UNM women in STEM combat COVID-19

UNM women in STEM across campus are taking action against the current COVID-19 pandemic and asking how they can best serve their community in the fight against this virus. 


From the creation of virtual exhibitions to 3D printing face masks for health care workers, they are on a mission to keep New Mexicans not only safe, but informed.


Dr. Heather Canavan pictured from her and Advance at UNM’s Stay Away From Denatured Alcohol video. In the video, Canavan addresses the concerning trend of people attempting to make hand sanitizer out of denatured alcohol.

Dr. Heather Canavan, a professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is addressing the concerning trend of people attempting to make hand sanitizer out of denatured alcohol, which is a highly toxic substance.


Canavan was first made aware of this issue through a colleague who had noticed the absence of denatured alcohol in stores because of people planning to make homemade hand sanitizer. Canavan also noticed denatured alcohol sold out on Amazon and saw reviews from individuals saying it works as a hand sanitizer.


Denatured alcohol, also commonly known as wood alcohol, can be fatal if ingested or lead to blindness. Even if it is not ingested, denatured alcohol can still be a significant danger if inhaled or absorbed through the skin like it would be if used as hand sanitizer.


Extremely concerned, Canavan knew she had to get the message out fast, and what better way to do that than through social media, which Canavan says is the place people are getting most of their information. Teaming up with Advance at UNM, Canavan is addressing this problem through a brief video (seen below), which she has circulated on social media with the intent of spreading awareness on this highly toxic practice.


“If this was five years ago I would have made a 30-minute video, but I realized no one would watch that, they’re going to watch 90 seconds and that’s all you really need. You have to be able to engage people and say this is why it’s important. You don’t have to teach things in a way that only the people who are super motivated will understand. If you make it in a way everyone can understand, you’ve achieved what you wanted, which is getting the message across,” Canavan said.


Volunteers Johnny Yarmey and Natalia McIver work with a 3D printer. Currently, Canavan has a team of about 50 volunteers, made up of students and members from the community. Photo courtesy of Heather Canavan.

Along with this, Canavan has spearheaded her own sewn facemask and 3D printing efforts to give to the community and health care workers in need.


“Different areas respond differently based on population needs and what supplies they’ve got. This was on my mind and got me thinking there’s a lot of people who want to help and that is a resource that can be really positive. I was on the NextDoor app and saw people making sewn masks and I thought all of these people who have sewing machines and 3D printers could be doing these things at home could be real resource even if it’s just one person sewing 10 masks in a week that’s 10 more we would have had otherwise,” Canavan said.


The fabric masks are sterilized at UNM using UV light. Canavan is working remotely with approximately 20 sewers from around the community to produce these masks. Photo courtesy of Heather Canavan.

Currently, Canavan has a team of about 50 volunteers, made up of students and members from the community, which she has dubbed ScrubHub ABQ. With approximately 20 sewers,  Canavan has been able to produce about 500 fabric face masks, a big portion of which has been donated to the Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board.


In addition, Canavan and few volunteers have access to 3D printers, which they have taken advantage of in order to make “ear savers,” a small plastic extension used to hold the straps of face masks and relieve irritation to the ear where they normally would sit. Healthcare workers are especially in need of these considering how long they must wear masks.


“Hospital workers can get big irritations and anytime you have broken skin you are more likely to contract something. The ear savers can help with both fabric and surgical masks so people can wear them longer and are more comfortable,” Canavan said.


A completed 3D printed ear saver with the phrase ‘COVID-19 Warrior’ printed on it. Ear savers are used to hold the straps of face masks to relieve irritation to the ear where they normally would sit. Photo courtesy of Heather Canavan.

Canavan and her team have produced more than 40 ear savers, and more are being made daily. The first batch was donated to Simply Salud, a non-profit healthcare practice in Albuquerque. Another batch is scheduled to be delivered to healthcare workers at the UNM Hospital.


Canavan says the pandemic has brought back old feelings which she has applied to her current inspiration.


“When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, I was hearing the same stuff everybody’s hearing now: ‘we’re never going back to normal, old normal is gone and there’s going to be a new normal.’ It sounds negative and is hard to hear. But I learned then, just like many other cancer survivors and others do, and I hope that we will see again, that the ‘new normal’ while different doesn’t have to be bad. I think if we have that kind of hope—that we’re doing something, can adapt, can help—that is all positive. I’ve tried to focus on that, and have everybody who participates in this project focus on that, too. It’s important to feel like we’re making a difference to someone,” Canavan said.


Canavan says she encourages anyone with ideas of new problems to address, related to the virus, to come forward. “If anyone has an idea, they want to share that we could work on, I’m all ears! We have this group of people who are very smart, dedicated, and hardworking that can help with problems that may have been overlooked,” Canavan said.


Pictured is Dr. Devorah Romanek, curator of exhibits at The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. Covid 19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness is the second virtual exhibition Romanek has curated.

In response to the global pandemic, UNM’s Maxwell Museum curator Dr. Devorah Romanek has created Covid 19: Concepts of Sickness and Wellness, a virtual exhibition dedicated to expanding vistor’s perspectives on the virus through a historical context. 


The exhibit, which can be found here, has had 2,000 visitors so far and is continually adding content in the hopes of informing the public not only about the disease itself, but about broader historical responses to sickness. 


Romanek said she utilized this broad approach in hopes that it will help people feel grounded and inquisitive when looking at sickness and wellness through various perspectives throughout time and geographic space. 


