A Framework for Resilience
CSU Research leverages the strengths of its past and the ongoing passion of its land-grant culture to secure a prepared future
Heading home after an evening hunting mice, a house cat pauses at the duck pond to drink. Earlier, in the growing dusk, the pond was visited by a family of rats from the nearby wood pile, a cottontail raising kits in the grassy field, and an assortment of wild birds who bathed and caught mosquitoes to feed to their nestlings. In the nearby barnyard, pigs wallow and a cow dozes. The cat sniffs the air, then carries its kill up to the house, where human families have gathered to watch a recital performed by the neighborhood kids. The sounds of singing, laughter, and the loud blast of an off-key trumpet fill the night.
The wild and domesticated animals in this barnyard—and the humans with whom they intermingle—represent a system reliant on shared environments, shared resources like food, water, soil, and air, and shared threats from infectious diseases, microbial pathogens, environmental contamination, and climate perturbations. Studying how these human, animal, and environmental systems intersect with public health is known as the One Health approach and has long been an underlying driver of research programs at Colorado State University (CSU).
From studying zoonotic disease reservoirs to understanding how rapid shifts in urban food systems affect farming and ranching communities, the One Health approach is not just about addressing problems of today, but also about being prepared and resilient in the face of tomorrow’s threats, like the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic currently sweeping the globe.
How we respond
Based on his long career in disaster preparedness, CSU’s Vice President of Research Alan Rudolph has sketched out what he calls a “framework for resilience,” which describes the predictable patterns—preparation, rapid response, long-term remediation—the public follows to mitigate damage from emerging threats.
“There will always be new and unexpected outbreaks, disasters, and other crises to deal with,” says Rudolph. “Whether they are of natural or intentional human origin, what we do before, during, and after these events determines the success with which we overcome them as well as our readiness for the next crisis.”
It’s impossible to anticipate the exact nature, timing, and consequences of every threat that emerges. But once an event like the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic occurs, the mindset must shift from preparedness to rapid mitigation and then long-term remediation. Resilience can be thought of as one of the overall outcomes of this cycle; it’s not just about how we’ve prepared for or dealt with any one threat; it’s about how we apply that moment’s lessons to prepare for the next.
The CSU research community’s own response to SARS-CoV-2 provides fascinating examples of how preparedness translates to resilience, and how a large, public research institution set up to prepare for hypothetical futures pivots to meet a real-world, on-ground moment.
How we coexist
Angela Bosco-Lauth is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. For years she has worked in the Animal Reproduction & Biotechnology Laboratory to develop animal models of infectious disease and study host susceptibility, interspecies disease transmission, and the biology of zoonotic disease reservoirs. The models are intended to provide tools for basic research and for testing new diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics. Some of her work has involved designing and evaluating artificial ecosystems—from barnyards to live-animal markets—within the biosafety level 3 containment laboratory and the TerraForma program headed by Richard Bowen.
With an interspecies mechanism of origin likely, SARS-CoV-2 presented a natural extension for Bosco-Lauth’s work. She and her collaborators were well-prepared to take what they had learned studying influenza, West Nile, monkeypox, and other globally significant viruses, and apply it to models that will answer questions about SARS-CoV-2 from a One-Health perspective.
“For SARS-CoV-2, first we’re determining which animal species are susceptible, what the disease looks like in those models, and how the animals interact in the real world,” says Bosco-Lauth. “We’ve learned, for example that species like mink and domesticated cats are susceptible to the virus; from there we want to understand the parameters under which they interact with wildlife and humans, and the physical and biological mechanisms that promote interspecies virus transmission.”
The air we breathe
Understanding those mechanisms is critical to transitioning from rapid tactics to long-term, strategic responses to an ongoing infectious disease pandemic. For example, early measures to protect against all possible routes of human-to-human transmission have been refined to balance their effectiveness against social and economic costs, based on evidence supporting respiratory transmission. Now devices and systems can be designed to mitigate transmission and restore the possibility of normal social and professional commerce.
Some of the research supporting these efforts is coming out of CSU’s Energy Institute, headed by Executive Director and Professor of Mechanical Engineering Bryan Willson. In the rapid-response stages of the pandemic, when Colorado and other states were scrambling to source personal protective equipment for their healthcare workers, the Institute was able to harness its expertise in measuring airborne particulates and aerosols to help evaluate the effectiveness of N95 masks coming from untried sources. Meanwhile, the Institute partnered with an outside industrial manufacturer to design simple but robust respirators with parts sourced from the aerospace and automotive industries, in order to relieve the burden from the medical supply chain.
As the pandemic settles into longer-term response and remediation, the focus will shift to figuring out how to safely push against the constraints the virus has imposed on daily living. For example, in partnership with CSU’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance, an environmental exposure chamber previously used to measure particulates in cookstove smoke has been repurposed to test respiratory aerosols emitted by singers, musical instrumentalists, and lecturers, to help determine how such activities can be made safer while the world waits for vaccines and therapies. Ultimately, Willson says the work at the Institute helps turn basic knowledge about the viral life cycle into solutions for living.
“We’re used to thinking about the biology and physiology of what the virus does inside the body,” says Willson. “Our work helps to understand viral mechanisms from an engineering perspective—how the virus exits, how it travels and disperses, how it enters the next person, and what that all means in terms of probability of spreading disease. Scaled up, that information will be critical for partnering with architects and industrial designers to develop the resilient buildings of the future.”
How food gets distributed
Food systems—how and where food is produced and distributed, and to whom—are another key component of the resilience framework. Rebecca Jablonski is an assistant professor and food systems extension economist in the College of Agricultural Sciences and co-leads the CSU Food Systems Initiative. She asserts that the effects of COVID-19 on our food systems have underscored the need for more science and research in this area.
