Research Illuminates the Way Forward

Researcher at lab

Research Illuminates the Way Forward

Facing the urgent worldwide need to mitigate the threat and consequences of COVID-19, University researchers across a range of disciplines are helping to advance understanding and generate solutions for communities in Miami and around the world.
Facing the urgent worldwide need to mitigate the threat and consequences of COVID-19, University researchers across a range of disciplines are helping to advance understanding and generate solutions for communities in Miami and around the world.

NEARLY A CENTURY AGO, OUR FOUNDERS ENVISIONED A GREAT DESTINY FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI—ONE IN WHICH WE WOULD HELP DEVISE SOLUTIONS TO THE WORLD’S MOST VEXING CHALLENGES. One of those challenges arrived in the spring and has multiplied in recent months in the form of a merciless pandemic. And the University has stepped fully into the role our founders foresaw, serving as a source of unity, pride, and connection to the community. From a myriad of perspectives and multitude of approaches, University researchers are engaged in the effort to counter and assess the tragedy, and to stymie the advance of the pandemic.

Immunologists and doctors are pursuing a vaccine, engineers are generating materials critical for front-line workers, artists are capturing the virus’s impact visually and aurally, public health specialists are assessing air quality, sociologists are tracking the spread in prisons, and environmental scientists are exploring the beaches and water during closures, amid many other research endeavors. of the best that living—and pursuing an education in Miami—offers has opened its doors.

The University is all in, supporting these talented specialists with investments and grants. Twenty-four University of Miami research teams have received rapid response grants ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 via the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Scholarship to undertake innovative projects that will provide critical information about the novel coronavirus. Through another eight different proposals, faculty members across multiple disciplines have received internal funding from the College of Arts and Sciences.

At a time when truth and fact are being sorely tested by populist regimes and conspiracy theories, accurate information is critical. President Julio Frenk, a global public health expert and former health minister of Mexico, says that experts must continue to illuminate the way forward.

“It’s research that is going to get us to the other side of this pandemic,” Frenk says. “We find ourselves in a moment in time where society is clamoring for the experience of experts, and converging research gives universities an incredible edge to help navigate the uncertainty. It’s a moment to rise and shine.”

It’s research that is going to get us to the other side of this pandemic.



Natasa Strbo’s
Natasa Strbo is researching a vaccine for COVID-19.

Natasa Strbo’s expertise on heat shock protein gp96, a powerful immune system activator, has put her in the worldwide hunt for a vaccine against COVID-19. The assistant professor of immunology and microbiology, together with researchers at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, had already been investigating the protein’s promise for HIV, malaria, and Zika vaccines. With the onset of the pandemic, the team shifted its scientific platform to concentrate on developing a coronavirus vaccine. Their COVID-19 vaccine remains on track to begin manufacturing soon for preclinical testing. Heat Biologics—the company Strbo’s mentor Eckhard Podack co-founded in 2008—provides critical backing. 

While the competition to discover the critical vaccine is fierce, Strbo considers the competition a privilege and an opportunity to carry on Podack’s work and to learn more about the novel coronavirus and the “fascinating little molecule” that she has dedicated her life’s work to understanding.

Strbo credits Eva Fisher and Laura Padula, her research associates, for their painstaking efforts to create the DNA that incorporates the coronavirus genes, and she emphasizes the need for scientists to learn from each other as vaccine development evolves.

“The whole world is a big laboratory,” Strbo says. “And now, more than ever, we must share information so we can adapt the vaccine when needed.”



When a team of University of Miami physicians, nurses and engineers used a patient simulator to test a new intubation box designed to prevent potential COVID-19 respiratory particles from reaching health care workers who perform critical airway procedures, anesthesiologist Richard McNeer, B.S ’91, Ph.D. ’97, M.D. ’99, suddenly had one of those “aha” moments. He discovered that a Yankauer, a special suctioning tool used in many medical procedures, could actually evacuate most of the particles if it were positioned strategically near the opening of the simulator’s vocal cords prior to intubation.

Richard McNeer and Nichole Crenshaw test an intubation box.
Richard McNeer, Miller School of Medicine anesthesiologist, and Nichole Crenshaw, School of Nursing and Health Studies assistant professor of clinical, test an intubation box designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission during airway procedures.


“It was a serendipitous discovery,” recalls McNeer, a professor of clinical at the Miller School of Medicine. “Suction has been used to remove everything from stomach contents to blood. But this is perhaps the first time it’s been considered for use in suctioning out aerosols.”

Used in tandem, the tube and intubation box are an added layer of protection for health care providers, McNeer said.

The intubation box itself is made of acrylic and covers a patient’s head. It has two circular ports through which an anesthesiologist inserts his gloved hands and arms to perform an airway procedure. “We knew that anesthesiologists were at risk of being exposed to splatter and respiratory droplets when performing intubations, so we were trying to find a way to protect them,” says Suresh Atapattu, B.S.B.E. ’96, M.S.B.E. ’01, a biomedical engineer at the Miller School’s International Medicine Institute, who designed the box. He found inspiration for its design from half a world away—a physician in Taiwan who had constructed and used a clear barrier device to protect health care workers when intubating COVID-19 patients.

