While COVID-19 impacts on the academic and social experiences of students across the country have been significant and the focus of much media attention, the effects of the pandemic on academic research have also been substantial.

For many Virginia Tech faculty members, the inability to conduct face-to-face research, the need to juggle personal and professional responsibilities, or the switch to working remotely forced them to halt, delay, or revise their research plans.

As Isabel Bradburn, program director for the Policy Destination Area and administrative fellow for the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, and Nathaniel Porter, social science data consultant and data education coordinator at University Libraries, brainstormed about how to help social science faculty at Virginia Tech jumpstart their research amidst these challenges, the idea for the COVID-19 Data-Driven Research Accelerator Workshop was born.

The workshop, a week-long event held July 12-16, provided dedicated time for faculty to focus on their own research, along with a supportive peer network and assistance with analytic tools, data visualization and more from experts at Virginia Tech. The event featured the COVID-19 Influences and Impacts Database of Databases, a collaboration of the Policy Destination Area and University Libraries DataBridge, which provides researchers with one-stop access to a variety of social, behavioral, health, and environmental data for research.

“We used the faculty writing retreat as a model, but instead of just writing, we focused on the whole research process. We provided dedicated time and space as well as access to university resources and staff who were poised to provide support as needed,” explained Porter.

Julie Gerdes, a first-year assistant professor in the Department of English was one of the workshop participants. “The COVID-19 accelerator was the single best investment that I made in my research this summer. The resources that Virginia Tech libraries provided during this week took away distractions and enabled me to focus exclusively on my research,” said Gerdes.

The free workshop was held from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. each day and offered light meals to enable faculty to devote the entire week to their research. Both in-person and Zoom options were offered to accommodate the researchers’ needs and maximize the time they could spend in the workshop.

“During this week, I wrote up an entire book chapter for a study that I had been working on and analyzed results from another study that I had put on the back burner,” said Gerdes. “I could not have been that productive on my own.”

“We would gather as a group each morning and talk about our goals for the day," Porter said. "We would then set the faculty loose to work at whatever stage they were at. We had three of us, Isabel Bradburn, Truitt Elliott, an undergraduate student who works for DataBridge, and myself available in person throughout the workshop to give assistance in real-time.”

Other staff were available virtually to provide support if needed. “We really worked to ensure resources were readily available; thus, instead of being slowed down for days or weeks because of some data issue, the problem could often be resolved within minutes or hours,” Porter said.

In addition to the dedicated time and consultation with Virginia Tech experts, the workshop offered several optional live or recorded training modules, including demonstrations on how to use the COVID-19 Influences and Impacts database, finding and cleaning data, and data visualization.

The COVID-19 Impacts and Influences database is a “searchable database that consists of an annotated, curated collection of datasets and/or databases that are relevant to the antecedents, progression, and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Bradburn. “Each entry represents a unique dataset or database and has live links to access the data, together with information about the database.”

Eight faculty members and graduate students from a broad range of social science disciplines and humanities, including economics, English, sociology, Africana studies, communications and the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, participated in the workshop.  While the number of participants was relatively small, “we got really good feedback and hope it can be bigger as we can move to more in-person formats,” said Porter.

“I’m very grateful for the resources that this workshop provided,” said Gerdes. “From providing coffee and lunches so that we didn’t need to think about what to pack, to connecting us to experts who sat with us to work through wicked questions about our projects, to showcasing existing data sets that Virginia Tech curates, I could not imagine a more helpful event.”

“What was unique about the workshop and made it work was that it was structured enough to give people the resources they needed without them feeling like they had to fit into a specific box,” explained Porter. “More often than not, when you see other intense sessions or workshops, it’s more of a ‘hackathon,’ where participants are presented with a dataset and expected to produce something together, but they have to set aside their own work to do it. This workshop allowed us to help the researchers where they were,” said Porter.

Porter anticipates offering other similar workshops in the future with a different research focus each time to draw in faculty from diverse departments and units across campus. Researchers interested in using the COVID-19 Impacts and Influences database should contact Bradburn at isbrad@vt.edu.

Written by Yancey Crawford