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15 DLSPH Student-​Led Projects Win U of T’s COVID-​19 Student Engagement Award

July 30/2020

by Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at DLSPH

More than 15 DLSPH student projects won awards in a university-wide competition to support projects that contribute to building and fostering a global community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The winning projects ranged from dashboards and attitudinal surveys to a children’s book and climate advocacy.

COVID Dashboards

Last March, DLSPH PhD students Isha Berry, Jean-Paul Soucy, Shelby Sturrock and Vinyas Harish developed a COVID-19 information dashboard that highlights all cases in Canada, separating by deaths and recoveries.

“We have had seven or eight citations from the dashboard which was written up as a quick commentary and I’ve seen six papers that have been published that used our dataset,” says Berry. It is information that policymakers and journalists alike still need.

The students are moving forward with phase 2 of the COVID-19 dashboard. And now, thanks to the award, additional hosting capacity and a better software, the team’s dashboard will be much more accessible to other data enthusiasts.

“Right now, the data is on Github but we want to develop an API which makes it easy for other projects to automatically hook into our data source and query updates. It’s an alternative way for people to access the data we provide,” says Soucy.

They are also creating a website to centralize the data and dashboard. Although not part of the project, “we want to do an evaluation to see who users are, understanding their data and their information needs and creating a short report so that we can quantify the impact we had,” says Berry.

Meanwhile, other DLSPH students like Kuan Liu, Rose Garrett, Alexandra Bushby, Thai-Son Tang and Maxwell Garrett, have also won funding to expand on another existing dashboard. Their dashboard, released in April examined Canada’s COVID testing capacity rate. Test numbers were a controversial issue in Ontario last April.

“Ontario initially had a low testing per capita rate, but over the last few months, they have really stepped up testing. Now, they are second in per capita testing in Canada, and this encouraging trend has been captured by our dashboard,” says Tang. “It reinforces testing and it’s something our dashboard has been able to capture.”

Now, with the award, the dashboard will have more interactive features as well adds Bushby, the team’s data visualization lead. The team also wants to highlight testing tracking to other countries and assess how Canada faired in comparison with similar countries.

“Our project is going to use international open-access data to investigate variability in testing protocol and capacity between Canada and other countries under the post-peak period of the pandemic,” explains Rose.

Once the dashboard upgrades will be completed, the team has its eyes set on a DLSPH-specific project. Through a survey, the team will ask all students and faculty to provide their perception of testing and face covering and their thoughts on the school’s reopening.

COVID and The International Sphere

Tang is also involved in another project with PhD students, Mohammad Kaviul Anam Khan, Michael Moon, and Jerry Lin which looks at the impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions like physical distancing, travel bans and lockdown on unemployment amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project investigates the tradeoff between mitigating COVID-19 spread and reducing economic burden in country-specific interventions. Among the countries being studied, the group is paying close attention to Sweden, New Zealand, South Korea and Canada which had notably different approaches to their COVID-19 response.

“Comparisons of non-pharmaceutical interventions across countries and how they affect COVID-19 trends have already been widely studied, but we also wanted to see how these interventions would impact unemployment, a strong economic marker,” says Khan.

The team is still gathering publicly-available data and developing a statistical analysis plan that involves change-point modelling and time-series regression.

Some DLSPH student projects, like the one developed by Shamim Ahmed and Sharmin Majumder, were international. The pair’s funded project will look at the impact of COVID-19 and faith-based beliefs.

“While all the nations worldwide are struggling to combat the deadly pandemic of COVID-19 by preventive measures only, some faith-based groups around the world have breached the physical distancing rules, joining mass gathering and aggravating community transmission of coronavirus,” says Majumder.

Ahmed and Majumder believe that faith-based beliefs may have hindered the progress made to curtail infection rates in Bangladesh. Initially, to put their theory to test, the team had hoped to conduct 15 qualitative interviews. Instead, they will focus their research online only – looking through social media posts and online articles.

More importantly, the pair wants to understand the government’s position on faith-based practice during the pandemic.

“We want to know if they consulted with most religious groups and if they tried to understand their personal positioning in these situations or not. Our understanding is that sometimes the government does not take in account people’s positions and beliefs,” says Ahmed. “Their strategies are often isolated.”

Once they have aggregated their findings, they will turn the research into an online platform that will artistically interpret these reflections and perceptions. Their hope is that audiences who visit their platform will understand the psychology behind these varied behaviours.

“It’s not always easy to speak up and speak about a particular issue very boldly,” says Ahmed.

Sterling Stutz and Thilaxcy Yohathasan will be coordinating the translation of public health guidelines into various Indigenous languages as part of a global effort led by Indigenous Harvard students to empower these communities to address gaps they see in COVID-19 care. “It’s really about working across the globe to support Indigenous communities that are grappling with being impacted by COVID-19,” says Stutz.

