COVID-19 Deep Dive: Harnessing Volunteer Scientists for Community Response

By: Arti Garg
April 14, 2021
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In March of 2020, on the day he learned that his research building would be closed indefinitely due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, neurobiologist Michael Wells sent out a single Tweet asking whether any fellow scientists wanted to volunteer to help with pandemic response at the community level. That tweet launched the COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database, which now holds the names of over 9,000 scientists who have offered their time and skills to help their communities.

AG: Why did you send out your initial tweet asking for volunteers?

Wells: Last March, when we were sent home without any definite reopening plan, I started noticing on Twitter that there were many regional groups calling for volunteers. They were in the New York City area or in Wisconsin or in San Diego. I realized that this would create small pockets with scientists who could help, while most of the country would not have access to scientifically-trained volunteers. So I decided to create a nationalized database. That way, not just people in Boston and San Francisco would benefit from volunteer scientists, but also people in places like where I’m from in Columbus, Ohio. While there's a large university in Columbus itself, there are many areas in the state that are hundreds of miles away from a research institution. I wanted to collect and gather all this energy from around the country and distribute volunteers’ efforts to urban areas and rural areas.

AG: I think it’s fair to say that you did not expect your database to grow so large and so quickly. How did you recruit so many volunteers?

Wells: I tweeted out a Google Sheet for people to sign up. Then I asked a couple of friends who are established musicians with large Twitter followings to retweet it. I would say within an hour, there'd been a thousand people who'd signed up. And then people like Drew Carey, the comedian who is the host of the Price-is-Right, retweeted it...and it went a little viral. Within a week we had about 9,000 scientists who signed up.

AG: Standing up a national database of 9,000 volunteers sounds like a daunting challenge. How did it come together?

Wells: By the time I went to bed on that first day, we had about 2,500 signups...which is when I started to panic. Luckily I had people within my own network that quickly started helping out. One group that reached out over Twitter was called Within 48 hours of this being launched, Kevin Schallert from that group became my co-director.

Together, we built a team. Kevin works in tech, and he was able to turn that Google Sheet into a finished product that [government officials] could easily search to see what kind of expertise they could access. That was probably the most important work we did in those first weeks, getting the tech people involved and having a website up-and-running within a month or so.

We also started building out other teams like a government relations team, a communications team, and a volunteer deployment team. By the summer, we had regional leaders that were in charge of finding and coordinating volunteer opportunities in their area. I'd say at our peak, we had about a hundred people who were serving in different leadership roles.

Michael Wells

Michael Wells

AG: That’s a pretty large organization to find yourself at the helm of. What’s it like for a scientist to take on that kind of leadership role?

Wells: I've always sought out leadership positions, though obviously not to this scale. Even as a kid, I would get upset if I wasn't elected the captain of the baseball team. (Full disclosure, I was the captain of my freshman and JV baseball team.)

But so far, as an adult, I've only sought out leadership positions when I saw a gap, and I felt compelled to play a role. As an undergrad at Notre Dame, for example, I was in charge of the Obama campaign during the Indiana primary in May of 2008, because I didn't see anybody else doing it. I learned a lot about how to be a leader of volunteers during those four or five months. I’ve also held leadership roles in the Society for Neuroscience. [This kind of work has taught me how] to guide people who have a common interest in solving a problem, not necessarily being paid for it. [One thing I’ve learned is to be] as thankful as you possibly can for all their time and effort.

AG: What kinds of projects have volunteers been involved in?

Wells: Of the 9,000 volunteers, about 7,000 of them have expertise in qPCR technology, which is what most COVID tests are based on. And that was the initial push, to find people who can help with COVID testing. We quickly ran into regulatory issues where people had to have something called CLIA certification to run those clinical tests. We were anticipating states relaxing those guidelines, which some did, but most did not. We had some success early on, but it was quite limited.

We started to broaden the scope of what we could offer by doing pro bono consultancy work. For example, [connecting volunteers to be] health advisors for a small town, answering questions like, “How do we reopen safely?” or “How do we make health policies that are consistent with what we know about the pandemic and the virus?” We would assemble a small team of scientists from the database who would help navigate the specific problems. One example of this was a makeup standard that an energetic group of volunteers created for a nonprofit organization that was focused on getting makeup artists back to work in a safe manner. We also helped a county in Hawaii by consulting on a variety of issues.

AG: Are there any specific projects you think were particularly successful?

Wells: There is a group using artificial intelligence to scan primary literature. Thousands of papers were being published on COVID-19, and doctors in the hospital had no idea how to interpret that data. This group did literature reviews, using AI, and then had humans double-check the findings. They would write a one-paragraph blurb summarizing 15 or 20 papers, and distribute it to doctors around the country and the world to make sure they were up-to-date with the most recent information. Doctors used this information to enact the best practices in their emergency rooms or in their ICUs. About a third of their leadership team came from our database.

