Science Alumni Explore COVID-19’s Past, Present & Future

Tuesday, April 14, 2020
Alumna Stefani Vande Lune fills bottles with hand sanitizer at the Indiana Whiskey Co.

Applied biology alumna Stefani Vande Lune joined Indiana University Medical School-South Bend students in filling hand sanitizer bottles at the Indiana Whiskey Company. The supplies were given to essential businesses within the community.

Biology and chemistry alumni are using technology, research knowledge, and can-do attitudes to help the public address signficant public health challenges.

Here are some of these contributions, with more to come as we learn about them:

Fox Modelling Next Move in Pandemic Battle

A pandemic model for COVID-19 cases by researchers at the University of Texas, co-directed by alumnus and data scientist Spencer Fox, reveals the benefits social distancing has played in preventing the spread of the illness. The research team’s model suggests that reducing daily contacts between people across Texas by 90 percent would be expected to “flatten the curve” of the unmanageable surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations through the spring and summer.

The consortium of nearly 60 researchers and clinicians was organized in March to respond and advise public policy regarding the pandemic in Texas and nationally. That includes those weighing the economic costs of business and school shutdowns against potential public health costs. The group applies mathematical models and computers at UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to understand, analyze and predict the transmission of diseases and their effects. The study is being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“Our report is helping (officials) make decisions by saying that, even if you’re seeing one or two cases in your county, it’s more likely than not that you have underlying community transmission,” Fox says.

Assisting the team has been 1986 chemistry alumnus David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer for the UT System. He was commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services from 2007-15 and served as the state’s chief health official during public health emergencies such as H1N1 and Ebola.

As a doctorate student, Fox and the rest of the TACC team developed a Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit, a web-based service that simulates the spread of pandemic flu through the state. The new COVID-19 models, like the Texas pandemic toolkit, are intended to guide public health officials in planning in advance of future pandemics and provide rapid analyses to support real-time decision-making during emergency situations.

Fox, a 2013 applied biology alumnus, is a statistical epidemiology research associate at UT Austin, where he earned a doctorate in 2018. He spent two years as a data scientist in industry before being recruited back to academia to help lead UT’s COVID-19 research team when the pandemic started impacting America in early March.

Trobaugh Knows Virus Research is Slow & Steady

Derek Trobaugh has taken a particular interest as fellow virologists work aggressively to develop a vaccine to inoculate people with immunity during the current coronavirus pandemic. Until early this year, he once was among them as a researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Immunology with the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research. That lab is one of the nation’s top microbiology research facilities. Trobaugh is now helping make virology and biopharma discoveries as a senior research scientist with Elanco.

“The science around (this coronavirus) is moving very rapidly. After only being identified a few months ago, there is already a lot we know about the virus, but there is also a lot to still figure out,” says Trobaugh, a 2006 applied biology graduate. “It’s pretty amazing how quickly it has spread. It took three months for 100,000 people to get infected, and only 12 days for the next 100,000 to be identified. A lot of this has to do with the increase in testing and being able to identify individuals who have the virus. There are probably more people who have had it, but weren’t tested or were asymptomatic. It also proves how asymptomatic or mild cases are helping to spread the disease to every part of the world.”

The World Health Organization listed Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) related coronaviruses as a priority pathogen in hopes of increasing the development of novel therapeutics and vaccines. Also, Trobaugh points out that there are always unknown pathogens, known as “Disease X,” in nature with the potential to become a public health concern.

“This is why it is important to continue to study the viruses we know, while at the same time identify new viruses that are found in nature,” Trobaugh says. “For the SARS-Cov-2 vaccine, I believe they will know the results of the study in approximately 12 months. The key with Ribonucleic acid-based vaccines (RNA) will be the ability to mass-produce the vaccine since it is new technology.”

Trobaugh specialized in immunology and virology while earning a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He then spent nearly eight years as a vaccine researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. He led project teams that identified the role of alphavirus non-translated regions in disease pathogenesis. The team’s findings were published in Nature and Science magazine.

Vande Lune Fills Critical Need for Hand Sanitizer

When clinical experiences were halted for medical students at Indiana University’s School of Medicine in South Bend, fifth-year student and Rose-Hulman alumna Stefani Vande Lune started filling and labeling 1.5-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer at the Indiana Whiskey Company in South Bend. The veteran-owned distillery reportedly produced 30,000 bottles in the early days of the pandemic, with 25,000 bottles being delivered to essential businesses within the community.

“The Indiana Whiskey Company provided us (medical school students) a way to make a positive contribution to the community,” says Vande Lune. “I think it's a great reminder to future doctors that, in the name of safety and patient care, no task is too trivial. It's all about teamwork and pitching in wherever you can, even if your labels aren't always straight.”

Vande Lune earned a bachelor’s degree in applied biology from Rose-Hulman in 2006 and added a master’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2008. She then went on to earn a law degree from George Washington University College of Law in 2011 and entered medical school in 2016.

There’s another Rose-Hulman connection to the Indiana Whiskey Company, as 2008 mechanical engineering alumnus Jeremy Norris did special projects while being an intern at the company for nearly a year until August of 2018.

Are other Rose-Hulman alumni lending a helping hand, working in research, and helping manufacture technology and resources in the worldwide fight against the coronavirus? We would love to share these stories. Send details to or