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Republicans had higher COVID-19 death rates in the first year of the pandemic, new research says

The COVID-19 pandemic has been defined not only by its outsized impact on the lives of people all over the world. In the U.S. the global pandemic has become a polarizing political issue, with misinformation flying far and wide on social media.

Now, new research suggests that politics played a significant role in who was dying early in the pandemic.

Mauricio Santillana, a professor of physics at Northeastern who specializes in epidemiology, and a team of researchers tracked trends in COVID-19 death rates during the first year of the pandemic. What they found was that deaths spiked in well-connected, Democrat-heavy cities early in 2020, but that by the first pandemic winter, deaths were about three times higher in Republican leaning—and specifically Trump-leaning—areas of the country.

“In epidemiology, when you see 10% or 20% higher, you worry, but when you see threefold differences, then you panic,” Santillana says.

Strikingly, the researchers found that the median death rate for counties with the strongest Republican leaning was between 40% and 300% higher than the counties that leaned Democrat. Santillana says the stark differences are symptomatic of a public health crisis that has been heavily politicized.

“Something that became clear very early on in the pandemic was that people were listening to different voices,” Santillana says. “As a consequence, what started as a public health crisis started becoming a crisis that was determined more by the political affiliation that people had.”

In that way, the COVID-19 pandemic is different from past pandemics, he says. Typically, epidemiological models don’t even take into account the political leaning of communities. In this case, Santillana and the rest of the research team set out to document the vital role that political affiliation played in the devastation of the pandemic.

As part of their research, the team created models based on death counts from the country’s 2,000 counties that looked at factors ranging from socioeconomic status to obesity. Even when controlling for every other variable, the team found that political affiliation factored heavily in the death rate.

“We started monitoring how the different communities that aligned better with certain political affiliations started showing big differences in the way they were behaving, and we were concerned that would lead to different outcomes, some outcomes that would be regrettable, namely higher rates of mortality,” Santillana says. “We started realizing that political affiliation was an important factor in an epidemic outbreak, something that in prior outbreaks hadn’t been as explicit as it was during COVID-19.”

Between February 2020 and February 2021, the focus of this research, 462,475 people died from COVID-19 nationwide. Regionally, the story looks different in that time period.

In the Northeast, the majority of deaths, 51%, were in the first four months, when COVID-19 first arrived in the states and spread rapidly. Deaths decreased during summer 2020 as the CDC recommended mask wearing and states adopted mask mandates and social distancing policies were put in place. Meanwhile in the South, in the same period, deaths rose in the summer and peaked in the winter, with 57% of deaths occurring between October 2020 and February 2021. Deaths in the Northeast also rose slightly in winter 2020, but not to the same degree as the South. Santillana says this is when the link between behavior, inspired by information and misinformation, and its impact on COVID-19 outcomes can be most clearly seen. (The research draws on Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 data portal.)

“We realized that people who were listening to the stronger voices coming from the Republican party, specifically from Donald Trump, were dismissing the gravity of contracting COVID-19 and were dismissing the usefulness of masks and social distancing,” Santillana says. “Sadly, that led to much worse outcomes in those communities.”

Justin Kaashoek, the lead author on the research, says that based on the discourse around vaccines and boosters, the pandemic is still heavily politicized. However, he hopes this research can help avoid a similar story in the future.

There are still people who are dying from this disease, and there’s going to potentially, hopefully not in our lifetimes, be another pandemic,” Kaashoek says. “How do we make sure our political differences don’t get in the way of something that is strictly not political and shouldn’t be?”

During a panel organized by the University of Cambridge’s philosophy panel, Santillana admits his usual optimism was shaken when a member of the audience suggested that “what happened during COVID is intrinsic to societies working as political systems.”

“I have this optimistic perspective … that if we were only able to share the consequences in a transparent way, everyone should be able to digest the information and conclude that we should behave differently,” Santillana says. “But in our current system, when vaccines were rolled out, even though we were presenting the studies showing their advantages … still people were choosing to believe or not believe. Can we really hope for a better outcome in the next [pandemic], which will occur at some point?”

This article originally appeared on [email protected]

Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa via AP Images

December 05, 2022

Are volcanoes impacted by climate change? Or is it the other way around?

The eruption of Mauna Loa for the first time in 40 years on the Big Island of Hawaii follows a summer and fall that saw record-high temperatures around the world.

Is there a connection between climate change and volcanic eruptions?

While a study of Iceland proposes a possible link, scientists at Northeastern University say the effect of volcanic activity on global warming is minimal.

Daniel Douglass and Samuel Munoz of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and Coastal Sustainability Institute say the impact operates in reverse: major explosions of volcanoes in the past have decreased global temperatures by a degree or two for months.

