ECS Community on the Frontline of COVID-19 Research

In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, Netzahualcóyotl (Netz) Arroyo-Currás talks about his lab’s challenge as part of the pandemic response of Johns Hopkins Medicine, which is at the forefront of COVID-19 research. Soon after classes went online and labs were shuttered, his team shifted gears to quickly design a COVID-19 diagnostic device to help meet the urgent need to re-open work and study environments. Netz also reports that despite drawbacks, he finds that online teaching and learning has created good opportunities for developing, sharpening, and showcasing knowledge and skills.

Netz Arroyo Addresses Urgent Needs

“We were in full lockdown when the Provost’s Office called for internal applications to develop COVID-19 diagnostic tools. We had a week to develop an idea, form a team, put a proposal together, and submit it. Then came revisions and presentations. Within two weeks…my lab, in collaboration with two other labs, was awarded the funding to pursue the development of a diagnostic device that is electrochemical in nature. We’re in very early stages but…made a commitment to finish it in three months, in light of the pressing need.”

“Our remit is to develop a device that is highly specific, sensitive, allows rapid identification of people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and has an application to determine whether infected people are qualified to return to work based on their immune responses or state of infection. We hear about (these things) every day in the news, but they’re actually very complicated to implement…as we’re looking to produce diagnostic devices despite a limited capacity to do testing.”

“My colleagues and I feel a responsibility, especially because we’re working at Hopkins where there’s a lot going on regarding the medical and public health implications. We bring a different scientific perspective to finding solutions. My team (and the) two other labs…have expertise in problem synthesis, immunoassays and hydro emission spectroscopy, microscopy, and biosensors. This offered an opportunity to do some focused research. It’s been very intense.”

“Some people may view this project as authoritarian, but from the point of view of science, it’s about having the tools…to monitor the population spread of the virus, better understand its epidemiology, and make informed decisions about (returning) safely to work. We hope to provide a pragmatic solution to that difficult decision.”

Unexpected Benefits

“Our labs remain closed except for the limited number of postdocs and PIs (Principal Investigators) involved in the new COVID-related research. While ongoing experiments have come to a halt, research continues. We got creative. We’ve been working on stubborn problems that buggered some of the systems we were trying to develop. Some of my students were doing computational simulations to explain observations from past experiments. Others have been writing fellowship applications, analyzing data, or writing papers. Everyone’s busy.”

“Through the spring, I continued to teach, although I do much less classroom teaching than faculty at conventional universities as we do not have an undergraduate program. Over the last two months, classes have been conducted on Zoom….It was a lot of work to transition to that format but after…the initial two weeks of chaos, my humble opinion is that it actually made it better. My classes are active learning where the students discuss topics and sometimes engage in heated conversations. I told them that it was mandatory…to show their faces over the camera (bandwidth permitting) so we could see each other when presenting cases and engaging in scientific discussions. Actually, I think the level of engagement was higher over Zoom than in person. With the cameras on, they aren’t getting…distracted by…other things on the web.”

“There’s another reason I think it went so well. When you give scientific presentations, you feel like you can use your body as a means of communication. It’s not just your voice; your physical presence, what you do with your hands has meaning. But when you present over Zoom, you’re only visible in a tiny square next to a bigger window displaying slides. Therefore, I think students put more thought into how they design and explain their slides….In the future, I want my students to present over Zoom at least once during each course.”

Connected to the ECS Community

“I have been involved with ECS since college. I’m originally from Mexico where an ECS chapter held conferences with the Mexican Society for Electrochemistry. I found a very welcoming, friendly community through the conferences, presentations, and email exchanges. The science, coupled with the friendliness of the community, made me fall in love with electrochemistry. As a result, I feel very connected to ECS, even though I only became a full member a couple of years ago when I became an assistant professor.”

What’s Next?

“I was really excited about the Montreal ECS meeting as it (would) be my first since becoming an associate editor in the sensors topic area for the ECS Journal of The Electrochemical Society and Journal of Solid State Science. Regrettably, I don’t think I (can attend) PRiME because we’ve got our hands full—and October will probably be worse. Travel is restricted except for emergencies.”

“Hopkins has subcommittees evaluating when and how to restart research, looking at the problem from the point of view of health and safety, as well as logistical and organizational factors. We won’t reopen until Maryland loosens restrictions. Once that happens, we may slowly restart some research. Indications are that all summer classes and activities will be over Zoom. We still don’t know what the fall will look like. It’s complicated; there’s a real risk that some people will get sick. In the absence of a vaccine or cure, we have to mitigate that risk somehow. The best way is to have a strategy in place and an infrastructure ready to diagnose and treat quickly.”


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