Demystifying COVID: One Publication at a Time
written by Kate Jiang
image by Kate Jiang
When Lasya Vankayala started the COVID19 Demystified website to write about ongoing research during the pandemic, she did not expect it to grow into a project with a team of more than 20 student authors and reviewers spanning the world, together showing the public how researchers are fighting the virus.
A fourth-year undergraduate biochemistry honours student at UBC, she had been on a co-op research assistant position when the pandemic broke. Conversations were going around in the lab, and people were starting to prepare for whatever would happen next. Soon, Lasya came to the realization that she and her lab mates were, in a way, privileged for the science education they had since it allowed them to read papers and pick out relevant information. She could watch the news and point out what was inaccurate, and then she would be able to find a paper that justifies her argument. However, such scientific literacy cannot be exercised by the majority of the general public. “Even with my parents – my father is an engineer, and my mom has a bachelor’s in physics – they are both pretty well-educated, but when they were reading a paper, they would be like ‘we don’t understand any of it’,” says Lasya. The day when the lab finally shut down, she decided to do something.
She began by putting together an FAQ of common questions and misconceptions about COVID-19, answering them with published research papers. From there, with help from the Schulich Leader Scholarship program she was a part of, the website was established and the author team began to grow. Originally the team only consisted of Lasya and a couple of her closest friends; later, they reached to the STEM Fellowship through the Schulich Leader Network, from where the team got a wave of undergraduate volunteers who wanted to help with the writing. One of the authors was connected to the Royal Canadian Institute for Science, and the second wave of authors came from there. The rest were gathered through online platforms such as Reddit and through university emails, of which Lasya described as “a project of the internet age”. “I get the impression that a lot of the students who heard about it were looking for something to do, and we kind of fell into the niche of [being] something they can do to help.” To date, the website lists 15 student authors spanning across Canada —including the Transcripts team’s very own Annoj Thavalingam—but there are more authors lining up, working on articles but have not posted yet.
Most of the articles on the website, categorized as “Research Re-hashed”, aim to give brief descriptions of recent publications on SARS-CoV-2. The rule of thumb is for the authors to select a paper they think deserves public attention and is published in a decent journal with a rigorous peer-review process. Intriguingly, the posts in Research Re-hashed also undergo a similar process: they are reviewed by subject matter experts—a team of postdoctoral fellows and university faculty members spanning around the world, as far as to Netherlands. Lasya explains that she worries about inadvertently contributing to the misinformation out there, which are often founded on good intentions but can oversimplify or misinform due to a lack of expertise; the same thing they started the website to fight against in the first place. Additionally, even though undergraduate and graduate students in the life sciences were trained to read papers, the general public does not necessarily understand that: “you are students, who are you to be telling us this?” With the help of reviewers, authors not only ensure that the information being put out is correct, but also show the public that their descriptions of peer-reviewed research are validated by experts.
In the very beginning, the subject matter expert team consisted of two faculty members at UBC. However, as the author team expanded and the volumes of the articles spiked after exam season, Lasya realized that the workload would be too much for the two to handle. She asked other authors to reach out to their professors, while also putting out a call to action on Reddit for virologists; within the first two hours she got 10 emails from scientists all over the world, and soon there were more reviewers than the posts needed to be reviewed within one week.
The Research Re-hashed articles are not the sole type of articles that can be found on COVID19 Demystified. Also featured are a series of sidebars which introduce general life science concepts—PCR, central dogma, mutation and evolution, etc.—to the public. With these posts explaining the background information, the authors can focus on describing the research paper and refer to the sidebars whenever needed. Nevertheless, the team is having fun with the sidebars; examples include the “choose your own adventure” immunology series, in which cells of the immune system are described as characters from role-playing games that act to defend the human body against pathogens. Other articles include Chinese and German translations of selected posts, a suggestion proposed by the translators when they came on board.
When asked what she thinks is the most important aspect of bridging science and the general public, Lasya says we need to highlight how everybody should care about science. “In society, [science] has shifted to something that really smart people do, and not something that the general public needs to bother with, because it is not [recognized by the public as] something that has an impact on everyday life.” She thinks an outcome of the pandemic is that it shows how science is, indeed, vital to everyday life. “Not much attention has been given to the researchers, who are working 60-hour weeks, who are still going in [to the lab] in the middle of the pandemic, who would pursue years and years and years of education for not great pay—all because they believe what they are doing is important, because they believe that this understanding of the universe is worth any sort of sacrifice, and because science is a lifelong pursuit.” Research on understanding the spread of virus, potential therapeutics and vaccine development are happening at an insane speed, and the public needs to know that scientists are fighting for them.
Even for university students who are not directly engaged in SARS-CoV-2 research, there are ways to get involved. “There are medical student initiatives where they act as volunteers with medical professionals [to help] with stuff outside of the hospitals, so they are doing childcare, grocery shopping, [etc.] There are some students who are building contact tracing apps to help people figure out how the pandemic is spreading.” As long as students keep an eye out for ways to help, they will find something—and it does not have to be a big project, Lasya mentions; it can be as simple as giving an elderly neighbor a call or helping an immunocompromised family member carry groceries over. There is also the Folding@Home project at University of Washington, where people can donate their computational power to help model potential immunogens for COVID-19 vaccine development. In addition, if you are a life science student, you can help disseminate scientific talks or articles to fight against misinformation—just like what the COVID19 Demystified team is doing.
There are scientists who are fighting side-by-side with medical professionals—and this team of talented students are showing the public how it is happening, every single day. You can find out more about the website at https://coviddemystified.com/. The team is also welcoming more authors, editors and translators; their contact information is firstname.lastname@example.org.