Atapattu designed and constructed his own iteration of the box. Once the prototype had been perfected, Maxwell Jarosz, architect and manager of the fabrication lab and model shop at the School of Architecture, built others, donating them to medical facilities in South Florida. Some are now being used at Ryder Trauma Center, where McNeer performs airway procedures on patients who are brought in with serious and often life-threatening injuries.

and often life-threatening injuries. As for the suction tube, Jarosz is working with McNeer on a design that is more ergonomically friendly than the Yankauer that was initially used. Once the design is finalized, the tubes will be 3D-printed in mass quantities at the School of Architecture.



Kathryn Nowotny, an assistant professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Sociology, together with public health scientis ts from two other institutions, launched the COVID Prison Project to encourage policies and procedures that better protect one of the most vulnerable but most neglected populations.

The group tracks the pandemic’s impact on the roughly 2.7 million people who are incarcerated and
the more than 423,000 employees in state and federal prisons and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers across the nation and in Puerto Rico.

In addition to the altruistic argument for her research, Nowotny cites the radiating impact of the spread of the virus on incarcerated people.

“These are people’s parents, spouses, children, brothers, and sisters, or friends,” she says. “And correctional officers and other staff come in and out regularly and go home to their communities.”

A cadre of students from the three collaborating universities manually collect and update the data by visiting every state’s and the federal government’s prison websites daily. A $20,000 Langeloth Foundation grant will help to automate and expand the operation—to include data from the thousands of county jails across the nation.

“We want prison officials to see what other states might be doing to improve conditions,” says Nowotny. “And for them to say: ‘Maybe we should be doing it, too.’ ”



Xavier Cortada, A.B. ’86, J.D. ’91, M.P.A. ’91, launched the Miami Corona Project, a three-pronged art initiative that aims to inspire, educate, and engage the public while providing a real-time record of the pandemic’s impact on Miami-Dade County.

Presented as part of the University of Miami COVID-19 Rapid Response, Cortada’s project is modeled on an inspiration he presented 20 years ago in South Africa to memorialize the victims of a different pandemic—AIDS.

“Our goal is to create a space for community engagement, just like we did with the ‘Breaking the Silence’ mural hanging in the Durban Art Gallery in Durban, South Africa,” he explains.

Adam Roberti, B.A.M.A ’18, director of Cortada Projects, helped to develop the project’s website
(, where visitors can add their own stories about the pandemic.

“I hope this project serves as an artistic model for how to build community, amplify voices,
and ultimately save lives,” Roberti says.

research video
Miami Pronouncement: 7/11/2020, Xavier Cortada, Miami Corona Project, provides a real-time record of the pandemic’s impact on Miami-Dade County.


The forced closure of beaches paved the way for research that supported the suspicions of
University investigators that beachgoers—and not a nearby water treatment facility—were the source
of the unusually high levels of enterococci bacteria that have been contaminating the waters of Key Biscayne Beach.

Helena Solo-Gabriele, B.S. ’87, M.S. ’88, a professor of environmental engineering at the College of Engineering, and her team of graduate assistants obtained the necessary permissions during the pandemic period to analyze beach waters for the potentially dangerous microbes as part of a Village of Key Biscayne-funded study.

Afeefa Abdool-Ghany, an environmental engineering graduate student, and other researchers conducted lab tests of water, sand, and seaweed samples before and after Key Biscayne Beach was closed.

Solo-Gabriele says the team was “astonished” by their findings. “The sand and seaweed were amazingly high in bacteria levels before COVID and then, shortly after the shutdowns, the levels dropped dramatically,” she says.

Maribeth Gidley, a research scientist at the University’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, and James Klaus, an associate professor of marine geosciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, are collaborating on the pollution study.

Researchers conducted lab tests on beach
Researchers conducted lab tests of water, sand, and seaweed samples before and after Key Biscayne Beach was closed due to the pandemic.


During the April-to-May shutdown period, Naresh Kumar, a University public health scientist who studies the environmental burden of disease, recorded dramatic increases in the levels of harmful substances and noxious concentrations in the air of homes where he had placed environmental sensors.

The intensified use of disinfectants—often times with harsh chemicals containing dangerous compounds—increased dramatically. And the fact that more people were cooking at home, some using gas-powered ranges that produced carbon monoxide that was not ventilated, were largely to blame for the increased pollutants and diminished air quality, his preliminary findings showed.

“It’s what people did inside their residences during stay-at-home orders that contributed to those increases,” Kumar said.

The 33 sensors he placed in residential homes—15 in Miami and 18 in Baltimore—continue to track levels of particulate matter and other substances in real time, and a long-range study examining whether those harmful substances led to respiratory illnesses remains a possibility, Kumar says.



To discover the extent to which COVID-19 affects the heart, cardiologists and researchers at the Miller School of Medicine have begun multiple studies.

A collaborative study between the school, the American Heart Association, and other U.S. cardiovascular programs seeks to identify the best practices, quality measures, and treatments for patients with COVID-19 and cardiovascular diseases, according to Jeffrey Goldberger, professor of medicine and chief of the Cardiovascular Division.

The research accompanies the University’s recently established COVID-19 Heart Program, which aims to identify and diagnose serious conditions related to COVID-19 at an early stage and protect the heart from serious damage.

Raul D. Mitrani, professor of clinical medicine and director of both the clinical cardiac electrophysiology section and the Electrophysiology Fellowship Program, leads a follow-up study together with other physician-researchers to assess arrhythmia risk.

Another study involves patients with hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions who are taking two types of medications: angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers. Other Miller School researchers are exploring COVID-19 from the biological side, hoping to gain a better understanding of the viral infection process.

—This article included reporting from Maya Bell, Robert C. Jones Jr., and Kelly Montoya.