The project’s two parts are in full swing. The first part is partnering with local and Indigenous communities in seven different regions to support and define their COVID-19 needs. The second part will have organizers working on coordinating the translation of public health guidelines and local information into Indigenous languages for immediate circulation.

Each team is split up geographically where they are responsible for finding translators. Yohathasan has been on calls with colleagues from East Africa and Bangladesh, for example. Some communities’ needs have already been met but those, Stutz adds, are consistently changing.

They will have their website up in the next few weeks with a set of translations for guidelines and resources. “Even though this project is most relevant right now, the relationships are being built will go beyond the initial phase,” says Yohathasan.

Stutz loves the opportunity to support an Indigenous youth-led project by using U of T resources. “I believe that’s what we should be doing in between institutions,” says Stutz.

All award winners can be found at the following link:

COVID and Mental Health

Other projects hit closer to home. In early January, Daniel Harris, Christa Orchard, Miranda Loutet and David Kinitz had already begun exploring a mental health needs assessment project among graduate students. At first, the assessment was only for PhD epidemiology students but the group expanded their criteria to all DLSPH Master’s and PhD students. They drafted a survey focused on general mental health.

“Then COVID-19 hit, and we realized that the baseline needs assessment was no longer relevant because everyone’s needs and mental health has completely changed. We expanded our focus and engaged more partners at the school,” says Loutet.

The project became more focused on how they were going to support all students at DLSPH during the pandemic.

“We know that graduate students on average tend to experience a greater burden of depression and anxiety symptoms,” says Harris. “They tend to have poorer mental health outcomes due to a number of factors, such as financial challenges and seemingly endless workloads.”

The students are working together to gauge student wellbeing by developing two surveys: One for PhDs and the other for master’s students. Prof. Dionne Gesink is the main academic sponsor for the project while Alum Corey McAuliffe is offering additional support given her work as part of the U of T’s mental health initiative.

The need is there. “There are two elements that are crucial for graduate students’ mental health: social support from students, professors and colleagues. There’s also an economical element that we’re struggling to afford to pay rent and those are two things that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” says Orchard.

Students often engage in social support to help alleviate academic and economic stress, says Harris, but the pandemic has made this hard to get, and online forms of connection might not be enough.

By gaining a better understanding of graduate student mental health at U of T, says Kinitz, the group hopes they will, at the very least, have a positive impact school-wide on students’ mental health during the pandemic.

Other projects focus on mental health and children. Student Zafiro Andrade and her partner Laura Chavira at Rotman are writing a children’s book on grief. When both moved to Toronto from Mexico a year ago to study at U of T, they brought in tow their cat Taby who died two months ago in an accident.

“It was a difficult loss for both of us. We were in this process of grief,” says Andrade, “we knew that there were many people going through loss as well during the pandemic. We thought about writing a book about grief and healing, by telling his story.”

Grieving was a process that worked for them through their social supports in Canada and Mexico. They are working with Prof. Lori Ross and an expert in Mexico who will help them frame the story for children. They are meeting with a therapist to discuss children’s process of grieving and they are speaking with family members and friends who have children to understand what type of content they like.

The book will take Taby’s perspective – his life throughout his time with Andrade and Chavira in both English and Spanish.

“In different countries, like our own, mental health is still taboo. We think a children’s book is the first approach to speak about different mental health topics with children. It’s a challenge to create a story that will resonate in every part of the world, but at the same time, we know that the story is very powerful,” says Andrade.

COVID-19 and The Environment

Other projects focused on climate and health. Jill Furzer and Boriana Miloucheva have found that COVID-19 spread is exacerbated in places with concentration of particulate matter – one type of air pollution. The findings will be in a paper.

“We built a model to isolate the effects of pollution on COVID-19 spread and exacerbation,” says Furzer. The model controls for the new environmental realities from increased early social distancing as well as a large set of alternative explanations, like transit use.

The students looked specifically in the US, where data is abundant, and air pollution policies differ by jurisdictions. They found a substantial effect of pollution on COVID-19 cases and deaths. They also found a larger effect of pollution in communities with a higher proportion of racialized residents.

“There is both higher pollution exposure in counties with more racialized populations, and there is an extra pollution penalty in these communities,” says Furzer. They estimate the effect of past pollution policies as well.

The US Clean Air Act — which sets a maximum pollution threshold per county – has helped some counties lower their pollution levels in the last two decades and may have had a protective effect on COVID-19 cases in the long term.

