WSUV faculty pivots to COVID-19 related research

Cross-departmental teams of professors research social distancing and more 

VANCOUVER — Washington State University Vancouver (WSUV) staff had less than a week to make the transition to online learning when COVID-19 shut down the remaining school year. Not only did faculty make the switch, they also joined the fight.

The WSUV campus went all virtual more than six weeks ago, and faculty had barely a week to make the switch. Photo by Mike Schultz
The WSUV campus went all virtual more than six weeks ago, and faculty had barely a week to make the switch. Photo by Mike Schultz

“Some of our outstanding research faculty have quickly turned their expertise toward COVID-related studies,” said WSUV Chancellor Mel Netzhammer in a video address. “More research is surfacing each week.”

WSUV professors in several fields are teaming up to form cross-departmental research groups and study COVID-19 related subjects. Their findings will be used to inform the greater scientific and possibly public community on how the virus has changed us and what we can do to be better people to one another. 

Jane Lanigan, PhD is a professor in WSUV’s human development department where she studies in the Developmental Approaches to Support Health (DASH) Lab. Together with her colleagues Linda Eddy, PhD, RN, ARNP, who works in the university’s nursing department, and Yoshie Sano, PhD, an associate professor in human development, she is now studying changes in health behaviors due to social distancing. 

Jane Lanigan, PhD. Photo courtesy of WSUV
Jane Lanigan, PhD. Photo courtesy of WSUV

“Prevention science really looks at how you can proactively improve the lives and wellbeing of individuals by supporting positive health development,” Lanigan said. “Identifying risk and protective factors, so using interventions that mitigate risk factors and promote protective factors.”

As a prevention scientist, Lanigan is working with her colleagues to study how people respond and cope with their situations in crisis and then supply that info to the entities that support the health of the public during a situation like the pandemic. 

One area of interest is healthy eating. Through her work with the DASH lab and with several other organizations, Lanigan has been able to learn a great deal about how children are impacted by the dietary choices of their parents. With added stresses such as loss of income and food insecurity, at-risk populations can be recognized and prioritized by help groups. 

“We’re measuring what parents are doing in regards to health behaviors, supporting positive health behaviors, for example, nutrition, physical activity, screen time, those kinds of things,” Lanigan said. “We’re using a relatively new platform, Prolific Academic, that allows us to get a representative panel of participants. We will be sampling them in three waves. We’ve completed wave one, and we’ll be looking again at the end of the summer, and again, right around November to look at a variety of health behaviors.”

Lanigan explained that the preliminary research was funded by the group members’ labs, but recently received a large grant from WSUV to continue ongoing COVID-19 research. This has opened the door for getting in touch with people remotely and collecting data in the form of their responses. 

Largely, wave one is centered around retrospective questions. In other words, asking participants to think about what their lives were like prior to COVID-19 and then compare and contrast that with their lives now. This gives Lanigan and her team information on how people are coping with the changes in their days.

“I think the practical applications of our work are going to come as we analyze this data,” Lanigan said. “Really seeing who is at risk, what is truly helpful, what is preventing people from accessing the resources that are available or even being aware of the resources that are available and what helps people get resources. As we learn about who is doing very well, and what qualities are allowing that, we can target interventions to help others gain that type of resilience.” 

This summer, WSUV faculty will continue research of COVID-19 to add on to the situational data. Photo by Mike Schultz
This summer, WSUV faculty will continue research of COVID-19 to add on to the situational data. Photo by Mike Schultz

Lanigan expressed a desire to maintain a researcher’s perspective, but did offer some insight into the trajectory of the study. She explained that many participants, surprisingly, have mentioned the large number of positives in their changed lives. More time with family, and less time commuting to work were among the top benefits. 

Contrasting this, however, is the abundance of challenges, such as difficulties with home learning as well as food insecurities. Social isolation affects different populations quite differently, and this study allows us to look at groups that have not been studied before, Lanigan said.

“We’re looking at subjective well being, which is how you think you’re doing,” Lanigan said. “Very much subjective. What you think is doing well might differ tremendously from myself or somebody else. Then we’re looking at life force. So at different ages. That’s one of the advantages. We can look at all adults from age 18, up until an older population, and there’s not a lot known about how social isolation affects, especially younger emerging adulthood or middle adulthood. There’s quite a bit on social isolation as people age.”

In addition to Lanigan and her two colleagues in nursing and human development, several others are conducting research as well.

“Sara Waters in human development is looking at stress in Asian Americans during COVID,” Netzhammer said. “Connie Nguyen-Truong in nursing and Katherine Rodela in education are researching how to best support Micronesian Islander and Latinx parents engaged in at-home learning with their children.”

For more information visit this WSUV Research page or take a look at the social distancing study’s overview here

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