While 5Cs go fully online, KGI students conduct COVID-19 vaccine research from campus

 An academic quad is in the background and a cement and stone wall in the foreground reads "Claremont Graduate University."
Several Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute students are still on campus in art spaces and labs. (Courtesy: Claremont Graduate University)

While the 5C campuses have gone quiet with online classes, some graduate students at Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute are toiling away in their Claremont classrooms — some conducting research on COVID-19 vaccines and virus detection strategies, and others visiting campus to access art studios.

KGI is holding most of its classes online, but 65 of its 608 students are taking an in-person course or lab, according to KGI spokesperson Ivan Alber. Among these 65 are students working alongside faculty and postdoctoral researchers on virus vaccines and personal protection equipment production. 

For the last three months, faculty and students at KGI have been conducting research on a COVID-19 vaccine “using a bacterial and a plant production platform,” according to KGI Dean of Research Larry Grill. Their goal is to develop two low-cost vaccines that will be tested in mice over the next month in hopes of stimulating neutralizing antibodies, Grill said via email.

Christian Dávila, a master of engineering student at KGI, and Karen Paco, a KGI doctoral student, have been an integral part of the vaccine effort. 

Paco said they will know the efficacy of their vaccine after they conduct trials on mice. The results from their vaccine research could lead to findings regarding other viruses and pathogens besides COVID-19, she said.

In addition to conducting vaccine research, the team is also looking for other ways to detect the virus in patients. Due to the large number of companies racing to create a vaccine, it may “be hard for us to have a competent vaccine candidate so we decided to focus on the diagnostic field,” Dávila said. 

While Paco said the research team has faced difficulties maintaining grant funding, both Dávila and Paco said they hope to have verifiable research results by the end of the year.    

There have been no cases of COVID-19 connected to on-campus classes and research, according to KGI’s website. Alber said KGI is optimistic for a spring return to campus if conditions improve. 

At CGU, classes began Aug. 31 in an “online flex model,” where the majority of classes are offered in an online format with certain exceptions for courses that require on-campus access. 

According to CGU’s website, special allowances are granted for limited on-campus activity “such as labs, studios, practica, one-on-one tutorials and research studies that require hands-on work and physical campus access.”

David Pagel, the chair of CGU’s art department, said while academic art classes are remote, special allowances have allowed his art students to continue studio work on campus one at a time.

“Before COVID, every student could be in their studio whenever they wanted, and faculty would meet with them,” Pagel said. “Since COVID, we have no face-to-face meetings. Rather than looking at [students’ art] in person, you have to look at it on their monitor.”

Zafirah Ahmed, a CGU art student, said she felt the impact of this change on her work.

“The biggest difference is the loss of the physical relationship with artwork and the art community,” Ahmed said. “Being able to look closely at artwork to generate meaning now has to be shown in several digital images.”

Ahmed also said the art department has been able to grant students studio access for at least 12 hours a week, which most students have been taking full advantage of.

While Pagel had suspected that enrollment would decline this semester, he said, “we have a bigger class enrolled in the fall than we had in each of the last three years, which also surprised me, very happily.”

Still, he’s looking forward to when CGU can return to in-person instruction. 

“I’m waiting for herd immunity, a vaccine … something to get everyone back face-to-face. I miss them,” Pagel said. 

CGU spokesperson Nick Owchar said no decision about a full return to campus in the spring has been made, as it is dependent on state and county public health guidance.

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