Technician taking blood sample from participant
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The coronavirus pandemic is impacting every aspect of daily life with implications including social, psychological and economic well-being and education achievement. 

The Data 4 Action Research Project aims to better understand such spillover impacts of COVID-19 in Centre County by assessing biological, psychological and social functioning of community members and Penn State students. While the goal of this research is to capture the “voices” of Centre County residents, the project is also providing new and impactful opportunities for a growing group of Penn State students.

Two Penn State students are part of a larger group of undergraduates who are learning about the research process, scientific data, and COVID-19 and its effects. Laura Hurtado, a senior majoring in human development and family studies, and Gillian Sommerville, a senior majoring in biobehavioral health, are both serving as research assistants on the project.

Since the start of the project in August, Sommerville and Hurtado have developed hands-on skills all while navigating safety measures and COVID-19 guidelines that are essential for conducting research with human subjects during the pandemic. Some of their tasks include making biological sample kits and screening participants prior to their participation in the study.

Hurtado and Sommerville said they were especially eager to get involved with such a relevant and timely research opportunity.

“What’s great about Penn State, especially in the College of Health and Human Development, is that they constantly provide many different opportunities to learn more,” Hurtado said. “Whether it’s special topics, internship opportunities, participation in studies — I’ve been able to take advantage of it all.”

“I had worked in a research lab previously and really enjoyed it,” said Sommerville. “I wanted some more experience in research labs, but specifically targeted to behavioral science, so I thought this opportunity could be a good fit for me.”

However, being a research assistant on this project has done more for Sommerville and Hurtado than just adding another credential to their resumes.

“At first, we were working a lot with the Centre County community,” said Sommerville. “It was really cool to be able to interact with them, and what really keeps me involved is knowing I’m contributing to not only Penn State but also the Centre County community too.”

The learning experience has allowed Hurtado and Sommerville to better understand all the thinking and work  that happens behind the scenes in a large, interdisciplinary research study.

“This role opened my eyes to just how involved you can be as a research assistant by providing not only assistance but also input,” Hurtado said. “The team was very open to letting me ask questions and hypothesize about  what I am learning. I have had very enriching conversations with my mentors, and it’s really nice how included I have been in the study aside from doing the basic tasks.”

“What has been so rewarding for me is being able to witness the principles I’ve learned in class translating into the study,” Sommerville said. “It’s been awesome to learn about research methods, and then go into the clinic and actually do it. It’s been a valuable experience to actually apply what I’ve learned.”

Sommerville is planning for a career in health promotion and prevention. Hurtado is pursuing a career as a licensed clinical social worker. Though their goals are very different, they both agreed that the Data 4 Action Project has moved them one large step forward along their desired career paths.

“A lot of populations are going to be devastatingly affected by COVID-19, and I would definitely like to get involved in more COVID-19 research related to human development and family studies,” Hurtado said. “Because of the Data 4 Action project, I know this research is something I want to continue doing beyond undergrad.”

“Working in the public health field, I’m probably going to have to respond to issues, like health-related behaviors, that are changing very quickly,” Sommerville said. “Being able to deal with the obstacles of COVID-19, and seeing how my supervisors and mentors on the Data 4 Action team are dealing with the hurdles the pandemic has brought, I’m starting to learn how I’ll have to respond to such challenges when I begin my public health career.”

The Data 4 Action Project is an interdisciplinary collaboration among Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and includes faculty members from six Penn State colleges.

News Topics: COVID-19, Data 4 Action