Advance at UNM 2021 year in review

Women in STEM this year took on topics including viruses, better ways to get rid of human waste, and disaster risk analysis


Despite the formidable challenges of scientific discovery during a pandemic, women in STEM at UNM continued their research in 2021 on everything from cosmic microwaves to communication disorders.


Stories on our website this year about women in STEM covered everything from ways to help identify the remains of missing and murdered American Indians to research into ways to combine computational designs with traditional crafts.


The work came as faculty worldwide continued to face obstacles during the pandemic. A report by Advance at UNM published in February found that faculty struggled to work remotely while in many cases having to care for children or other adults. Recommendations from the report included changes in expectations for milestone reviews and ongoing flexibility for remote work. Read a summary of the changes that have been made at UNM here.

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Research on COVID’s impacts across disciplines


Advance Deputy Director Mala Htun in late November published an article, Women’s Equality and the COVID-19 Caregiving Crisis that explores the reality of women grappling with caregiving responsibilities along with the continued expectation of work productivity. The pandemic did not create, but rather showcases the difficulties and lack of support for reproductive labor, she wrote in the journal Perspectives on Politics


“Women professionals who kept their jobs and were fortunate enough to work from home — in contrast to most of the essential workers — had a hard time juggling work responsibilities with the needs of children and other dependents,” wrote Htun, a political science professor. “Women academics, for example, faced extra demands from all sides. More work was required to transition to online teaching and tailor instruction to students with varying levels of internet access. At the same time, women academics with dependents had to home school their school-age children, care for younger children, and often take care of elder family members.”


Other research by UNM’s women in STEM included scholarship related to viruses, such as the work of Dr. Eva Chi, a professor and regents’ lecturer in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who is exploring the role that UV light used on certain polymer materials with anti-microbial properties can have on viruses including the Coronavirus.


Eva Chi headshot
Dr. Eva Chi is exploring the role that UV light used on certain polymer materials with anti-microbial properties can have on viruses including the Coronavirus.

They’re useful not just for the current pandemic but there are a general type of antiviral material which could also combat or slow the spread of future pandemics if these are widely deployed,” she said. Chi explains her work in this video.


Drs. Melanie Moses and Judy Cannon in December had a paper in pre-print and under review with the journal PLoS Computational Biology about the ways SARS-CoV-2 virus replicates in lung cells. Moses, a professor of computer science and biology, said the research looks at why some patients become much sicker or infectious than others. Her team developed the Spatial Immune Model of Coronavirus, or SIMCoV. 


“SIMCoV is a visual model of how virus spreads through the lung. The lung is where severe disease first develops, and it has thousands of times more space for infection to spread than the nasal cavity where we typically measure viral load,” she said.


“SIMCoV shows that peak viral load in the lungs depends on how many distinct locations in the lung are initially infected. For example, a person who breathes in a lot of virus in a poorly ventilated room can seed viral spread in many distinct spots in their lungs.  This leads to more virus growth before the immune system can respond to kill virally infected cells. The person then has a greater chance of spreading the virus to others,” said Moses, who in 2018 started the work with Cannon, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology as part of a Women in STEM Award project.


“The model emphasizes why high-quality masks, ventilation, air-filtration and humidity control are important tools in the pandemic: even if these measures do not completely block infection, they reduce the amount of inhaled virus which can reduce disease severity and infectiousness. These are complementary approaches to vaccines which speed up the immune response so that even large initial viral infections can be controlled more quickly,” she said.


Dr. Irene Salinas, an associate professor of biology at UNM, has a publication in pre-print about using zebrafish as a model to investigate the pathophysiological effects of SARS-CoV-2. 


UNM assistant professor of Economics Dr. Jingjing Wang published an article on COVID-19 effects on financial market efficiency in the journal Finance Research Letters


Jingjing Wang headshot
Dr. Jingjing Wang recently published articles on the effects of COVID-19 on financial market efficiency and the supply chain of the Chinese hog market.

According to Wang’s paper, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the market efficiency to decrease in four markets including the SP 500 Index, gold and dollar markets. However, the Bitcoin market hasn’t decreased as much. The paper, COVID-19 and financial market efficiency: Evidence from an entropy-based analysis explains this observation and how it’s beneficial.


“The first three markets deteriorated the most; meanwhile, Bitcoin also declined but not as much, despite it usually having the worst quality. This suggests that the robustness of the efficiency of the Bitcoin market can be an attractive feature for it to serve as a safe haven asset during extreme shocks like COVID-19,” Wang said. Read more.


Wang also co-authored another study this year on the type of supply chain disruptions that have become pronounced during the pandemic. The study looked specifically at the Chinese hog market to study the impacts of the disruptions and found they are generally short lived, raise hog prices and reduce consumption.


