Published September 27, 2022

Research News

NSF awards $1 million grant to UB to help prepare for next pandemic

A map of New York indicating pandemic hot spots.


Published September 27, 2022

“It won’t matter how good our early-warning system is if when we do issue warnings, the community doesn’t respond. ”
Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

They introduced genomic sequencing of the coronavirus to Western New York. They sampled wastewater to determine the level of the virus locally. They partnered with local groups to boost vaccinations and share scientific information in user-friendly ways.

“They” are UB faculty, whose collective efforts since the start of the pandemic have resulted in numerous projects that have tangibly benefitted the local population.

Now, many of those researchers have been awarded an 18-month, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation aimed at developing ways to improve preparedness for the next pandemic.

“Given the wealth of cross-disciplinary innovations that UB faculty developed to help our community meet the many challenges of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, it is entirely fitting that they have now been selected to lead cutting-edge research into how best to tackle and prepare for the next one,” says Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development.

The new award brings together a large, diverse team of UB researchers from such disciplines as genetics, environmental engineering, mathematical modeling and community-based participatory research, who leveraged their own expertise toward mitigation strategies during the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. Local community groups will also play a key role. 

Jennifer Surtees.

UB biochemist Jennifer Surtees is principal investigator on a $1 million NSF grant that will support work to develop ways to improve preparedness for the next pandemic. Photo: Sandra Kicman

Establishing a baseline

The grant is focused on developing an early-warning system that can model, detect and predict changes both in viral communities and in human communities that indicate another pandemic may be emerging. The goal is to understand what is baseline, or “normal,” for both microbial and human ecosystems so that anything unusual can be readily recognized.

“There are so many viruses and pathogens that we already know about,” says Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and principal investigator on the grant. She also co-directs UB’s Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence.

“We are exploring what is the best way to do routine monitoring for microbes we expect to find,” she explains. “Once we better understand the community dynamics within our viral ecosystem through long-term monitoring of wastewater, then we will notice disruptions to the viral community, which may mean that a new virus has been introduced. If that happens, we can dig deep and start sequencing.”

The same idea will apply to gathering data that can detect changes in human behavior that might be signs of disruption to the human ecosystem. The researchers will be working on ways to integrate a broad range of data, from GPS data to hospital data to conversations on social media — any of which might reveal unusual behaviors.

“The question is, what sorts of information are good markers for disruption to our human ecosystem?” Surtees asks.

The researchers will also develop a framework for working with different communities; this will include developing oral histories about what happened to them during the pandemic in order to understand how their own behavior changed as a result. 

Building trust

At the same time, the grant addresses a key problem that hampered the pandemic response, which Surtees and her colleagues describe as “an alarming lack of collaboration and trust among researchers, public health officials, government and the public.”

“It won’t matter how good our early-warning system is if when we do issue warnings, the community doesn’t respond,” Surtees says.

To build trust with the public, the UB team will build on its strong relationships with a number of local and regional partners.

“We have solid relationships with the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Buffalo Public Schools and others — and we will be working to strengthen the trust that we have developed already,” Surtees says. “We will be integrating these groups into what we are doing and helping to build a more resilient community.”

The grant proposal cites guidelines from the World Health Organization, which prioritize developing relationships with community groups and having “community conversations” with the public as opposed to simply delivering information.

The UB team plans to apply for major national center grants focused on pandemic preparedness that will be soliciting proposals starting next year.

Co-principal investigators on the award are E. Bruce Pitman, professor of materials design and innovation; Wen Dong, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; and YinYin Ye, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, all in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, director of community translational research in the Department of Family Medicine in the Jacobs School.

Additional investigators on the award are Amy Jacobs, research associate professor of microbiology and immunology, Jacobs School; Ian Bradley, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering; Erdem Sariyuce, assistant professor, and Jinhui Xu, professor and chair, Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Naoki Masuda, professor of mathematics; Tom Feeley, professor of communication; Andrew Crooks, professor of geography; and Omer Gokcumen, associate professor of biological sciences, all in the College of Arts and Sciences; Heather Orom, associate professor of community health and health behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions; and Jonathan E. Bard, associate director of bioinformatics, UB Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.