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Unable to Travel, Moscow Project Center Team Partners with Russians to Study Spread of COVID-19

New Global Project Aims for Predictive Model in Six Countries

April 27, 2020
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For seven weeks, junior Matthew Withington and two teammates prepared for a trip to Moscow to help a charitable organization optimize its nursing home search engine.

Then came COVID-19, the suspension of WPI-related travel, requirements to work remotely, the disruption of the team’s Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), and a big decision: What would Withington, sophomore Kade Woolverton, and junior Ivan Nikulin do for a project that was supposed to be a cornerstone of their university education?

The answer was something entirely new and urgent. The team launched an effort with students and professors in Russia to collect COVID-19 data in six countries and develop a predictive model that could illustrate the most effective measures to mitigate the spread of the disease.

Working with an epidemiologist in Russia and COVID-19 data on Russia, China, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and the United States, the team is looking for insights into actions, such as government protocols and personal measures, that can halt epidemics.

“I think we can have a far greater impact than our original project, even though we’re not directly connected to and in Russia,” said Withington, an aerospace engineering major who has been collaborating with teammates from his family’s home in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “I think it’s going to be important if we turn out a model that will help people. I think that that will be really meaningful.”

New Project, New Sponsors

A requirement for all undergraduates, IQPs aim to solve a problem at the intersection of science and society. Withington, Woolverton, and Nikulin were among 11 students on three teams who had planned to travel to the Moscow Project Center for spring IQPs.

“The cancellation of the trip was so devastating for the entire class,” said Moscow Project Center director Svetlana Nikitina, who is also an associate teaching professor of English. “Going to Russia is a big deal. We had cultural excursions lined up. The students got gifts for their Russian partners.”

Like many other countries around the world, Russia has been transformed by COVID-19. More than 87,000 cases have been reported. In Moscow, authorities are converting hospitals to accommodate an anticipated surge in patients and using a new digital permit system to limit the number of people who may leave their homes.

Having advised projects all over the world, I know projects get changed. But it’s hard. This group took to the new project idea enthusiastically.
-Svetlana Nikitina
Moscow Project Center Director

Of the three WPI teams previously scheduled to go to Moscow, two decided to continue with their planned projects, rework them to be completed remotely, and continue to collaborate with their Russian project partners and faculty at the Financial University. The university is WPI’s long-term institutional partner in Moscow and focuses on business, finance, economics, information technology, mathematics, sociology, and political science. Faculty in the Financial University’s Department of International Finance and Department of Data Analysis, Decision Making, and Financial Technology are assisting all three of the WPI teams with projects. Russian students are working alongside WPI students to collect data, build models, and offer cultural insights.

Meanwhile, the team of Withington, Woolverton, and Nikulin took on a new project with new sponsors, both in response to the pandemic and the fact that their original sponsor at a nursing home contracted COVID-19 and could not oversee their project. The WPI students are now working remotely with faculty from the Financial University to use simulation modeling software to analyze processes. They hope to produce material to educate the general public.

“The students really rose to the occasion,” Nikitina said. “Having advised projects all over the world, I know projects get changed. But it’s hard. This group took to the new project idea enthusiastically. I didn’t have to sell it.”

“This is something entirely new for us,” said Woolverton, a civil engineering major who is working from his family’s home in Scarborough, Maine. “Ultimately, the societal goal is to emphasize the significance of following quarantine measures and how limiting your contacts with people will have such a big role in the virus's spread. We want to draw attention to that, because there are still a number of people who aren't really adhering to the recommendations from the World Health Organization, and it's going to have an impact on all of us.”

Making an Impact

Technical aspects of the project are sometimes challenging, team members said, and language barriers can emerge when discussions veer into the software’s complex terminology.

Yet the subject of the project is connecting the joint team members more closely to events in the world than the previous project would have, said Nikulin, an aerospace engineering major who is working from Worcester.

“I feel like I would have kept track of what’s going on with the coronavirus before, but now when I see the news, I can note down stuff that’s helpful and try to stay on track with our research,” Nikulin said. “This project is definitely something I can relate to more.”

To inject some Russian culture into all three WPI projects associated with the Moscow Project Center, Nikitina is hosting weekly movie nights to screen films such as “Salyut-7,” which dramatizes the true story of Soviet engineers and astronauts who stopped an unmanned space station from falling to earth.

“That kind of keeps the experience of Russian culture alive for students,” Nikitina said. “I’m sorely aware how different the experience is from what they expected. The fact that the students rose to the occasion and everyone is engaged is great.”

-By Lisa Eckelbecker