The effect is so pronounced that some scientists want humans to duplicate the effect through geoengineering; but Douglass and Munoz say that scenario is nowhere near reality at this time.

“People do say this is something we should research and think about,” says Douglass, an associate professor of geology. “A bunch of other people say that seems really dangerous.”

The idea is to create a sort of umbrella over the earth that would block solar radiation from reaching the ground.

“The sunlight bounces back into space,” Douglass says.

Major volcanic explosions have created this effect naturally by shooting giant plumes of ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, where the latter forms aerosol particles or little droplets that reflect sunlight away from the earth’s surface, Munoz says.

“That effect is actually a cooling effect,” he says. “If it’s a really big eruption, that cooling effect can last for a year,” Munoz says.

“They create clouds where there would not otherwise have been clouds,” Douglass says.

But it is a genie many scientists say should remain in the test tube bottle.

For one, sulfur dioxide “is the same stuff that causes acid rain,” Douglass says.

And secondly, “there’s some climate modeling that suggests that (the exercise) might decrease the amount of rains that come to India during the monsoon season,” which could impact crop productivity, he says.

“There’s this kind of geopolitical question that would come up about control of that—who puts their finger on the thermostat, essentially,” says Munoz, an assistant professor and expert in hydrology.

Plus, the cooling effect doesn’t last long, he says. “The moment you stop emitting sulfur dioxide, the climate will very quickly warm.”

Volcanoes do contribute some carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but there would have to be a lot of tectonic activity to even come close to greenhouse gas levels emitted by human activity, Munoz says.

Think back to 70 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and “there was a lot of volcanism,” he says.

But what about climate change’s impact on volcanoes?

A research paper published in 2013 raised the issue of whether glacial melt was contributing to volcanic activity in Iceland.

“The thought process is that if you melt all the glaciers of Iceland, that would decrease pressure” on rocks being brought to the surface from deep inside the earth, Douglass says.

“As they get into shallower depths, the pressure on the material goes down and (that) allows the rocks to melt and turn into magma,” he says.

“I don’t think the glaciers are melting that fast,” Douglass says. “It may cause a minor increase in volcanic eruptions, but I can’t imagine that’s going to be a big driver.”

As far as Mauna Loa is concerned, it’s not the type of volcano that causes massive, nuclear-like explosions with towering mushroom clouds that send materials into the stratosphere, potentially creating cooling, umbrella-like effects, Douglass and Munoz say.

The Hawaiian volcano’s activity has affected climate change in one way, by disrupting key equipment used to measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, according to media sites such as CNN.

But its eruption for the first time in 38 years is in essence an Earth-building, not atmosphere-impacting, event, Munoz and Douglass say.

Mauna Loa is a lava-oozing shield volcano, Munoz says. “I tell students (shield volcanoes) don’t go boom. They’re pretty cool to watch, though.’

This article originally appeared on [email protected]

Photo by AP Photo/Gregory Bull

December 02, 2022

Northeastern-led program prepares minority STEM faculty for academic leadership positions

The Northeast Faculty Leadership Program, spearheaded by Northeastern, recently celebrated three years of identifying and promoting underrepresented minority STEM faculty from area colleges and universities.

The program was supported by a three-year grant that Northeastern received from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“As we are all too aware, very few of our academic leaders represent faculty of color and no existing leadership programs in academia tackle this important issue,” said Northeastern Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David Madigan, addressing the program’s graduates, as well as the chairs, deans and provosts who nominated them.

“We must become more diverse, our leadership must become more diverse,” he told those gathered in the Egan Research Center on Northeastern’s Boston campus.

The program was created in collaboration with six other Boston institutions: Boston University, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Suffolk University, Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“This program is unique, especially in this part of the country,” Madigan said.

The leadership program launched in January 2020 and the inaugural class consisted of 14 participants who were nominated because of their potential to become academic leaders.

“Over half of the first cohort participants have now moved into leadership roles at UMass Boston, Boston University, Duke University, MIT, the University of Texas and Northeastern,” said Debra Franko, senior vice provost for academic affairs at Northeastern and director of the program.

The event also celebrated the 17 latest participants in the six-month leadership program. In addition to the original consortium that launched the program, faculty from Salem State University, Wheaton College, the University of Connecticut and Wellesley College have also joined.

“For our faculty leaders, we wanted to enhance their self-perception as leaders, to see themselves as leaders and to develop their skills so that they would be even more likely to move into an academic leadership position,” Franko said.

The leadership program also aimed at giving participants an opportunity to broaden their career networks by building interdisciplinary connections and increasing their visibility as future leaders across different educational institutions, she said.

