UNM Women in STEM working to expand our knowledge of COVID-19

Women in STEM from across disciplines at UNM are looking at ways to understand and fight SARS-CoV-2, from studying what it does to our lungs to researching how animal modeling can be applied to our knowledge about the effects of COVID-19. 


UNM researchers also have examined the virus’ impacts on our social and educational systems.


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. In her lab she is working with PhD candidate Aurora Kraus to use zebrafish as a model for COVID-19 with emphasis on the loss of smell, or asnomia, that many people have reported as a symptom of the virus.


“In my lab we are really interested in the interaction between viruses and the olfactory system, so we want to understand why we lose smell when we get infected with the virus,” Salinas said. 


Through this work, Salinas and Kraus aim to better understand how neurons and immune cells interact in the nose and how these two functions affect our brains. With COVID-19 remaining an ongoing public health crisis, they wanted to further apply this research to examine how COVID-19 changes your sense of smell and affects the overall state of the brain.



“Right now we are the only ones taking that question on a model that is so genetically pliable. Hopefully it can help with long COVID symptoms and understanding the effect of vaccines on the population,” Kraus said. 


Additionally, Salinas said she is very excited about this model for its potential to see how smell recovers.


Using a computational model to better understand how COVID spreads in the lungs 

Meanwhile, Drs. Melanie Moses and Judy Cannon published a paper in 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.


Considering how inequities have shaped the pandemic

Moses and Dr. Kathy Powers, an associate professor of political science at UNM, recently appeared on the podcast Complexity, hosted by the Santa Fe Institute, where Moses is an external faculty member. During the show, they talked about problems with the COVID vaccination effort and how creating better epidemic models can protect the the most vulnerable.

Listen here:

Read more here about Moses’ and Powers work on epidemic models and how people of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.


Studying how to kill the virus through UV light and polymers 

Dr. Eva Chi, a professor and regents’ lecturer in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering 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 the video below.



Others have looked at the affects of the virus on care givers, education system, the economy and even the way we perceive communication about the virus.


COVID has shed new light on struggles of care givers

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.”


Analyzing how vaccine messages are presented to the public

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.


“I conducted this study when we learned that the COVID-19 vaccines became available November 2020. As a communication scientist, I wanted to respond to the call for research about communication strategies to promote uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine by the National Institutes of Health (2020). Now that we get effective vaccines in record time thanks to our infectious diseases scholars, I as a social scientist wanted to do my job to find the effective strategy for vaccine communication particularly for those who have low perceived risk of COVID-19.” 


As a director of the Digital Media and Communication for Health & Politics Research Group, Dr. Hong is working with graduate students about how we communicate and interact with digital media about health and political issues. Dr. Hong’s research focuses on health inequities and social change with an emphasis on the functions and processes of communication in social systems and structures.


The rising role of instructional designers during the pandemic

Online teaching and instruction was the focus of two publications in 2021 by Dr. Mary Rice, an assistant professor of literacy in the College of Education and Human Sciences. She co-authored multiple publications on the rising importance of the work by instructional designers to support impartial education during COVID-19. 


The work includes an article in Information and Learning Sciences called Self-regulated learning in online learning environments: strategies for remote learning and two in the Distance Education journal, Instructional designers’ shifting thinking about supporting teaching during and post-COVID-19 and Instructional designers’ roles in emergency remote teaching during COVID-19.


In one of the articles, Rice and her co-authors gathered existing evidence about how to support children and adolescents in self-regulating their learning in online educational settings. Much of this research came from projects that Rice had participated in during her graduate school experiences. 


The evidence gathered from previous studies included asking students to consider how they learn online, providing pacing support, monitoring engagement, and supporting families. 


The paper has been viewed on the journal website more than 26,000 times and is posted in other locations. The article was also referenced in the policy document from the European Union Publication Office Document “What did we learn from schooling practices during the COVID-19 lockdown?”, which has been used in many countries to develop educational guidance during the present and future pandemics. 


“When school buildings closed the young people were at home working on their lessons and people needed quick information about what families needed to be successful engaging in learning outside of a school classroom. That is what this article provided,” Rice said.


The other two co-authored articles focused on instructional designers’ perceptions of their new roles and the possibilities for supporting learning that relied on digital applications and programs to support instruction. In one of the articles, instructional designers highlighted their commitment to accessibility and supporting the university community during this time of shifting instructional modalities. The designers also described their work in providing access to resources, offering professional learning and technology support to a higher degree than prior to the pandemic, and serving as advocates for students and their profession.


“Basically, we saw that instructional designers felt their role in the university was not well-understood and the pandemic gave them an opening to demonstrate the value of their expertise and increase their sense of belonging,” Rice said.


COVID’s impact on the economy

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


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.


Read more about work on COVID by other women in STEM at UNM.