Spring/Summer 2020 /Pandem-ocracy/

New Knowledge

Studying Stress During a Pandemic

Studying Stress During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic—and the personal and financial emergencies that accompany it—are causing heightened levels of stress and anxiety across all demographics. In the U.S. alone, the pandemic has touched the lives of millions, and the economic halt has led to record-high unemployment.

To study the effect these stressful events are having on the people living through them, Professor of Psychological Science Patricia Smiley has received a $164,138 research grant from the National Science Foundation. Her study will explore the changes in stress response in adults and children brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The one-year study titled “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Changes in the Stress Response: Identifying Risk and Resilience in Adults and Children” is a collaboration with Professors Stacey Doan of Claremont McKenna College and Cindy Liu of Harvard Medical School. The researchers will focus on acute and chronic stress, the transmission of stress between caregivers and their children, and risk and resilience factors associated with exacerbating or reducing stress.

The research team will capitalize on an ongoing longitudinal study of stress and adaptation of 150 families with young children in Los Angeles County. “The pandemic will allow us to address fundamental questions about the effects of chronic stress that we would not otherwise be able to answer,” says Smiley. “Uncertainty is something our brains dislike and that’s when we see increased cortisol production, a stress hormone, in our study participants. In our original study, we saw heightened cortisol levels in those participants who are not able to quickly adapt to stressful situations, so in the time of the current pandemic, they may be more susceptible to chronic stressors, showing higher cortisol levels and poorer psychological health.”

Gaze Sharing and Remote Work Collaboration

During the coronavirus pandemic, working remotely has become, in some cases, the only way for many workplaces to continue to function. That has added a new urgency to a line of research that Alexandra Papoutsaki, assistant professor of computer science, was already pursuing before the pandemic began. To continue her work, she recently was awarded a $105,572 National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant, which she will use to study gaze sharing in support of more effective remote work collaboration.

Gaze sharing, in which collaborators can see where each other’s gaze is directed on a shared screen, has been shown to have a positive effect in various visual tasks such as writing and programming.

Studying a person’s gaze is significant because it is a sign of human attention and intention and has a central role in workplace coordination and communication. Through eye tracking, researchers can assess eye movements to determine where a person is looking, what they are looking at and for how long they look at a screen.

Researchers like Papoutsaki have been developing tools to lessen some of the problems encountered in remote collaborations.

Papoutsaki’s two-year study aims to better understand gaze sharing and examine previously overlooked dimensions of remote collaboration. First, she will investigate the effect of the choice of the communication channel—either audio or video-based communication that is used in conjunction to gaze sharing in the screen collaboration process. Second, she will seek to understand how the awareness of someone else’s gaze affects groups of up to six remote collaborators that go beyond the traditionally studied pairs.

Modeling the Next Gravitational Wave Detector

“Gravitational waves are tiny ripples in space and time that Einstein himself thought people would not be able to measure,” Professor of Physics Thomas A. Moore explains. “But now they have been measured, and that promises a lot of interesting astronomy to be done in the future.”

Moore has received a $145,223 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop, test and share a computer application that simulates how future gravitational wave detectors would react to binary star systems. Moore’s three-year project, “Adding Spin to a Gravitational Wave Detector Simulator,” will create undergraduate summer research opportunities beginning in 2021 that expand on his work with Yijun “Ali” Wang ’19, now a graduate student in physics at Caltech. The project was “partly inspired by the interest that a lot of my students have because of the recent detection of gravitational waves,” Moore says, referring to the historic 2015 observation that led to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne.

The 2015 observation of waves created by a collision between two black holes was accomplished through the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which consists of two U.S.-based facilities, one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Each facility has two arms that stretch 2½ miles in different directions and use vacuum systems, lasers and mirrors to detect gravitational waves.

Moore, who has taught physics at Pomona since 1987, has been particularly interested in a planned space-based gravitational wave detector known as LISA, for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, and notes that a detector built of satellites would have certain advantages over those on Earth. Computer modeling would allow scientists to evaluate potential designs before undertaking such massive projects.

Developing New Chemical Reac­tions for Drug Discovery

Nitrogen-based sulfur compounds such as sulfonamides, sulfamides and sulfamates are important compounds that have therapeutic applications against cancer, HIV and microbial infections. But existing approaches to making these compounds are limited by the commercial availability of the starting materials and by harsh chemical reactions that prevent late-stage functionality of the compounds.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Nicholas Ball has received a $394,145 research enhancement grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to focus on the development of new chemical reactions that can facilitate drug target discovery using sulfur (VI) fluorides. For this three-year grant, Ball will work with an industry collaborator, Pfizer’s Christopher am Ende, and Chapman University’s Maduka Ogba. This collaboration will expand opportunities for Pomona College students to gain research experiences at Pfizer and in computational chemistry.

Ball’s lab has been working on sulfur-fluoride exchange chemistry, which is a promising new pathway to synthesize sulfur-based compounds by using easy-to-handle starting materials such as inexpensive Lewis acid salts and organic-based catalysts. The successful implementation of the research proposed for this grant will represent a considerable advance over current methods that rely on starting materials that are challenging to synthesize or isolate.

Equally important is the industry research experience that undergraduate students will gain from this research. The work in this proposal will expose them to biomedical research with significant focus on synthesis and medicinal chemistry.

Exploring the History of Environmental Law

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s highly competitive New Directions Fellowships are awarded annually to exceptional faculty in the humanities and humanistic social sciences who seek to acquire systematic training that pushes the edges of their own disciplinary background. One of the recipients this year is Aimee Bahng, assistant professor of gender and women’s studies.

Through this $285,000 grant, Bahng will explore where property law and environmental law overlap or diverge, a path of inquiry which has taken her into legal terrain that is straining her disciplinary training in literary studies and feminist theory.

Working at the interstices of environmental justice, feminist science studies, and Indigenous Pacific and transnational Asian American studies, Bahng proposes to study the history of environmental law around oceanic bodies of water. She plans to analyze how human governance of the environment emerged out of Western liberal humanistic concepts of property. It questions whether the property-based origin of our existing legal framework can be an effective lens through which to legislate the oceanic commons; it will also explore historical determinations of who and what is able to bear rights.

Bahng hopes to spend at least part of her fellowship time pursuing coursework in environmental law at Lewis and Clark Law School, native Hawaiian law at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai‘i at Ma-noa, and indigenous law at the University of Victoria in Canada.