Reimagining Global Research in a Pandemic

With travel limited, Duke faculty use creativity and collaboration to move projects forward

Global research before and after COVID-19, clockwise from top left, pandemic-era work on Vulci 3000, Anirudh Krishna's pre-COVID work in India, Lauren Franz working remotely with South African team, and Gayani Tillekeratne's pre-COVID work in Sri Lanka.
Global research before and after COVID-19, clockwise from top left, pandemic-era work on Vulci 3000, Anirudh Krishna's pre-COVID work in India, Lauren Franz working remotely with South African team, and Gayani Tillekeratne's pre-COVID work in Sri Lanka.

If it weren’t for COVID-19, Gayani Tillekeratne would be in Sri Lanka right now.

Tillekeratne, an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and assistant research Professor in Global Health at Duke, usually spends half the year in Sri Lanka, studying threats such as the dengue virus and respiratory tract infections.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Guyana Tillekeratne worked closely with colleagues in Sri Lanka. Now these collaborations occur virtually. Photo courtesy of Gayani Tillekeratne.The longest of her trips often begins in January, but with the COVID-19 limiting Duke-supported travel, Tillekeratne has spent the past year in Durham, communicating with collaborators in Sri Lanka through Zoom and WebEx.

“It may be at a slower pace or a smaller scale, but we’ve been able keep the work going,” Tillekeratne said.

With students, staff and faculty working, learning and serving in more than 150 countries, Duke has long prided itself on helping address complex challenges across the globe. While domestic travel will be allowed for fully vaccinated employees who have the approval of their deans and directors starting May 2, Duke-supported international travel remains suspended – with certain exceptions – until at least August 8. That’s meant faculty members with international research interests have found creative ways to continue global missions.

“I’ve been surprised and delighted,” said Eve Duffy, associate vice provost for Global Affairs. “I think a lot of people, at the time the pandemic began, were worried about when things would get back to normal. Now we’re realizing there’s a new normal and it’s going to be a little more flexible, and hybrid and not always in person.”

Over the past year, Tillekeratne has helped with COVID-19 therapeutic and vaccine trials at the Duke Clinical Research Institute and Duke Human Vaccine Institute, and treated COVID-19 patients at the Durham VA Medical Center, where she does her clinical work.

She’s also continued to stay close with her collaborators in Sri Lanka, who have been embracing new research challenges, including projects dealing with COVID-19.

“In many ways, the pandemic has allowed us to grow,” Tillekeratne said. 

Using technology and teamwork, Duke faculty members have found different ways to continue their global research despite the distance.

With the ability to work on the Vulci archaeological site limited, the Vulci 3000 team worked on documenting previous finds digitally. Image courtesy of Maurizio Forte.
Harnessing Technology

Since 2014, Maurizio Forte, the William and Sue Gross Professor of Classical Studies, Art, Art History and Visual Studies, has made summer sojourns with Duke students and colleagues to Vulci, an archeological site in central Italy to explore the remains of an Etruscan and Roman city.

Maurizio ForteThe Forte-led Bass Connections project, Vulci 3000, uses multispectral drones to take aerial photographs and digital imaging to document the buried archaeological monuments and sites, meaning the annual trips to the siteallow Duke students to find innovative ways to study ancient life.

The pandemic wiped out the 2020 trip, but Forte made sure the summer didn’t go to waste.

Forte enlisted team members in Italy to use digital scanners to help create 3-D digital models of artifacts. Colleagues and students also built a digital repository of 3-D images that can be accessed by researchers online.

Forte also spearheaded an effort to get much of the data about Vulci 3000’s finds online and available to fellow archeologists. And some of that data was used to create virtual versions of parts of the site and of artifacts with help from Duke’s MorphoSource repository.

“In the small world where I am, this is kind of a happy ending,” Forte said. “We had to rest for a year, but we continued the data recording. There’s a lot of data we have online that wasn’t there before. We didn’t waste this time.”

Keeping an Open Mind

While Anirudh Krishna, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy, was one of the few Duke faculty members who was able to travel during the pandemic, he still had to reimagine his work.

Anirudh KrishnaKrishna ventured to India in November of 2020 and returned in March of this year. While he’d planned to work on his long-term study of household poverty by meeting with a handful of the roughly 20,000 families he’s followed for more than a decade, the pandemic had other plans.

Krishna found that each village had its own COVID-19 protocols, some of them requiring two-weeks of quarantine before entering.

“If every new community I went to needed to quarantine me for two weeks so I can speak to people for two hours, it wasn’t going to work,” Krishna said.

Around this time, Krishna recalled a government official suggested he look at one village’s property records – which go back around 300 years – to get a deeper look at how household wealth has ebbed and flowed. After formulating a safe way to study the records, Krishna found a valuable new source of data.

Krishna’s India-based research assistants continue to contact the study’s households, but with a more data available, Krishna said he’s looking forward to the new avenues he can explore.

“This is going to be a goldmine,” Krishna said

Building on Connections

Last March, Lauren Franz, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Global Health, saw her planned trip to South Africa wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past seven years, she and co-principal investigator Petrus de Vries of the University of Cape Town, had been working on a project alongside clinical psychologists, occupational therapists and research assistants to adapt and evaluate an intervention by non-specialists for young children with autism.

Lauren FranzRoughly a year later, Franz has yet to return to South Africa– but the flexibility and cohesiveness of the research team has kept the project as relevant as ever.

During the summer of 2020, Franz and her colleagues developed ways to continue their intervention through technologies such as WhatsApp, which is a common form of communication in South Africa, and videos of caregivers interacting with their young children through smart phone videos.

“We were thinking collaboratively as a team and we were able to really move our research agenda forward because of the forced innovation around using context appropriate communication,” Franz said.

Franz said this new avenue of research, which the study project coordinator is using for her Ph.D, was possible because the team’s bond was strong enough to withstand the distance.

“In global health, it’s all about relationships and building trust, and that takes time,” Franz said. “This worked out because we’ve been working together for a while. We know each other.”

How are you working in a new normal? Tell Working@Duke about it by writing us or completing this story idea form.