Huck Institutes tackles pandemic with true ‘We Are’ spirit

– For faculty, staff and administrators working across Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is more than an abstraction. It’s an everyday reality.

Serving the University as a hub for cross-disciplinary collaboration in the life sciences, the Huck Institute’s mission is to bring together diverse approaches and perspectives. Research participation spans dozens of departments across eight colleges at Penn State.

“The challenges we face today are far too complex to address with a unilateral approach,” said Huck Director Andrew Read. “We need to bring many skill sets to bear so we can assemble the bigger picture. Only then do we stand a chance of making a meaningful impact.”

That interdisciplinary nature and focus on bringing people together meant that Huck was well-positioned to quickly and creatively respond to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic through both collaborative research and public education efforts.

Catalyzing COVID-19 research teams

The drive to make an impact was very much on Read’s mind in February 2019, when the coronavirus outbreak first showed signs it could become a pandemic. By March 3rd, having recruited additional support from Susan McHale of the Social Sciences Research Institute and Clive Randall from the Materials Research Institute, Huck leadership spearheaded a rapid call for proposals across Penn State.

“Within a matter of weeks, we had evaluated 110 proposals and attracted $2.4 million in seed funding,” Read said. “We ultimately distributed this support to 48 research teams, encompassing the expertise of 136 faculty and staff members from 54 different departments and research units across Penn State. External collaborators on specific projects include Cornell, Nebraska-Lincoln, NYU, UCLA, and the Yale School of Medicine.”


Data4Action Project graphic
IMAGE: Penn State

Providing accurate coronavirus information

In addition to tackling the pandemic from a research perspective, Huck leadership saw an immediate need in the public sphere for access to valid, scientifically sound information about the many confusing and anxiety-producing aspects of the outbreak.

“Friends, colleagues and family members started emailing me with all kinds of questions,” said Elizabeth McGraw, director of the Huck’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD). “It was obvious that a lot of people didn’t know where to turn for good information.”

An infectious disease expert who has been interviewed about the pandemic by journalists worldwide, McGraw pitched an idea to the Huck communications team, and within 10 days the “Ask CIDD” video series was up and running. As of this writing, McGraw and her CIDD colleague, Assistant Professor of Biology Nita Bharti, have provided timely, research-based answers to more than 50 questions from the public, in short video form. Ask CIDD videos have been viewed tens of thousands of times via various Penn State social media channels. Questions are collected at AskCIDD.psu.edu.

One more way the Huck Institutes has responded to the pandemic is by launching a series of “COVID-19 Research Briefs” for the second season of The Symbiotic Podcast. The show, offered in both audio and video formats, debuted in September 2019 to explore best practices in cross-disciplinary life sciences research.

Hosted by Huck’s director of communications and marketing, the podcast evolved its format in response to the pandemic, moving from a brick-and-mortar studio to Zoom. The change has made it easier to include guests from outside the University, and future installments promise a more international flavor. Currently, new episodes are published every other Wednesday, along with Symbiotic Shorts – brief teaser videos that summarize the topics being discussed. Audio, video and transcripts for all episodes are posted at www.TheSymbioticPodcast.com.

“We Are” stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment.

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