March 25th, 2020

// Rensselaer Experts Available To Discuss COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Society

Rensselaer Experts Available To Discuss COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Society

From AI to supply chains to board gamesRensselaer faculty provide wide-ranging expertise

TROY, N.Y. – In addition to the capabilities of one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently announced that it was making the expertise of its world-renowned faculty available to the broader research community to support work responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rensselaer expertise is also available to members of the media as they work to cover various aspects of the new coronavirus disease and its innumerable effects on society.

The following topics represent some of the many angles — including some that may prove unexpected — that Rensselaer experts are available to speak to as the crisis unfolds. The list is not comprehensive. Rensselaer faculty and staff will continue to make progress on new projects and collaborations related to COVID-19 as they rise to meet this global challenge. Additional experts and stories from Rensselaer can be found at

Watch this video for a preview of Rensselaer experts discussing their work related to the current pandemic.

Supercomputing Consortium: As a member of the national COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, Rensselaer has made AiMOS, the most powerful supercomputer housed at a private university, available to researchers engaged in the fight against COVID-19. “This effort requires expertise, collaboration, and the ability to process incredible amounts of data, and Rensselaer is offering all three at this critical time,” Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson said. “In particular, the ability to model at multiple scales requires the unique capabilities of AiMOS.”

Big Data and Artificial Intelligence: Artificial intelligence is emerging as a powerful new ally in tracking COVID-19, modeling the virus at the molecular level, and analyzing the myriad research results being published daily. James Hendler, the Tetherless World Professor of Computer, Web, and Cognitive Science at Rensselaer and director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA), is engaged in marshaling AI resources at Rensselaer. For example, IDEA and the Rensselaer Libraries have collaborated to maintain lists of COVID-19-related data sources and scholarly research publications. AI is being used to translate literally thousands of scientific insights from text-based research products into forms that can more easily be analyzed. “The bottom line is that dealing with COVID-19 is a ‘big data’ problem, and AI is a crucial tool in the big data toolkit,” Hendler said.

Viral Traps: As researchers worldwide scramble to formulate a vaccine to combat COVID-19, a Rensselaer team is pursuing a potentially powerful solution to control the pandemic: a viral trap that is easily adapted to different classes of viruses, enabling a “plug-and-play” approach to virus detection and antiviral activity. Jonathan Dordick, an endowed professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Robert Linhardt, an endowed professor of chemistry and chemical biology, said the Rensselaer team is exploring how their work in the areas of viral detection, therapy, and inhibition could be used against COVID-19 and other viruses in the future. Their team views such innovative approaches as a vital hedge against the growing threat of global pandemics.

Supply and Demand: Retailers across the United States are implementing purchasing limits on certain items as governmental leaders urge citizens to pace their buying habits during the COVID-19 pandemic. José Holguín-Veras, an endowed professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer and director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment, has studied panic buying that happens before and after a crisis. These purchases are a natural human reaction to concern over potential shortages, but Holguín-Veras says they can also be problematic. Initiatives that could lessen that impact include agreements with key private-sector vendors to ensure critical supplies, campaigns to educate the public, and rationing and demand-management policies.

Ecological Impacts: “As people shift their behaviors in response to COVID-19, our environmental impacts also shift. Ecosystems respond,” said Kevin Rose, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Rensselaer. Rose’s work focuses on understanding large-scale patterns and changes occurring in freshwater ecosystems, including lakes, reservoirs, ponds, rivers, and streams. He is monitoring how restrictions on human work and movement impact the ecology. Currently, aquatic ecosystems that are used to heavy human traffic, such as canals or trade routes, are calmer and some are clearing up. In other places, active management is needed to maintain high water quality and balanced ecosystems. Many of those efforts are stalled right now. As ecosystems begin waking up from winter conditions, some invasive species may become a bigger problem this summer unless management efforts are restored.

