Pitt Researchers Meet COVID with Resiliency

By Rob A. Rutenbar, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research | March 29, 2021

As seen in the Pitt Research March 2021 Newsletter

Just about one year ago, I wrote to the research-related employees at Pitt to say that we were “closely monitoring the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Emergency plans are in place should the need arise.”

As I look back on the roller-coaster of these last 12 months, I’d like to offer some perspective.

First and foremost, throughout these months, Pitt researchers and scholars deserve recognition for maintaining their calm, data-driven approach. Less than a week after I sent that first message on the subject of COVID, we began to reduce on-campus research activities. It takes a village to effectively accomplish a community-wide strategy, and Pitt operated as only a committed community can.

As the days turned into months, many researchers had to re-examine their work, and took the best advantage they could of an almost unthinkable situation. Some turned their attention to the pandemic, to determine if they could bring their skills to this crisis.

Here’s where our legacy of biomedical excellence was recognized. Pitt scientists will forever be linked to the international collaboration of Operation Warp Speed. And to the unfolding understanding of how and why COVID variants arise. Pitt researchers have also been actively conducting multiple clinical trials with a focus on infection and recovery. Just one of those studies has found that giving full-dose blood thinners to moderately ill patients hospitalized for COVID-19 reduced the need for vital organ support, such as ventilation. That is a big deal.

Given that most labs were closed, and social distancing became a mandate, other researchers and scholars had to redesign their work, often from an entirely remote location.

Just two of the many examples:

  • Dietrich School associate professor and historian Keisha N. Blain co-edited a book with Ibram X. Kendi, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, which tells the story of Black people in America from the perspectives of 90 writers who reflect the community's diversity and lived experience.
  • Visiting assistant professor of mathematics Thomas Gilton, working with a UCLA colleague, definitively solved a nearly 40 years old open problem in infinite Ramsey theory, a branch of mathematics that studies when large, chaotic mathematical objects have significant "ordered" substructures. Fittingly enough, their breakthrough paper was accepted for publication on December 21, 2020.

We’ve been monitoring COVID’s impact on Pitt’s research and scholarly community. Over the past year:

  • Despite dramatic changes in how we worked, research expenditures (funds from outside sources) were down only slightly in 2020.
  • But, the number of grant proposals submitted increased significantly.
  • And during the 2020 calendar year, our researchers still managed to submit 372 invention disclosures, receive 114 US Issued Patents, execute 134 Licensing Deals and form 20 new startup companies based on Pitt ideas.

This is a testament to resiliency in our research enterprise, and makes clear that our researchers framed their adjustments to COVID by thinking in long-term goals despite short-term challenges.

We are all re-imagining our “what’s next” now. Pitt is no different. But, in taking the time to analyze the year we’ve just completed, I’m proud of Pitt’s researchers, scholars and the people who support them for their steady, intuitive and ever-achieving approach to their work and their missions.

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