Two Great Valley professors awarded seed grants for COVID-19 research

MALVERN, Pa. — Despite being limited to virtual interactions and meetings, Penn State Great Valley faculty continue to conduct innovative research. Ashkan Negahban, assistant professor of engineering management, and Satish Srinivasan, assistant professor of information science, were awarded seed grants to fund projects to help address the COVID-19 crisis. The seed grant initiative, led by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, provided funding to 47 teams of Penn State researchers from three campuses, 10 colleges and more than 25 departments.

Negahban’s research team — which includes Ottar Bjornstad, chair of epidemiology at Huck and distinguished professor of entomology and biology; Mohamad Darayi, assistant professor of systems engineering; and Robin Qiu, professor of information science — is investigating optimization of COVID-19 control strategies in public transportation.

Since COVID-19 has spread rapidly in many large cities, intervention measures like hand-sanitizer dispensers or random testing in public transit stations could be essential to slowing the spread of the virus. What makes the situation challenging is that limited time and resources mean cities must prioritize in which transit stations the strategies will be implemented. The question is, what is the best metric or risk index to determine the priority of stations?

Using publicly available health and transit data from New York City, Negahban and his team are developing comprehensive criteria to build a simulation model. The criteria encompass a variety of factors, ranging from the amount of traffic in a station to the prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in districts.

“The ultimate product that we will be delivering will be a general decision-making tool which will be available online,” Negahban said. “Any city will be able to plug in their data and run the simulation, which will tell them how the different ways of ranking and prioritizing stations perform.”

Srinivasan’s research focuses on the social, economic, and emotional impacts of social distancing. By collecting, analyzing, and mining data from social media, Srinivasan and his team — which includes Negahban and Raghu Sangwan, associate professor of software engineering — are compiling information on users’ economic, social, mental, and emotional well-being while following various social distancing measures.

The study is initially focusing on the United States and will expand to include countries in Europe and Asia. Because different areas of the United States are implementing various levels of social distancing, Srinivasan and his team are studying policies at county, state, and national levels.

“In that variability, we expect to find different patterns emerging,” Sangwan said. “From this data, we want to build a social-distancing simulation model for policy makers who can weigh the tradeoffs that might result from different ways in which that policy can be implemented.”