“It helps to have the opportunity to be philosophical, and to know, in the historical sense, that we are not alone in facing a challenge like this, even as this challenge has its singular and unique aspects. And while we are commenting on the current situation with covid-19, there is a lot of information out there for people, so we didn’t think it would be too helpful to just pile on more information to the current situation, but rather to allow people to consider the current moment against a broad background,” Romanek said.


Romanek said she began working on the exhibition the day that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a state of emergency, knowing that the virus would soon reach New Mexico. 


“As curator of exhibits and head of interpretation at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, it is my role to see how the museum responds with its public face to the area we cover. So I knew we would want to respond to this pandemic and address what is happening in real-time in relation to the human experience, to a changing world in a time of crisis,” Romanek said. 


Romanek says the process has been deeply interesting and very busy. 


“It involves reaching out to a very large group of people, lots of communication to gather contributions, I have been talking to people close to home and around the globe– New Mexico and various of the other 50 States, The Navajo Nation, Canada, the UK, France, Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Mexico, Israel, etc. At the same time, I am undertaking some research myself and writing some part of the exhibition,” Romanek said. 


The introduction page to virtual COVID-19 exhibition. Romanek dedicated the exhibition to expand visitor’s perspectives on the virus through a historical context. Photo courtesy of Devorah Romanek.

However, creating a virtual exhibition comes with its own unique set of challenges, the biggest one for Romanek being developing a website with limited technical experience on how to do so. This is particularly tricky for her and her graduate student, Gabriel Raab-Faber, but Romanek says they are figuring it out. Romanek says another challenge has also dealt with relying more on visual content and text versus dimensional objects you’d typically see in physical museum spaces. 


Conversely, Romanek says she finds the broader reach the internet can provide rewarding.


“We can potentially reach many more people with an online exhibition, and we can change, update and add content as we go, and that is very different,” Romanek said.


Taking advantage of an online presence, Romanek has incorporated a unique aspect in the exhibition called Your Story, inviting individuals to send in their stories of how they are living through the pandemic. Romanek said she incorporated this to build a sense of community and have visitors feel like a part of the exhibition. Romanek also hopes to archive these stories and to build an understanding for future generations of what people today are going through. 


“I take away from this project that it is more important than ever to try and question and understand what it means to be human and to be part of a community. I also take away, which I do from all my work, that I am really lucky to be able to do the work I do,” Romanek said. 


Do you have a story to share? The exhibit is still seeking and accepting short stories from the public to be featured in the Your Story component of the exhibition which you can email to Romanek at dromanek@unm.edu


Pictured is Dr. Melanie Moses. With her latest NSF funding she aims to understand how human lungs respond to viral pathogens like COVID-19.

Dr. Melanie Moses, a professor of computer science and biology, has been awarded National Science Foundation funding to understand how human lungs respond to viral pathogens like COVID-19. 


With the help of Research Assistant Vanessa Surjadidjaja, Moses hopes to answer how within-host infection dynamics affect between-host transmission. More specifically, how the spatial interactions of virus and immune response within hosts affects transmission between hosts, Moses said. 


To do this, they are developing a Spatial Immunological Model of Coronavirus (SIM-Cov) that uses computer simulations and laboratory data to visualize interactions between immune cells and the virus within the lungs. The goal is to also examine variability in viral load, a correlate of how infectious the patient is, across infected individuals and through time, Moses said. 


“An important goal for disease modeling within hosts and between hosts is to account for how different kinds of cells, or people with different jobs or risk factors, interact in space to facilitate or impede disease spread,” Moses said.


A CT scan of a patients lungs shows estimated sites of infection from COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Fei Shan, Yaozong Gao, et al.

SIM-Cov uses the movement patterns of T cells, a type of white blood cell that dictates the body’s immune response to pathogens, and CT scans to show the distribution of infected cells in the lungs of COVID-19 patients. SIM-Cov then produces as output a predicted time course of infection including the number of infected and dead cells in the lung, and an estimate of viral load over time. 


“These variables are correlated with disease severity and the probability of transmission to other people,” Moses said.


While the research will not officially begin until June 1, 2020 when NSF funding will be in place, Moses has been building models of influenza spread in the lungs for six years and has learned that the spatial distribution of virus and immune cells is very important. 


“Most models of disease spread make the simplifying assumption that any cell has an equal chance of infecting any other cell. But in reality, cells are far more likely to infect nearby cells. Accounting for this reality changes our understanding of the disease dynamics,” Moses said. 


Moses says the Women In STEM Award that funded preliminary research to herself, Dr. Judy Cannon, and Surjadidjaja has been crucial in moving forward with this project.


 “Without it we would not have been able to successfully submit for NSF funding,” Moses said. 


Pictured is Dr. Helen Wearing. She was interviewed by the New York Times about her opinion on New Mexico’s work against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Helen Wearing, a UNM professor in the biology and math departments, was interviewed by the New York Times about her opinion on New Mexico’s work against the Covid-19 pandemic.


Wearing’s interests focus on “theoretical biology and disease ecology; using mathematical and statistical approaches to understand the biological processes that shape population and community dynamics, with an emphasis on host-parasite interactions.”


The article, “Coronavirus in New Mexico: How One of the Poorest States Averted a Steep Death Toll,” highlighted New Mexico’s quick response to the pandemic spread. Schools were shut down before most states and social distancing was aggressively implemented.


Wearing is part of a virus modeling group working with state health officials, and highlighted the work of her colleagues by sharing that “Hundreds of lives were saved because of what the state did early on, and that’s using conservative estimates.”