Graduate students seek pandemic silver lining

When COVID-19 temporarily shuttered research labs and projects across Purdue’s campus in the spring of 2020, some graduate students were inspired to pause and rethink their research. Some researchers emerged from the shutdown with a new focus and new ideas for new projects. Some students pivoted existing research and added research questions that are related to the pandemic.

Here are the stories of five students who found the silver lining in the cloud of the pandemic, a meaningful way to either capitalize on the situation, address it, or overcome it. All are discovering that conducting a timely, relevant study that will add to our understanding of a global pandemic while experiencing the global pandemic in real time is invigorating, intense, and arguably the most meaningful experience of their graduate education.

Jump to the stories:


Helping the restaurant industry bounce back

Kevin Liu\

Yiran Liu, a 2nd-year PhD student in Hospitality and Tourism Management, works as a TA in the John Purdue Room, a restaurant and teaching lab that was temporarily closed in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic.


“I heard about [COVID-19] starting in January of this year. I realized there was a pandemic, but at that time, I wasn’t thinking much about how it would impact our industry or how it would change my research topic,” said Yiran Liu, a 2nd-year PhD student in Hospitality and Tourism Management. “Then around March everything changed. We had to shut down campus and move everything online. Then we had the stay-at-home orders and the dining restrictions. I saw that all of our stakeholders were impacted by this. Then I realized, yeah, this is going to be a big thing.”

Before the pandemic, Liu was working on a study related to face-to-face hospitality with high human touch in the restaurant industry. COVID-19 had a “huge impact,” forcing him to shift his study to include perceptions of pandemic-related risk associated with dine-in, takeout, and delivery. His longitudinal study will assess how changes in restaurant purchases at various stages during the pandemic were induced by consumers’ risk perceptions and the impacts of those changes on the industry.

The insights gleaned from the study could provide restauranteurs with practical suggestions to help reduce the perception of risk. The results could also inform local government officials who are developing safety policies that affect the restaurant industry and messaging to educate restaurant-goers about measures they can take to protect themselves.

Liu knows firsthand the impact of the pandemic on a restaurant. He works as a teaching assistant in the John Purdue Room, a restaurant and teaching lab for undergraduate students that was shut down in the spring semester. Liu reflected on the challenge of teaching students how to operate a restaurant without the benefit of having an actual restaurant: “We had to pivot all our classes online. The students did case studies and restaurant simulation activities online to train their minds on how to handle situations.”

The John Purdue Room reopened during the fall semester. The tables were set up to be socially distanced, and customers are returning for the popular $9 three-course meal.

“It’s going to be a long-term process,” Liu said of the recovery of the restaurant industry. “Our research must keep up with the trends. We have to consider how we can help our customers survive in this environment. The intensity is higher.”



Testing therapeutics to combat COVID-19


The opportunity to help identify therapeutics for COVID-19 prompted Brandon Anson, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences, to postpone graduation.


Brandon Anson, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences, began testing antivirals for a pig coronavirus that has significant impact on the porcine industry. “Even when we are not dealing with a strain that is deadly to humans, coronavirus have an impact on our lives and our economy,” Anson said. He went on to test broad spectrum antivirals for human coronaviruses for the next six years.

Anson, an infectious disease researcher, thought a deadly human pandemic was not an ‘if’, but a ‘when’, and that “emergence of a new deadly epidemic coronavirus was inevitable.”

In December 2019, he was making plans to complete his research and graduate in the summer of 2020 when he heard about a novel coronavirus in China.

“We were trying to assess whether or not this was going to be a big problem. Some coronaviruses are deadly. Some are seasonable and pass through the population every year. This one was clearly much more serious,” he said.

When the magnitude and urgency of the virus became known, Anson decided to postpone graduation so that he could stay at Purdue and support the multi-lab effort to identify therapeutics to combat the pandemic. He is collaborating with researchers across campus and with industry partners to test synthetized compounds to evaluate their potential as anti-viral drugs that could target COVID-19.

The decision to postpone graduation for a semester or two and stay engaged in combating COVID-19 came easy.

“I felt obligated to stay personally, because I wanted to do this,” he said. “This is our mission. This almost never happens. You have an emergent virus and you have the toolkit and skills to tackle the problem in the most effective manner. It’s rare for infectious disease researchers to have such a clear-cut mission, in terms of developing therapeutics. It’s rare to have a research project where your data is getting reported to NIH, to have that immediate gratification that the work you are doing is making an immediate difference.”



Evaluating a telehealth platform to keep patients safe

Andrew Exner

Andrew Exner, a PhD student in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, is evaluating an artificial intelligence system that could enable patients with speech difficulties to be assessed at home.


Early this year, Andrew Exner, a PhD student in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, was working with the Purdue Motor Speech Lab and the Imaging, Evaluation, and Treatment (I-EaT) of Swallowing Research Laboratory at Purdue. He was studying the motor behavior of subjects as they are coordinating speech and swallowing during social meal times. The study required subjects to be unmasked while performing tasks in the lab. When safety concerns related to COVID-19 emerged, the researched was halted, and the lab was temporarily shut down.

“It was tough,” said Exner. “We had been working on this for months, and it just ended suddenly. I was not sure what the future held.”

