American life has been irrevocably altered by the deadliest pandemic in a century. Scientists at Oregon State University acted swiftly to the greatest public health emergency of our time, leveraging the College of Science’s unique capabilities in biomedical research and the quantitative sciences to investigate and contain the coronavirus crisis.
In April, several OSU scientists hailing from different colleges and centers on campus leapt to action to tackle surging coronavirus infections in America. They were driven by widespread diagnostic test shortages in America as well as the lack of data on asymptomatic individuals. The result was a public health study started in Corvallis called Team-based Rapid Assessment of Community-Level Coronavirus Epidemics, or TRACE-COVID-19. It was among the first of its kind in the country to test the prevalence of the virus in an entire community through door-to-door sampling in representative sets of neighborhoods.
“The impetus for us was that equipment required to do the laboratory tests to detect the virus is present in a lot of research labs on campus. We started to problem solve and understand how a land grant university that has relationships with communities across the state could help during this crisis,” said Benjamin Dalziel, lead investigator of the TRACE project and an assistant professor of integrative biology and mathematics.
It goes without saying that a massive project like this would typically take shape over the course of several months. However, in a stunning feat, the TRACE team developed the project from scratch in a matter of weeks, and it is now garnering attention nationally as a model for other universities. The public health study is a joint effort by OSU’s Colleges of Science, Public Health and Human Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, Engineering and the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. It is co-directed by Jeff Bethel, associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
"TRACE’s primary goal is to mobilize the capacities of the land grant university to help the communities we serve.”
As a project director, Dalziel takes a leading role in data analysis and the design of the study to enable inferences important to understanding the infection rate and transmission patterns. He is at ease working with a wide range of collaborators, something he has done frequently in his academic career.
“I really enjoy working on a team where the expertise is diverse — partly because everybody has a chance to be humble and wear our learner’s hats,” said Dalziel. “We have this wonderful team of 10 co-investigators, and each of us is a non-expert in most of the areas we are working on. I think it brings out the best in TRACE as we learn from each other.”
The study, conducted in partnership with Benton County health officials, was initially funded by OSU and a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and has been aided by work from the OSU Foundation and the OSU Alumni Association. Funding from PacificSource Health plans has allowed for the project to expand to Bend, Newport and Hermiston in joint efforts with Deschutes, Lincoln and Umatilla counties, as well as increase sampling in Corvallis. Dalziel received $800K from PacificSource Health Plans and two grants from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for $750K and $400K to aid the expansion of the TRACE-COVID-19 project.
The TRACE-COVID-19 team, comprising 10 scientists and more than 300 volunteers was selected for the prestigious 2020 Beaver Champion Award, which will be presented at a virtual celebration honoring University Day Award Recipients on Monday, September 14. This Oregon State president’s award recognizes an individual or individuals who continually demonstrate outstanding effort and achievement of excellence, extra effort beyond that requested, and performance of the highest quality.
Discovering ecology and mathematics
Dalziel grew up in Ontario, Canada. He spent a good chunk of summer each year in the wilderness of Northern Ontario, which fueled his passion for nature and the environment and led him to study ecology. Dalziel immersed himself in ecology and mathematical sciences as an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He also obtained a master’s degree in biology at the University of Guelph before earning a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University.