Bowie State professors and students use data to fight the coronavirus

Bowie State University wants to be in front of how the coronavirus pandemic affects students' academic performance, housing, family, health and anxiety, and how the plunge into digitization caused by COVID-19 affects students' career prospects.

The key: data.


This summer was the first time business management major Cydni Gilliam used Tableau software, which allows researchers to turn data into graphics. Along with other students and professors, they looked at the creation and destruction of businesses around the United States during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a few months, things will have changed even more, assistant business professor Kavita Kapur said.


“The digitization of the world is going to happen really fast because of COVID,” Kapur said.

Understanding what factors allow businesses to survive and thrive during that growth and destruction will help fortify the students against similar turbulence in the years ahead. The data analysis skills students learned this summer through the Data Science & Analytics Summer Undergraduate Research Institute will help them succeed in the rapidly digitized world, Kapur said.

Gilliam wants to be an entrepreneur and eventually run a nonprofit, and while she came into the summer program having never worked with data, leaving she says thinks it will be critical to the success or failure of their future enterprise.

And it is more than helping themselves –– Gilliam says any business owner who reads their work will have a better chance of surviving future pandemics.

During the summer, computer science professor Sharad Sharma worked together with students to create a three-dimensional virtual reality environment which people can use to view COVID-19 data. The goal is to better understand why the Black community is experiencing higher rates of death. Factors could include access to health care, pre-existing conditions and type of employment.

In Maryland, about 41% of people who have died due to COVID-19 were Black, while the population overall is 31% Black. That equates to more than 360 deaths above what would be expected based on population demographics.

Sharma said they have created both immersive environments, in which a user would wear an Oculus or other technology to have the experience of being virtually inside the space, as well as non-immersive environments, where a person would navigate the program as if it were a video game.

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Seeing the data in a different format allows researchers to make connections they might not otherwise find, and view statistics from new angles. The key ingredient is interaction, Sharma said.


Social work professor Emory Perkins is studying the pandemic’s effect on Bowie State students, and this summer sent out a survey asking students about their knowledge of the virus, how it has affected academic performance, their health and well-being, anxiety and a fifth factor called the contagion effect.

“What is the threat of COVID-19 to the student? Is it economic? Is it about housing? Is it about being essential worker?” Perkins said. “Other contagion threats may include family members. A lot of African-American and minority families are at increased risk of COVID-19 because of the way in which we live.”

They are developing hypotheses now, and Perkins said they will ultimately make recommendations to the university around the way COVID-19 has affected students' lives. Seven undergraduate students are working on the project, which has been funded by the state, and Perkins is working with three other professors.

They are also getting demographic profiles of respondents, information like how many children they have, ethnic background and sexual orientation. They will also looking at housing and intimate partner violence and involuntary relationships, Perkins said.

“A lot of Black and brown families have been displaced because of COVID-19,” Perkins said.

Perkins, Sharma and Kapur all worked with students remotely this summer for their research, and are continuing their work in the school year. The new school year began Aug. 31, with a combination of in-person and remote learning.