Danielle Toccalino, Anna Cooper Reed, Victoria Haldane, Colin Sue-Chue-Lam and Anson Cheung are developing a toolkit that will allow students to advocate for planetary health. The time is right, the group says.

“Our main goal is to collect, develop and disseminate resources to facilitate other students who are interested in planetary health and sustainable health care to get the conversation started in their own universities,” says Toccalino.

She adds that it is even more so relevant during COVID-19. Climate change significantly impacts the spread of diseases with zoonotic origins and their effects on humans, she says.

“COVID-19 illuminated a lot of things we already knew were problems,” says Cooper. “We’re taking this opportunity to encourage students to learn more about planetary health.”

The group is treating this grant as a learning opportunity as well. While they work through the content, they partnered with Prof. Michael Corrin and student Roxanne Ziman from the Biomedical Communications program at the Institute of Medical Sciences, to support the knowledge translation process.

The group had already existing networks through the Planetary Health Alliance that were interested in the issue but with the funding, they can extend their reach. The group has its eyes set on worldwide dissemination.

“There’s an art to communicating science and medical science,” says Cooper. “We don’t always focus on this in health services research. It’s cool to partner with them to learn more about it as it ensures that whatever we develop is appropriate and engaging.”

Victoria Haldane is also part of another project with teammate Yina Shan. The pair are working on a creating a storybook, in multiple languages, about planetary health.

“It will highlight the impact between human health and environmental changes in light of the pandemic. We want to promote a sense of connectedness between nature and humans for children as a way to cope with the uncertainty of the situation,” says Shan.

The working group of 10 to 15 people are setting their sights on a fully illustrated printed and digital book. But first, the group is still at the content stage, working together to make the book ‘easily digestible’ for children.

It’s another endeavour by group members of the Planetary Health Alliance. Shan and Haldane are campus ambassadors at U of T. They brought the idea to the broader group as a collective effort when the award program was first announced.

Although they are writing the content together, they will be working with psychologists and contacts around the world who have experience in developing children’s books to develop a first complete draft by September.

“Children have had to adapt to new realities. We wanted to provide a resource as comfort and guidance to children who may have more difficulties connecting with other children during this time,” Shan.

Students will be working away on their projects all summer as most deliverables are set for September.

All award winners can be found at the following link:

All DLSPH Award Winners

Projects Winners
“What is essential is invisible to the eye”: Cross-cultural patterns of gender, minority, and low-income representation in children’s drawings of Essential Workers Diana Peragine, Laura MacMullin, Danielle Jacobson, Tanya Manchanda, Jordana Schiralli, Joanna Matthews, Chiara Simeon-Spezzaferro, Nida Mustafa, Lindsay Coome, Laura Gravelsins, Claire Murray
Assessing the global effect of public health interventions on COVID-19 pandemic growth and unemployment Mohammad Kaviul Khan, Michael Moon, Thai-Son Tang, Jerry Lin
Children’s e-book to address the loss of a family member during the COVID-19 pandemic

Zafiro Andrade, Laura Chavira


COVID-19 & Planetary Health Advocacy Toolkit Danielle Toccalino Anna Cooper Reed, Victoria Haldane, Colin Sue-Chue-Lam, Anson Cheung
COVID-19 and International Human Rights: A Global Advocacy Messaging Campaign Using Digital Storytelling to Support Sub-Saharan African Communities Jiamin Shi, Sherry Hao
COVID-19 Indigenous Health Partnership Sterling Stutz, Thilaxcy Yohathasan
Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-being Daniel Harris, Christa Orchard, Miranda Loutet, David Kinitz
Open access epidemiological data and an interactive dashboard to monitor the COVID-19 outbreak Isha Berry, Jean-Paul Soucy, Shelby Sturrock,Vinyas Harish
Primary school children’s storybook on planetary health and COVID-19 Yina Shan, Victoria Haldane
Quantifying effects of community based public health measures in controlling COVID-19 epidemics: a comparative modeling study in China, Iceland, Italy and Canada Jianhui Gao Zhiyong Huang
Social Contagion of COVID-19 Shameemah Khan, Laila Shim, Sara Daou
The role of past pollution inequities on current COVID-19 exacerbations Jill Furzer, Boriana Miloucheva
Using Data Visualization and Crowdsourcing Survey to study COVID-19 Testing Capacity, Protocol, and Barriers in Canada Kuan Liu, Rose Garrett, Alexandra Bushby, Thai-Son Tang, Maxwell Garrett”
What Causes Elevated Risk in COVID-19? Discover Exposure & Genetic Factors at Play

Yu-Chung Lin, Boxi Lin


How faith-based beliefs affect physical distancing behavior during a pandemic: An exploration through socio-cultural perspectives Shamim Ahmed, Sharmin Majumder