Navigating the Bear Market: Thomas Shohfi, an assistant professor of finance and accounting at the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, advises young investors through the RPI James Student Managed Investment Fund. He believes it’s important to remember that young investors have never experienced a bear market, something that is stressful for even the most experienced investors.  For millennials new to this environment, a rapid loss of investment account value and severe daily swings can be very difficult to handle emotionally at a time when they’re also dealing with the fears of getting physically sick from COVID-19. “I tell them not to let it dictate their lives and to not become addicted to watching the fluctuations,” Shohfi said. “Be confident in the long term and avoid short-term speculative risks that could permanently damage their portfolio.”

Best Board Games: Maurice Suckling is more qualified than just about anyone to recommend the best board games for families, couples, and others stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. A professor of practice in the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer, he teaches about game writing, board games as storytelling, and games as historical simulations. He has credits on over 50 published video games and is also a published board game designer. His most recent board game, Chancellorsville: 1863, is in production with Worthington Publishing and will be released later in 2020.

Effective Telecommuting: In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, businesses are looking for ways to maintain productivity and a healthy work force. Telecommuting has emerged as one of the best options for companies to continue their workflow. But according to Timothy Golden, a professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, it takes effort from both the managers and the employees to make it work. “Research shows that transitioning to working from home on a full-time basis can be bumpy at first, if not done right,” said Golden, a leading expert in the field of telecommuting, telework, and the relationship between technology and managerial behavior. “Staying connected and making sure that your employees do not feel isolated, either socially or professionally, is especially important if they are to remain dedicated and productive.” 

Entrepreneurial Opportunities: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses is growing more apparent every day. Small businesses, from restaurants and bars to beauty salons and tattoo parlors, are particularly struggling to regain their footing as the crisis forces more and more customers into their homes for an indefinite period. The leaders of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship can discuss how entrepreneurs might effectively respond to this difficult time and why — despite the seemingly bleak future — they might be the most adept at handling change.

Better Health Through Proper Lighting: Exposure to a robust 24-hour light–dark cycle promotes circadian entrainment, which has many well-documented health benefits. For the many individuals who have been forced indoors by the COVID-19 pandemic, the correct use of light is an essential tool for maintaining mental, emotional, and physical health. For example, Mariana Figueiro, a professor and the director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer, suggests that people who are mainly indoors right now increase their light exposure by a factor of four during the daytime. Morning light provides the most benefit in terms of avoiding the circadian disruptions that can lead to depression, anxiety, and insomnia. If someone has one table lamp in their home office or wherever they spend the bulk of the day, three more lamps should be added for a total of four. Extra lights should be turned off in the evening, mimicking sunset.

The Vaccine Video Game: Ushering a drug or vaccine from the research bench to the bedside of a patient in need is a complex process. To help medical students comprehend the steps and stages in this pipeline, faculty and students in the GSAS program at Rensselaer, in collaboration with the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, are developing Cure Quest. According to Ben Chang, a professor of arts and the director of the GSAS program at Rensselaer, this mobile computer game “will allow medical students to tie together the necessary steps for vaccine development in dramatic cases like we’re seeing right now with COVID-19.” 

Social Media and State of Mind: As an expert in how information spreads on social media, Lydia Manikonda, an assistant professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, has been tracking data from Chinese social media platforms specifically pertaining to COVID-19 since mid-January, and following American data since the beginning of February, to develop an understanding of how people are bearing the various burdens created by the pandemic.

Managing Stress Responses: The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people extreme stress and anxiety, which can lead to changes in the body and the brain. Alicia Walf, a senior lecturer in the Cognitive Science Department at Rensselaer, and Tomie Hahn, a professor in the Department of the Arts at Rensselaer and the director of the Center for Deep Listening, have combined their years of research and experience to provide a number of scientifically grounded stress reduction strategies and wellness practices that can be implemented to reduce these physical responses to stress and anxiety.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,900 students and over 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. To learn more, please visit


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