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Graduate students help communities address COVID-19 challenges

Through the Graduate School's I4 Boundary Spanners project, students are combining data science, public policy and service in ways that will help communities emerge from COVID-19 challenges.

An overall photo of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus at sunset.

Funded through the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, a new project is training UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students to combine data science, public policy and service in ways that will help communities emerge from their specific COVID-19 challenges.

The North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $29 million for collaboratory-led projects focused on COVID-19 research as a part of $1.5 billion in coronavirus relief and Gov. Roy Cooper signed this into law in early May. Eighty-five projects across 14 UNC System campuses – including the Graduate School’s I4 (Include, Identify, Investigate, Influence) Boundary Spanners project – received funding.

“The diverse slate of COVID-related projects will provide relevant and time-sensitive data to legislators and other leaders across the state to help guide the continuing and future pandemic response,” said Jeffrey Warren, executive director of the collaboratory. “The I4 Boundary Spanners initiative, as an example, is designed to create effective ways of engaging communities in using data to address their specific challenges caused by COVID-19.”

Graduate School Dean Suzanne Barbour said the graduate student “Boundary Spanners” have extensive knowledge of data, appreciation for how applied data can create positive change in communities, and a commitment to equity and inclusion. The project, she added, would provide graduate students with the opportunity to hone their data collection and analysis skills, while serving North Carolina communities as they work to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn.

“The I4 Boundary Spanners have academic credentials and training and also empathy, collaboration and humble listening skills that allow them to collect, interpret and deploy data in ways that are influenced by and directly benefit the community,” she said.

The six Boundary Spanners scholars, their projects and project advisers are:

  • Wesley Hamilton, doctoral student in mathematics, for the project “COVID-19: ‘Commerce with Confidence’ Simulator.” Principal investigator: Michael Levy.
  • Jazmyne Jones, master’s degree student in social work, for the project “Understanding Workers’ Transition to New Digital Labor Jobs.” Principal investigator: Mohammad Jarrahi.
  • Andreina Malki, a doctoral student in geography, for the project “Testing the Keys to North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.” Principal investigators: Mark Little and Anita Brown-Graham.
  • Rumana Rabbani, a doctoral student in health policy and management, for the project “Gearing Up: The Response of Manufacturing Extension to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Principal investigator: Nichola Lowe.
  • Luke Carmichael Valmadrid, master’s degree student in public health (health equity), for the project “Policy and Policy Communication in Polarized Times.” Principal investigator: Marc Hetherington.
  • Cason Whitcomb, master’s degree student in public health (health behavior), for the project “Supporting Adolescents with Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors in the Context of COVID-19.” Principal investigator: Marisa Marraccini.

Members of the Boundary Spanners leadership team are Barbour; Deb Aikat, an associate professor within the Hussman School of Journalism and Media; Jason Cramer, director of experiential professional development for the Graduate School; and Malinda Maynor Lowery, professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South.

Boundary Spanners scholars are meeting regularly as a group, with mentorship from Aikat and Lowery, to share progress on their projects and discuss ideas that might enhance the impact of their work. Warren joined the team during one of its first meetings.

“Being a Boundary Spanners scholar is an opportunity to further my skills as a humanistic evaluator and researcher,” said Rabbani. “I believe that as researchers and evaluators, we must have empathy and trust with community members we work with – and at the forefront should be their voices.”

Throughout the project, Barbour said, the scholars are sharing what they have learned about specific community challenges and how data can be effectively deployed to benefit the health, economy and future prospects of these communities. “We’re very grateful for the support that has made I4 Boundary Spanners possible and for our ability to use that funding to help our state leaders respond to the pandemic.”

This team-oriented process could, ultimately, provide a framework for other universities and institutions seeking to train graduate students in collaborating effectively, engaging with communities and applying data in innovative ways, she added. For example, the I4 Boundary Spanners project is the model for a proposal the collaboratory will submit in early November for a National Science Foundation program.