CEE Bioaerosol Researcher Joins Epidemiology Team

4/10/20 Pratt School of Engineering

Team seeks insights into SARS-CoV-2 virus transmission

Phlebotomy training
CEE Bioaerosol Researcher Joins Epidemiology Team

We’ve been battling SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, for months now, and it sometimes seems like we’re swinging in the dark. There’s still so much we don’t know about the virus—including exactly how it spreads from person to person. 

But Duke teams are tackling that issue. One of them is led by Duke epidemiologist Gregory Gray, who is using bioaerosol samplers around the beds of patients infected with COVID-19 to collect the virus, testing the current assumption that the virus normally doesn’t travel and remain infectious more than six feet from a carrier.  

Lucas Rocha-Melogno, a PhD candidate in the lab of civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Deshusses, knew Gray from collaborating on his own research. Rocha-Melogno studies how aerosolized pathogens are transmitted in areas with poor sanitation. He had already traveled to his hometown of La Paz, Bolivia, to sample bioaerosols next to an open sewer that collects the waste of around a million people, and he intended to conduct the same type of research in Malawi, in mid-April. When that trip was canceled, Rocha-Melogno, like many researchers, was thrust into an unwelcome limbo. 

Then came a phone call from Raquel Binder, a senior research scientist in Gray’s lab. She invited Rocha-Melogno to join the Gray team; he has valuable experience working with the same bioaerosol samplers they are using in their current studies. 

“It all happened really fast,” said Rocha-Melogno. “In a matter of days we had to go through sampling training, phlebotomy training and numerous research ethics and compliance training courses, and we had to write our standard protocols.”

Changes in his personal life happened just as quickly. “I realized I couldn’t stay in my apartment,” said Rocha-Melogno. “I was going to be exposed to the virus, and I didn’t want to put anyone at risk. I had to move into the home of one of my new teammates, and plan to live there until the end of May.”  

He said he feels a mix of excitement and nervousness for what’s to come, and appreciation for the people from around the world who have come together to tackle a challenge unlike anything we’ve ever faced. 

“I think the biggest lesson this brings to all of us is a sense of responsibility and commitment; to be mindful about our actions and to re-evaluate our priorities for when we go back to ‘normal’ life,” he said. 

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