A new project soon arrived to his lab in the apposite field of telehealth. Today Exner is evaluating an artificial intelligence system that could enable patients with speech difficulties to be assessed in the comfort and safety of their own home. Developed by a start-up in California, the technology could enable a patient to be tested while undergoing tasks, such as speaking and reading aloud. The technology could measure speech rate and symmetry, mobility, and coordination of the facial muscles, for example. These data would be used by practitioners to identify targets for treatment or to monitor the progress of therapy.

“We know that we can measure things,” Exner said. “We want to see if this system can measure them in a similar way so that we can say if this automated diagnostic system is as effective as a human who is an expert at this.”

While there has long been a drive to research and implement telehealth for populations who have barriers to access, Exner said that the pandemic has introduced additional barriers in the provision of effective treatment. Patients with pre-existing conditions and chronic health problems are more vulnerable, and this obligates providers to adopt new methods to effectively assess concerns without increasing the risk to the patient.

“It feels good,” Exner said about the shift in focus to telehealth research. “I am encouraged to be part of a movement that is focused on medical justice. To be able to help people who are struggling in some way, that’s why I got involved in science in the first place. It’s electrifying.”



Studying the impact of COVID-19 on coworker relationships

Catherine Kleshinski

Catherine Kleshinski, a PhD candidate in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, shown here giving a virtual presentation, is learning how coworkers help one another thrive in trying times.


Many employees are isolated, working from home, and seeing their coworkers much less during the pandemic. There are fewer spontaneous conversations around the proverbial water cooler, and there is less sharing of personal information among coworkers. How is this impacting coworker relationships and work performance, if at all?

These are questions being considered by Catherine Kleshinski, a PhD candidate in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, for her dissertation on coworker friendship.

“Before COVID, I was focused on social interactions at work and at home and how those interactions affect well-being and work behaviors,” she said. She considered how coworkers met outside of the office, such as at Happy Hour or while going for a run together, and how they shared non-work information.

“All that traditional socializing with coworkers stopped—at least for the many employees who were instructed to work from home,” Kleshinski said. “I had to rework how I thought about coworker friendship in a virtual setting and how I measured it.”

After pivoting the plans for her dissertation data collection, now she is researching questions such as: What does coworker friendship look like during COVID-19? How are coworkers helping each other thrive? When coworkers meet (virtually or in person), are they still sharing parts of their lives outside of work, and how does that affect them both?

“What I am hoping to find is that when people share elements of their personal lives with their coworker, or if they hang out with their coworker in a Zoom Happy Hour or a Zoom lunch, it generates a kind of energy between people, and it allows their personal and work lives to enrich one another,” she said. “So, what they do in their personal life helps them function in their work life and what they do in their work life helps them function better in their personal life.”

Kleshinski speculates that when coworkers talk about their personal lives or socialize outside of work time, they are more likely to feel a sense of thriving and energy at work. These activities may enrich the work-life experience and help employees perform better at work.

“Collecting data on coworker social interactions and friendship during this unique and challenging time has provided me a window into how coworkers help one another thrive in trying times,” Kleshinski said.



Being an international student during COVID-19

Jaya Bhojwani

 Jaya Sunil Bhojwani, an international PhD counseling psychology student, is studying the unique challenges that COVID-19 brought to international students in the U.S. and is developing an intervention to provide mental health support to affected students.


Jaya Sunil Bhojwani, a PhD counseling psychology student, conducts research on the socio-political and systemic challenges faced by international students studying in the U.S. It’s not just her research agenda, it’s also her lived experience. Bhojwani, who identifies as both Indian and Caribbean, has been navigating the international student experience for the past eight years, but said that the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified and multiplied the challenges.

“Being an international student is very distressing in the time of COVID,” Bhojwani said. “When the pandemic began, a lot of my peers were talking about their stressors, and I saw how little attention was being given to international student issues.”

In response, Bhojwani led a study that identified the challenges and impacts of COVID-19 on international students across the country. The students were already dealing with existing pre-COVID-19 challenges, such as difficulties adjusting to an unfamiliar country, immigration issues, inadequate healthcare, and financial and future insecurity, but these issues were exacerbated by pandemic-related factors such as university shutdowns, destabilizing presidential policies, heightened racism, and international travel restrictions, according to the study.

Many of the challenges faced by these students are complex and difficult to address, which compounds feelings of loneliness, isolation, and the sense of being ignored.

“There is this feeling that students have that they’ve worked so hard to get here, they are away from home, they are doing their best academically, they are paying their tuition, they are trying to find a job, but there are barriers at every turn,” Bhojwani said. “That feeling of being forgotten is so prevalent."

With funding from a Protect Purdue grant, Bhojwani’s team is developing a psycho-social intervention for Purdue international students to give them a voice and help address the gap in mental health support that their study revealed. “We are focusing on coping mechanisms using a cognitive behavioral lens, but also being very mindful in integrating the systemic perspective,” Bhojwani said. The project is awaiting IRB approval.

“This research, I hold it really close to my heart,” Bhojwani said. “International students are often forgotten not only on a nationwide level, but also on a university policy-wide level. The pandemic has created a new opportunity to voice these concerns and to bring awareness to the inadequacies on a systemic level.”

Writer: Korina Wilbert


November 18, 2020

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