According to Jablonski, even though America has a highly efficient food system overall, that efficiency comes at the cost of flexibility in the face of sudden change. She points to examples like milk and shredded cheese, which were packaged for use in schools and commercial buildings and therefore not as accessible to consumers for home use during the early lockdowns.
“It’s not that the products didn’t exist,” she says. “It’s that everything happened virtually overnight and the supply chain just couldn’t pivot fast enough. We need research to tell us the kinds of changes that are possible and use those data to inform policy decisions that address the values-based tradeoffs between efficiency and resilience.”
Other research in the Food Systems Initiative include analyzing COVID-19 responses from local food–policy councils, school systems, hunger organizations, and producers to determine what actions and policies have been more successful than others in making sure that food-insecure people had access to food during the initial upheaval. How did efforts to increase the volume of food distributed alter end-user access, in both positive and negative ways? What long-term impacts will the pandemic exert on how people shop for food, and what will that mean for farmers, ranchers, and food businesses?
The data that connect us
“I’ve heard it said, ‘there’s enough data in all of this science for everyone.’” That’s from Michael Kirby, a professor in the departments of mathematics and computer science, and the director of CSU’s new Data Sciences Research Institute (DSRI). He says that, although the seeds of the DSRI were planted in August of last year, the institute’s value has really become clear as the university’s faculty pivoted to meet the challenge of the pandemic. Across disciplines and across colleges, the research happening here is generating vast volumes of foundational data that, properly harnessed, can give CSU researchers predictive power that will contribute considerably to future resilience.
“We have built an epidemiological modeling team with folks from public health, computer science, mathematics, statistics, atmospheric science, and agricultural economics,” says Kirby. “We’re looking at refitting artificial intelligence algorithms to come up with stratified testing strategies; at parameter estimations that use wastewater data, test results, symptom checkers, and COVID biomarkers to be able to model epidemiological scenarios and predict what will happen next; at novel algorithms that predict—based on longitudinal COVID surveillance data being collected right now from skilled nursing facilities—the severity of outcomes and who is likely to become an asymptomatic shedder.”
Kirby says that the DSRI’s overarching goal is to break down silos between departments and colleges to facilitate new kinds of collaborations, and to get faculty teaming up using their academic expertise to solve real-world problems.
“We want to host all kinds of data as a repository for creators,” says Kirby. “This has been a perfect opportunity to contribute something new and purposeful to CSU that will take down boundaries, create role models for young and upcoming researchers, and help us react effectively to future challenges.”
The problems we solve with science
As the director of the Infectious Disease Research Center (IDRC), Ray Goodrich has a broad perspective on the value of CSU’s complex and interdisciplinary approach to research, and its embrace of off-campus collaborators. The IDRC and its biosafety level 3 containment lab were established at CSU in 2000, as one of 14 facilities funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease. The goal was to create a national infrastructure of laboratories, facilities, and people to enable research on disease-causing agents, originally to address the threat of bioterrorism.
Since then, says Goodrich, Mother Nature has sent her share of outbreaks and near misses including West Nile, Ebola, Zika, and now SARS-CoV-2. The IDRC has the people and infrastructure to work with these kinds of agents and supports not only basic internal research at CSU, but also translational work with private-sector, government, and other academic organizations that may not have access to these resources on their own. Goodrich cites the example of SolaVax, CSU’s anti-SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development program that is a partnership between IDRC, the Bio-Pharmaceutical Manufacturing & Academic Resource Center (BioMARC), and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). He says the program’s strength is in the team’s diversity of experience and perspectives.
“Academic institutions produce a lot of cutting-edge research that give us tremendous insights into new ways we can protect people from disease,” says Goodrich. “But translating that research into processes that meet commercial and regulatory requirements is the skill of industry. Universities can’t make that translation on their own, and industry alone can’t do it either. We need elements of strength from both to deliver practical, safe, and affordable solutions to the world’s problems.”
How we ensure resilience
Sue VandeWoude, a professor of comparative medicine and associate dean for research in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, was recently appointed as the Director of CSU’s One Health Institute. She reiterates the Institute’s philosophy that solving large, systemic problems requires contributions across many disciplines, from people who are comfortable with complexity and context.
“Diseases like SARS-CoV-2 arise because humans and disease-carrying animals are coming into contact in ways that that wouldn’t happen under traditional contexts,” says VandeWoude. “And once they jump to people, there are sociological, cultural, and behavioral factors that allow them to spread from one country across a continent and around the globe.”
She says the unexpected domino effects of One Health problems point to new areas for research in many disciplines outside of biological sciences and engineering. “Did last year’s global pork shortage from African Swine Fever lead people to seek out new protein sources, facilitating SARS-CoV-2’s jump from animals to humans? Did the social constraints of the pandemic play any role in the intensity and effectiveness of recent civil unrest over social justice? Did food–shortage fears cause an uptick in backyard chicken husbandry and more salmonella infections? How has air pollution changed now that people are driving less?”
And, of course, the One Health Institute will use the answers to foster forward-looking approaches. Lessons learned and new questions answered become the foundation for responding to whatever is approaching next, whether they are threats we see on the horizon—an especially virulent influenza season, another agriculturally significant hemorrhagic fever, an antibiotic-resistant superbug, or extreme climate events—or something we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
Considering the daunting complexity of these questions, and how their answers fit into a resilient future, VandeWoude succinctly sums up the value of all of this investment in research at CSU and its focus on One Health.
“If we’re prepared, we can be part of the solution.”
Written by Jeanne McAdara