The BUILD Research Collaboratory: Engaging Student Passion, Anger and Anxiety to Take Action

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By Melissa Simon

Slide that says How are different communities being impacted by COVID-19 over pictures of people in protective gear

Developed and hosted by the BUILD program at San Francisco State University, the BUILD Research Collaboratory was an eight-week virtual course in basic bioinformatics coding, focusing on COVID-19 and its impact on communities—particularly communities facing health disparities. BUILD students worked in small mentoring groups facilitated by graduate students to learn basic coding and examine health outcomes.

At the BUILD Research Collaboratory (BRC) virtual conference on Aug. 12, all 20 student groups presented their research findings to the DPC and the biomedical research community.

Groups were comprised of students from seven of the 10 BUILD sites: SF BUILD at California State University at San Francisco, ReBUILD Detroit at the University of Detroit-Mercy, CSULB BUILD at California State University at Long Beach, BUILD EXITO at Portland State University, BUILD ASCEND at Morgan State University, BUILDing SCHOLARS at the University of Texas at El Paso, BUILD PODER at California State University at Northridge, and ReBUILDetroit at University of Detroit, Mercy.

BRC Director Kala Mehta, Ph.D., said COVID-19 is a pandemic that has certainly impacted everyone, but certain communities have been differentially impacted.

“These voices are bold and brave, speaking the truth, asking the questions that need to be asked. We’ve turned anxiety into action,” Mehta said during the conference. “In eight short weeks, we built a completely new educational program from the ground up, bringing together seven out of the 10 NIH BUILD sites, and we undid structures of racism by… building new educational structures.”

Topics covered during the conference included COVID-19 effects on prisons and ICE facilities, how communities were impacted by COVID-19, the effects of wealth on morbidity and mortality of COVID-19, air quality’s influence in the El Paso and Detroit areas, understanding how state policies influence COVID-19 disparities, and why COVID-19 disparities have very little genetics basis to the virus and refuting eugenics beliefs.

Students also explored the impact of the novel coronavirus on education, the mental health states of BUILD scholars, the effect on public health programs and socioeconomic factors, the lack of COVID-19 data on undocumented communities, and how the homeless have been affected by the virus.

“I’m looking forward to hearing about the exciting discoveries, the process you went about and not only learning more about what’s happening as a result of COVID-19, but the journeys each of you went on in finding this information,” said Robert Rivers, Ph.D., a program director in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Office of Minority Health Research Coordination.

Team five members explored the impacts of COVID-10 on different communities

BUILD EXITO student Sandhya Gunarathne said her team looked at the potential risk factors that can contribute to an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths within marginalized communities. The other members were Enri’que Flores of CSULB BUILD, Adrianna Rojas of BUILD PODER, and Leyvi Campos, Samantha Christie and Ruben Castro Corral of SF BUILD.

They discovered that aid for impacted communities is allocated based on needs and generally covers the debt of uninsured individuals, but it is difficult to measure high-impact areas.

“It’s important to acknowledge the racial disparities within the (COVID-19) data. There’s not much racial data on COVID cases of the uninsured, but there is clear disproportion in COVID death rates within Black populations,” Gunarathne said. “This could be attributed to lack of funding.”

Leticia Márquez-Magaña, Ph.D., SF BUILD principal investigator and biology professor at CSU San Francisco, said BRC scholars are the agents of change desperately needed right now.

She recalled her own time as an undergraduate student where she learned that research should be objective and vigorous. But as human beings, she said, emotions are bound to influence one’s work.

“The best way to eliminate any biases is to have diverse voices, to have all of us engaged to check one another. I’m so excited that we’re creating the scientific workforce of the future that has the voice to really check one another and make sure the science is relevant,” Márquez-Magaña said at the virtual conference.

“I’m so happy to be engaging our passion, our anger and anxiety to build action . . . that can really address some of the COVID disparities that we are all becoming increasingly aware of,” she continued. “We’re setting the groundwork to continue this work and to advance it.”

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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