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Crisis Inspires Camaraderie

“Take care of each other,” often repeated during the coronavirus pandemic, is a message many in the IUP community have taken to heart.

Put to the Test

COVID Timeline
Narayanaswamy Bharathan in an Indiana Regional Medical Center lab (Indiana Regional Medical Center)

Narayanaswamy Bharathan in an Indiana Regional Medical Center lab (Indiana Regional Medical Center)

Since April, Narayanaswamy Bharathan has provided COVID-19 testing at Indiana Regional Medical Center, in addition to serving as professor and chair of IUP’s Biology Department.

IUP Associate Dean for Research Hilliary Creely coordinated the partnership, which involved moving IUP equipment to IRMC, as well as training hospital personnel in coronavirus testing.

“I felt that it was imperative that I jump into this work,” said Bharathan, whose expertise includes work with RNA viruses and with protocols for testing and identifying them. “It’s the best way that I can help during this crisis.”

Bharathan learned his desire to help from his parents, he said, and subsequently passed it along to his daughters, who assist him with testing. Tanvi Bharathan M’19 is a medical school graduate who plans to start her residency later this year. Her sister Tashi ’19 is a Cook Honors College graduate who will enter medical school in the fall.

As research associates, they’re steeped in their father’s belief that “the incredible spirit of human camaraderie is vital and should be more infectious than COVID-19 itself.”

As of early July, the hospital had completed more than 2,000 tests, mostly of hospital patients but also of nursing home residents and local jail inmates. Widespread testing and reporting are critical in preventing the spread of the virus, Bharathan said.

“A concerted, collaborative effort is needed to identify as quickly as possible people who have come in contact with infected individuals and to advise self-quarantine,” he said. “Widespread testing will allow the detection of virus in ‘transporters’ without obvious symptoms who could infect others. Only rapid testing will help us to understand and uncover the full scope of the public health problem.”

‘Avengers Assemble’ PPE

NBrad Adams has been making faceshield visors from home. (Brad Adams)

Brad Adams has been making faceshield visors from home. (Brad Adams)

Before coronavirus became a household name, Homer-Center Junior/Senior High School teacher Brad Adams ’06 was already discussing with IUP and other area high schools ways they could collaborate on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) projects.

During the school year, Adams was piloting a class in three-dimensional printing. When the pandemic caused schools to close and lessons to move online, he thought of a collaboration that would benefit his students and the community.

Amid talk of shortages of personal protective equipment for health care and emergency workers, Adams and his students sprung to action. They borrowed 3-D printers from the school and began making face shields to donate to hospitals and other vital services. For their heroic efforts, they became known as the Indiana County COVID Avengers.

Soon, students from other local schools and many community volunteers joined in. Adams’s wife and fellow Homer-Center teacher Lisa Peightal Adams ’99 began organizing the requests on a spreadsheet, and Pittsburgh-area alumni Rob Ruscher ’09 and David Altrogge ’06 conducted an online fundraiser.

To aid the initiative, two IUP students made use of university 3-D printers, and the IUP Research Institute donated two more printers, several boxes of filament, and other supplies.

More recently, the Avengers have grown to roughly 50 members, Adams said, some as young as third grade. As of early July, the team tracked the distribution of 3,800 face shields, but he estimates actual orders have topped 5,000. While most of the equipment has stayed local, shipments have also gone to Florida and Arizona and even to the Philippines.

“It’s amazing what a community can do in a time of crisis,” Adams said.

Response Time

When IUP switched to all-remote learning in March and students had to vacate their residence halls and change their plans, many encountered unexpected expenses—for technology, travel, rent, groceries, storage, and more.

To help students overcome those hardships and stay in school, IUP’s Division of University Advancement established the Emergency Response Fund (now called the Student Assistance Fund) as part of its $75-million Imagine Unlimited comprehensive campaign.

As mentioned elsewhere in this edition, the fund’s lead gifts came from alumni—Terry Serafini ’61, Tim Cejka ’73, Debra Phillips Cejka ’73, and the IUP Alumni Association Board of Directors. The fund was also the focus of the University Family Drive for employees and of IUP’s Day of Caring in April.

The latter event transitioned into a campaign called IUP Cares. On its accompanying web page, more than 25 IUP alumni offered advice on coping with the pandemic—everything from relieving neck and back pain caused by poor home-office ergonomics to eating well on fewer trips to the grocery store to helping kids learn better during online schooling.

By late July, the IUP community had raised upward of $270,000 for the Emergency Response Fund and fulfilled more than 400 student requests.

How to Help

If you would like to assist IUP students through the Student Assistance Fund, go to IUP Student Assistance Fund or call 724-357-5661.