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Research, Classes, Community Engagement Going Strong

I’m grateful for the opportunity to provide an NAU update.

Our students, faculty and staff – as well as NAU’s surrounding communities – have embraced the current reality and used their strong leadership, creativity and fortitude to make their way through the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges and opportunities it has brought.

Many of our students are now navigating online summer classes, recognizing the importance of the long-term picture of pursuing a college education. Making progress every semester will get our students closer to a degree sooner rather than later, creating a lifetime of opportunity – economically, socially and within their chosen careers. We are all looking forward to returning to on-campus classes and are engaged in intensive planning efforts for fall focused on the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. We are keeping our eyes on the longer-term gain, adjusting and staying focused as we move forward.

We were gratified we could offer our students financial assistance recently, distributing millions from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funds were made available to defray costs students incurred over spring semester while pursuing their education during this time of health, safety and financial uncertainty.

I am also thrilled with our faculty’s involvement in finding solutions to the pandemic and contributing to efforts within our local communities. From cutting-edge testing labs, genomic pipelines and advanced pathogen science to big data and fluid dynamics, NAU’s technological expertise is leading our fight against COVID-19. Our research teams are collaborating across disciplines, including microbiology, mathematical epidemiology and bioengineering.

Amir Arzani, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Cardiovascular Biomechanics Lab, has developed 3-D simulations of sneezing and coughing to explain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Computer modeling techniques his lab uses to study blood flow in diseased arteries are now being used to study airflow and airborne aerosol transport in lung airways.

Crystal Hepp, an assistant professor in NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, is testing wastewater in Northern Arizona communities to help determine the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Because the virus is shed in human waste, she believes sewage is a viable avenue for its detection.

While scientists predict second or even multiple COVID-19 outbreaks, Hepp believes wastewater testing may function as an early and ongoing warning system, especially in rural communities underserved by health care workers and medical facilities, and can alert wastewater plant operators to elevated risks.

NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) recently launched the new COVID-19 Testing Service Center (CTSC), where researchers are testing new drugs and decontamination agents against the SARS-CoV-2 virus to identify therapies and protective procedures. By repurposing its existing biodefense research infrastructure, PMI is dedicating much of its research capacity to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

And Joe Mihaljevic, a mathematical epidemiologist and assistant professor at NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, is creating computer modeling systems to predict outcomes of the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across Coconino, Navajo, Apache and Mohave counties.

Mihaljevic received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a disease modeling portal to predict virus spread. The models will help local healthcare authorities manage emergency planning and request adequate resources from state and federal authorities.

These are just some of our recent efforts in the fight against COVID-19. To learn more about the work of our researchers and other stories, visit us news.nau.edu/. FBN

By Rita Hartung Cheng

Dr. Rita Hartung Cheng is
Northern Arizona University’s 16th president.

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