Each cohort of participants completed a four-day workshop, which included meetings with university leaders and administrators on how they operate and what motivates their leadership. The final team project required participants to investigate an important challenge that universities face and present recommendations to provosts and deans from participant institutions.

At the recent celebration event, teams presented their proposals for such topics as student wellbeing and mental health, adaptability in the face of change, interdisciplinary research, and increasing BIPOC STEM faculty’s belonging to foster success. Each presentation spurred lively discussion and suggestions from the audience.

Many participants said they didn’t know what to expect prior the start of the program.

Oscar Fernandez, associate professor of mathematics at Wellesley College, appreciated that the program was focused on STEM and faculty of color. That ensured that the elements of the program spoke to that part of their identity and tailored leadership skills through that lens, he said.

“That really changed what got discussed, how it got discussed and the suggestions that we all made collectively,” Fernandez said.

Because faculty of color are still in the minority on college campuses, the leadership program brought down barriers, he said.

“We could interact and engage with each other and be a bit more of our true selves,” Fernandez said. “Whereas in other spaces we feel that changes the way we interact and communicate and how we collaborate.”

Adrian Feiguin, associate professor of physics at Northeastern, said he was wowed by the depth of the program. It created a sense of community among the participants, and allowed them to lose their inhibitions and be vulnerable to share their strengths and weaknesses.

“We learned a lot about how other people experienced academia depending on their background, their personal career path, where they come from, what it took them to realize the challenges and hurdles,” Feiguin said. “It was eye opening.”

Feiguin appreciated learning different styles of leadership, how to engage with people and how to tackle various situations and scenarios.

S. Tiffany Donaldson, professor of psychology at UMass Boston, said she didn’t see herself in academic leadership prior to participating in the program, even though she is a community organizer. It allowed her to think about how she would function as a leader, how to engender buy-in and how to take the perspective of others when trying to promote an idea.

“It’s something I can use anywhere. I can use it in my lab, I can use [it] in my department. I can use [it] in other spaces,” Donaldson said.

This article originally appeared on [email protected]

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

December 02, 2022

Northeastern students prepare for Saturday’s Putnam math competition

On Wednesday evenings, Northeastern mathematics professor Evan Dummit walks into Lake Hall with a few boxes of hot pizza. Dummit sits at the front of a classroom as a team of about a dozen students silently works on math practice problems. The students occasionally pause to have a quick conversation, grab a slice of pizza, or ask Dummit for a hint. The weekly practices are all for this Saturday’s national Putnam Mathematical Competition.

The competition is notoriously difficult and grueling. Students have six hours to solve six increasingly tricky problems. Last year, Northeastern had its best showing yet, landing in the top 35 of the 450 registered university teams. But Dummit doesn’t want students to focus on the scores: The competition is simply an opportunity to have fun learning math (and eat free pizza).

The contest, born out of an informal math competition between Harvard and the U.S. Military Academy in 1933, is now run by the Mathematical Association of America and attracts over four thousand students yearly. The problems often require elegant and clever solutions, and once publicly released, problems are analyzed by mathematicians and math enthusiasts worldwide in papers, lectures, blog posts, and YouTube videos.

Northeastern mathematics students Devin Brown and Toby Busick-Warner regularly attend the Wednesday practices and plan on taking the Putnam this Saturday. Both first got involved in competitive math in high school — like many other Putnam-takers.

Brown hopes to perform even better than last year, with more classes and practices under his belt. “There’s a distinction between finding the answer and rigorously proving it as correct,” he said.

Busick-Warner competed in county- and state-level math competitions in high school and joined the Northeastern Putnam team soon after starting college this fall. “I had heard a lot about the Putnam on YouTube,” he said. Busick-Warner’s goal is to solve at least one problem on this year’s Putnam — an above-average feat. The median score on the test is often zero points out of 120. Since the Putnam’s inception, only five students have achieved perfect scores.

“These are the top math students in all departments across the country, and among those students, half of them get a zero total — no points on any problem. It’s very unforgiving,” Dummit said. “If you’re a student and you get two points on the Putnam, you tell other math majors around the country, ‘I got two points on the Putnam this year!’ and they’ll be like, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good!’”

Dummit competed in plenty of high school math competitions and took the Putnam four times during undergrad at Caltech, earning an honorable mention twice. Shortly after joining Northeastern, he heard about the university’s Putnam team and stopped by a practice to check it out. Dummit has coached the team for the three years since then, and he has volunteered for the fun yet demanding task of grading the Putnam for the past two years.

Any students interested in joining the Northeastern Putnam team — or would just like to practice interesting math problems while eating pizza — can email Dummit at [email protected].

December 01, 2022

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