathering data simultaneously on how effective the trainings are to fill a void in the scholarly conversation.

“We know from pedagogical research what works in terms of classroom [learning], but we don’t have a lot around training therapists who are already in the field,” they said, noting there are even fewer studies focused on LGBTQ+ education.

Thanks to more than a dozen student research assistants, Bettergarcia is gathering concrete data on the outcomes of the trainings with the unique ability to compare the effectiveness of the first cohort’s in-person learning with the second’s virtual modality. Bettergarcia says QCARES aims to build a durable model for other communities to educate their mental health professionals on LGBTQ support.

And A multidisciplinary collaborative of students, faculty, and staff have organized the Central Coast Snapshots project, a space for stories on the pandemic experiences.

An illustration of a rainbow and a diverse group of people with the handwritten text "May solidarity fall on everyone like rain and racial justice flow like a raging river"

A journaling illustration, courtesy of the Central Coast Snapshots project.

The project, coordinated by Professor Grace Yeh of the Ethnic Studies Department, Catherine Trujillo and Jaime Ding of Kennedy Library’s Creative Works Department, Laura Sorvetti of Kennedy Library’s Special Collections and University Archives, and Professor Shanae Aurora Martinez of the English Department, is one of the projects launched by the Central Coast Public Humanities Collaborative to support storytelling projects that cultivate greater understanding of the local community, especially from historically marginalized perspectives.

“There is no singular experience during this time, and we need to be sure that we understand how our underrepresented and marginalized communities have been affected,” Yeh said. One example is June Fist 2020, a community-driven record of testimonials from Central Coast protests and solidarity for Black lives from 2020.

The virtual gathering space empowers people to share their experiences through interviews, online submissions and a collective journaling project to help process such a world-altering chapter in history. Additionally, the team offers community members workshops to learn about resources and receive guidance on ways to document their experiences.

“Working on the project has shown me the importance of storytelling,” said Erika Cospin, student research assistant and cultural worker. “As a woman of color, I personally understand how the stories of marginalized communities are too often ignored. I was able to play a part in creating a platform to share these stories. Honestly, my involvement in the project has restored my hopes of a better world.”

On the Horizon

Before the pandemic took hold, Cal Poly set the stage for scholars to study and develop solutions to California’s biggest problems. Renee Reijo Pera, vice president for Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education, introduced the Strategic Research Initiatives (SRI) program in 2019 as a call for faculty to put forth bold, aspirational proposals to tackle pressing challenges by leveraging Cal Poly’s unique intersection of disciplines.

From a field of more than 100 proposals from 350 faculty members, the university announced five areas poised for strategic growth: Central Coast place-based research, community health, data science and artificial intelligence, environment of California and beyond, and the technology workforce. Selected projects in these categories receive funding and support for Learn by Doing experiences with student researchers.

“Almost all of them have an element of increasing accessibility and broadening participation,” said Elizabeth Lowham. “All of them are centered in real problems that we currently face — and that we will continue to face unless we change something.”

“We have laid the foundation, in less than a year, for work that will transform Cal Poly, our state and our world,” said Pera. “One of the most exciting early indicators of the importance of these projects is the interest they are generating in the philanthropic community and the ability they provide to secure federal funds — in essence to bring new funding to our university and coastal communities.”

Almost all of these projects are interested in how we find that change. Could this be the change?

One of those projects is the creation of the Cal Poly Institute for Community Health Training and Research, which would bring health care to rural and marginalized residents on the Central Coast.

The institute, led by kinesiology and public health professors Suzanne Phelan and Marilyn Tseng, will leverage a mobile health team to provide care and connect community members with resources while robust research and evaluation improve the program from within. Phelan hopes the effort can serve as a model for other universities launching new initiatives that adapt to the unique and urgent needs of different communities.

Cal Poly’s wealth of wildfire expertise comes together in the new Cal Poly Wildland-Urban Interface FIRE Institute. Faculty from every college on campus will work to help reduce the risk of destructive wildfires where nature meets the built environment. The institute — the first of its kind at a California university — plans to investigate wildfire risk reduction strategies, tactical and technical firefighting practices, and resilient methods of building in fire-prone areas.

“We have to do our part to educate the public and policymakers on how these fires happen and what we can do to make them less destructive,” said Dan Turner, the project’s leader and business manager of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council.

In the tech sector, a new coalition of researchers seek to create standards on ethical technology and train new professionals meeting the demands of an evolving field. The coalition, which plans to partner with teams of student researchers and Cal Poly’s California Cybersecurity Institute, will start by working with employers and nonprofits to analyze industry demographics and in-demand skills to spot trends in the workforce.

“By studying how the tech workforce is trained and developed, we can get a better idea of how to train the next generation of this workforce and change the industry for the better,” said Matthew Harsh, one of project’s faculty leaders and director of the Center for Expressive Technologies.

With a slate of promising projects gaining ground each day and a steady commitment to scholarship, it is clear that Cal Poly researchers aren’t shying away from the hurdles of this unprecedented chapter in history or the opportunity it brings to imagine a brighter future.

“Almost all of these projects are interested in how we find that change. Could this be the change?” asks Lowham. “It speaks to the current moment that we’re in, but it also speaks to the interest Cal Poly students, faculty and staff have in creating knowledge for good.”