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Rice announces $1 million COVID-19 research fund


The Center for Research Computing’s Spatial Studies Lab created a dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases, hospital bed utilization rates and testing locations in Texas. Screenshot from coronavirusintexas.org

By Rynd Morgan     4/8/20 4:11pm

Rice officials announced that a $1 million accelerator fund will be established to support COVID-19-related research projects, according to a press release on Monday.

Rice has set a goal of $1 million for research funding, according to the Rice News article. The funding will be divided between $500,000 already allocated by the university, $500,000 raised from donors and federal support to make up for the initial university investment.

Yousif Shamoo, vice provost for research and a professor of biosciences, said the decision to undertake this research mission came directly in response to ideas from faculty, staff and students.

Shamoo said that research conducted under the fund will investigate how to end the spread of COVID-19 and how to plan for future pandemics.

“Recovery means understanding how society and people will come to grips with their loss and how society may be changed,” Shamoo said. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this horrible situation. We would be fools to not learn from this.”

The Office of Research, the Office of the President, the Educational and Research Initiatives for Collaborative Health at Rice, the university institutes (the Ken Kennedy Institute, the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Smalley-Curl Institute) and a task force in the department of bioengineering are working together in research efforts supported by the fund, according to Shamoo. 

The department of bioengineering has organized a COVID-19 working group, co-chaired by Assistant Professor Jerzy Szablowski and Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Director Rebecca Richards-Kortum, according to the press release. The working group is one of several projects approved to access the fund.

Richards-Kortum said that the working group started in the bioengineering department, but quickly expanded into multiple groups which include colleagues from additional departments. The working groups are focused on topics such as developing diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccine strategies, locally manufacturing personal protective equipment, scientific outreach and social science outreach.

“We are all trying to use our skills and resources to contribute to the pandemic where we can, especially to support our colleagues in the Texas Medical Center who are on the frontlines,” Richards-Kortum said.

The Rice Data to Knowledge Lab is also working together with the Rice DataSci Club to sponsor a student competition to apply data science and computing skills and bring a deeper analysis of the spread and impact of COVID-19 in Houston. The competition is also supported by the research fund.

Cole Morgan, president of Rice DataSci Club, said that the club is currently organizing a two-week competition called COVID-19 Houston Community Projects to solve local challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with up to $5,000 in prize money for multiple groups to win.

Researchers at Rice have already been working on COVID-19-related projects prior to this announcement. The Center for Research Computing’s Spatial Studies Lab created a dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases, hospital bed utilization rates and testing locations in Texas. The dashboard, one of four created by the lab so far, was a spontaneous effort that started over spring break, according to Farès el-Dahdah, director of the Humanities Research Center. Their first dashboard created for Brazil has received more than 700,000 views online, said el-Dahdah. The group has also recently published a dashboard for Harris County specifically. 

Shamoo said that his office is translating the passion to do good during a time of crisis into a program that Rice can be proud of.

“Even in the best of times the writing, reviewing and awarding of funding from the federal government takes months and many aspects of the COVID-19 response need action now,” Shamoo said. “We have talented faculty, staff and students that can do things right now that can make a difference.”

[4/8/20 6:38 p.m.]  This article has been corrected to reflect that the Coronavirus dashboard created by the Center for Research Computing’s Spatial Studies Lab was not supported by the COVID-19 accelerator fund.

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