Dr. Yangsun Hong, an assistant professor of Communication and Journalism, recently published an article in the journal Health Communication on effective communication strategies to encourage vaccination among young adults with low perceived risk of COVID-19. 


“I am sure we all see many health campaign messages that promote vaccination for COVID-19. Many of them highlight potential negative consequences that individuals may experience from not getting vaccinated such as getting sick from COVID-19 and hospitalization,” she said. “As a health communication scholar, I wanted to find the effective strategy for vaccine communication particularly for those who have low perceived risk of COVID-19 because they have lower vaccination rate than people who perceive more risk about COVID-19.” 


According to the article, for young adults who have low perceived risk of COVID-19, health messages emphasizing potential negative consequences to people around them (e.g., their family, friends, or community members) due to their own failure to get vaccinated for COVID-19 is more effective to promote their intention for vaccination by increasing elaboration of the message and favorable attitude toward vaccination. 


However, when the message highlights positive outcomes of vaccination, messages talking about their own gains from vaccination led to greater message elaboration and more favorable attitude toward vaccines than messages emphasizing the beneficial consequences for others including friends and family members, Hong found.


Meanwhile, Drs. Gabriel Sanchez and Shannon Sanchez-Youngman of UNM’s Center for Social Policy are leading a national poll aimed at understanding effective COVID-19 vaccine messaging as well as factors that contribute to vaccine hesitancy factors. Read more.


Other research highlights from 2021


Women in STEM also explored other topics across the sciences.


UNM Professor of Psychology Dr. Katie Witkiewitz spearheaded a new program to provide mentorship for graduate students who are working to address issues of health inequities in New Mexico.


Headshot of Katie Witkiewitz
Dr. Katie Witkiewitz is heading a program at UNM to provide mentorship for graduate students who are working to address issues of health inequities in New Mexico

“I hope to support students who are doing research that will have a lasting effect on reducing the impact of substance use and substance use disorders in New Mexico. Each of the students are doing highly creative and innovative work that will not only contribute to their own training as scientists, but that will likely have a lasting effect on people in the state of New Mexico,” Witkiewitz said. Read more.


Dr. Darcy Barron, an assistant professor from Physics and Astronomy, was awarded a three-year NSF grant of $393,000 to develop instrumentation and analysis tools to better monitor the cosmic microwave background (CMB). 


“The CMB is a very well defined instant of time in the universe and the earliest light we can see from The Big Bang. New light comes to us because the universe is expanding, so we’re looking further back in time each year we look at it and this makes it a really nice reference point we can use to test models of the universe,” Barron said. Read more.


Dr. Jessica Richardson, an associate professor of speech and hearing sciences at UNM, recently was awarded a five-year, $2 million grant to optimize treatment and interventions for those who acquire the language disorder known as aphasia after suffering a stroke. 


“Aphasia is an acquired language disorder that affects speaking, understanding, reading, and writing. All language modalities will likely be affected to some degree, but depending on the type of aphasia, some language modality deficits may be worse than others,” Richardson said. “The most common cause of aphasia is stroke, and about 30-50 percent of people who have had a stroke will live with aphasia for the rest of their lives.” Read more.


Dr. Ylva Pihlström, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, recently was awarded a three-year, $564,000 grant from NASA to continue research that she started as part of her 2017 Women In STEM Award. Read more.


The work, set to begin in January 2022, aims to better understand and quantify the mass-loss process of Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stars, which are stars in their late evolutionary stage that rapidly lose mass through the release of gas and dust, similar to dust that accompanies meteorites. 


All of that research comes as others are getting started on some new projects, due in part to funding through the 2021 Women in STEM Awards.  In June, Advance, in collaboration with the UNM Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of the Vice President for Research also named 12 Women in STEM winners. This year’s winning proposals will focus on better water management, how healthy brains age, and methods for transferring knowledge between robots. Other projects will explore new ways to reduce the environmental impacts of human waste; social identities of people diagnosed with Celiac Disease; paths to better helping communities affected by climate change and the effects of acute sugar intake including possible links to asthma. See our series of profiles on past winners here.


In August, Advance also named 31 STEM Shoutout recipients. Among them is Dr. Anjali Mulchandani, an assistant professor in Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering (and Women in STEM award winner) who is looking at ways to get rid of human and industrial waste including through reusing some of it. Dr. Yolanda Lin, an assistant professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, was a STEM Shoutout recipient for bringing research on computational modeling and disaster risk for natural hazards to UNM. Dr. Diana Northup, a visiting associate professor in UNM’s department of biology, was also featured in this year’s STEM shoutouts and by KRQE for being recently in an episode of Alien Worldsa new docu-fiction series on Netflix for her cave exploration work. Read more about it here


Advance also partnered this year with the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of the Vice President for Research on several of the popular faculty networking events known as Lightning Lounges, including one just for postdocs. See the replays here.


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