Symposium celebrates Emory graduate students' contributions to COVID-19 response

By Quinn Eastman | Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Nov. 23, 2021

Keynote speaker Michael Mina, a 2016 MD/PhD alumnus of the M2M program, argued in his talk that the Food and Drug Administration needs a “public health pathway” that would enable approval of faster COVID-19 tests, which would guide individuals and institutions in making decisions about quarantine.

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Emory graduate students have been all over the place. They’ve been studying COVID-19 in the hospital and laboratory and modeling disease spread, along with staffing testing events, advising local communities and providing community service and education. 

A symposium held Friday, Nov. 12, both online and in person at Emory Student Center, celebrated graduate students’ contributions to the COVID-19 response, particularly in Georgia. 

“When COVID-19 came along, their work took a big 90 degree turn. They put their dissertation projects on hold and they jumped in,” said pediatrics researcher Nael McCarty, PhD, one of the organizers of the symposium.   

Students reported on a diverse array of topics, ranging from laboratory studies of immune cells and how COVID-19 has affected complication rates among trauma patients, to the best methods for protecting agricultural workers and Emory’s own contact tracing program.

The symposium was also partly a valedictory event for the Molecules to Mankind (M2M) doctoral pathway at Emory, which trained 49 students in both laboratory and population sciences between 2010 and 2020. Introductory comments at the beginning of the symposium included a statement from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the source of financial support for the M2M program.

Being able to bridge approaches from one patient at a time to broad populations is critical for being able to address the many challenges of COVID-19, says McCarty, who was co-director of the M2M program. 

Keynote speaker Carlos del Rio, MD launched the Symposium with a summary of the most impactful research contributions that Emory made in our pandemic response, emphasizing how many teams came together to stand up programs and activities that benefit people well beyond Georgia.
 
Keynote speaker Michael Mina, a 2016 MD/PhD alumnus of the M2M program, argued in his talk that the Food and Drug Administration needs a “public health pathway” that would enable approval of faster COVID-19 tests, which would guide individuals and institutions in making decisions about quarantine. Mina, now at Harvard University, credited the experience he gained in the M2M pathway for the insights that have propelled his advocacy

“Too often we become myopic in our disciplines,” he said.

At the symposium, two students working with Rollins School of Public Health epidemiologist Jodie Guest, PhD reported on aspects of local COVID-19 epidemiology. In her remarks at the Symposium close, Guest cited how Emory’s student Outbreak Response team has been staffing testing events in partnerships with community partners across Georgia for most of the weekends since the pandemic began. 
 
“We are super tired of COVID-19, but our work is not done,” Guest said. 
 
Epidemiology graduate student Brady Bennett provided a snapshot of local testing results and the proportion of breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, obtained in collaboration with local provider Viral Solutions. Colleague April Ballard described a recent survey of people in Atlanta experiencing homelessness on their attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccination. 
 
“It turns out that people experiencing homelessness have similar concerns about the vaccines as we see in the general population,” Ballard said. 
 
Some of the symposium speakers’ research has already been published in academic journals, such as the work by doctoral student and M2M alumna Julia Sobolik on modeling COVID-19 infection risks among essential workers in agricultural processing.  
 
Others’ was not published yet. Surgery resident Courtney Meyer described a study of about 5000 trauma patients seen at Grady Memorial Hospital from March to December 2020. Her analysis showed that the 179 trauma patients who were positive for COVID-19 had a higher rate of complications such as kidney injury and sepsis, but (unexpectedly) not blood clots, compared with trauma patients overall. Patients with COVID-19 also spent more time in intensive care and almost a week more in the hospital overall. 
 
Kristin Harrington, an MD/PhD student and M2M alumna, gave an outline of Emory’s case investigation and contact tracing program, which tracked down more than 1200 students who tested positive for COVID-19 over the last year. Her findings are being prepared for publication. 
 
In contrast with contact tracing programs run by local governments, Emory’s contact tracers were able to interview more than 90 percent of their targets within 24 hours of positive test results, Harrington said. More than 75 percent of those interviews yielded close contacts. The median delay between symptom onset and test was two days, and test results were provided in about a day. 
 
“This is a success story,” Harrington said. “It is so different from what we’ve heard from state and local contact tracing programs.” 
 
University-based contact tracing programs at other universities have published similar findings; their ability to reach participants – most of whom were living off-campus – was attributed to strong compliance measures and social cohesion in the student population.