AG: How did local governments and organizations find out about the database and what you could offer?

Wells: Before I go into the process, I want to acknowledge our director of government outreach, Crystal Lantz, who just stepped down to take a job at the NIH, where she can no longer help us because of conflicts of interest.

[In the beginning], we scraped websites for the email addresses of local government officials: health directors at the county and city level, mayors, governors...every email address, we could get our hands on. We had about 3000 email addresses. We sent both targeted and blasted emails to let these people know what we could do for them. Our response rate was pretty low, but the responses we got were very excited to work with us. Many said, “Oh, I didn't know this existed. I receive 500 emails in my inbox every hour. I was really happy to see this one.”

Initially, we thought that [engaging at the state level] was going to be the most effective, especially since we knew people in various governor's offices. But it ended up being most productive for us to engage the lower levels of government, interfacing with, say, county health officials. They had specific questions to which [our volunteers] could supply answers. More importantly, we could supply them with relationships [to scientists] so that if they had questions in the future, they could send a quick email and not even involve us.

AG: That last statement, about the value of informal relationships between local governments and scientists, tracks with things we’ve learned at ESAL. Switching gears, given all that you’ve seen interacting with communities around the country, if you could change one thing about our pandemic response in the last year, what would it be? What change would, in your opinion, have had the biggest impact?

Wells: For me, this gets back to my personal background. I’m a Salvadoran-American from a lower income family. From day one, I knew that it was going to be my people who were going to be most affected by the pandemic...we were going to be the ones that suffered the most. Through the database, we did as much as we could to address [those disparities] by recruiting people of color from lower-income backgrounds and through bi-lingual outreach, including having our communications director give an interview on Telemundo.

But, as a country, we failed horribly. If I could change one thing, I would have done door-to-door testing, especially in those communities where people are less likely to trust doctors or to go to them. It’s a pattern that starts in childhood. When I was a kid, we only went to the doctor when we were sick, because we couldn't afford to go otherwise. And my mom, being a young Salvadoran woman, often felt intimidated by doctors. That experience is shared across many populations of color. The way to get around that is to establish a relationship in those neighborhoods. Go directly to them and say, “Hey, we're periodically going to take tests for COVID.” I think that would have paid dividends in the long run. Not only to keep the number of infections down, but to establish trust so they would be more likely to get the vaccine.

It wouldn't have been that difficult to deploy these programs relatively quickly. It’s exactly why we created the database. Even if we couldn’t have people doing qPCR tests in a lab, we still had volunteers trained and skilled enough to collect samples. There just wasn't enough leadership at the federal level, and there was no funding.

AG: Those questions of diversity and representation that you raise parallel several discussions happening within the STEM community. Do you feel that a lack of diversity and representation among scientists impacted our ability to respond to COVID-19?

Wells: I would argue that of all the STEM fields, virology is one of the most diverse, at least at the trainee level. That might have something to do with our backgrounds. I spent the last five years studying Zika virus, and one of the main reasons is that it’s a virus that affects people in Central America where most of my [extended] family still lives. Many of the top vaccine scientists are from underrepresented minority groups. But the leadership we were seeing at news conferences over the past year, they're all white. If the people who were public-facing had more diverse backgrounds, perhaps we could have made inroads with some of these communities a little quicker.

AG: What’s in store for the future of the database?

Wells: When we collected information, we told people this would only be used for COVID-19 purposes, meaning we would not give this information to anyone when the pandemic was over. People wanted to know that we wouldn’t sell their information. But, there is still a question about what to do at the end of the pandemic. The database has shown how willing scientists in this country are to contribute to social problems and social issues. We're asking ourselves, “Is there anything we can do to harness that while still maintaining the promises we made to people?” Maybe we will ask people to re-consent to have their information be part of a separate database, possibly absorbed by another non-profit or the government if it creates a Science Reserve Corps.

AG: Do you have any advice for scientists or engineers who want to start their own project to help their communities?

Wells: My advice is to just start. I think our own fears and insecurities can be a hold up. When you're venturing out to do outreach or government relations work, you might hesitate because you’re not trained to do that. But, I would say, just do it. Send an email, go to a town hall, or go to a public hearing. People [in government] hear so infrequently from scientists. When they do, they think, “This is going to be fun. I'm gonna enjoy talking to this person, because it's gonna be very different than most of the conversations I have.” If you approach it from the perspective that they're going to be excited to talk to you, it makes it easier to engage with decision-makers.

AG: Any parting thoughts?

Wells: I was so impressed with how easy it was to recruit people. I did absolutely nothing to get them to want to help. Beyond the people who signed up to the database, the people who became leaders within the organization volunteered hundreds of hours of their time. I think that's a testament--not just to scientists, but to how this country could respond to these situations. I'm still optimistic that in the future we will do a better job. People will say, “Oh, COVID-27 wasn't that bad.” And it’ll be because we reacted so quickly, it never became a pandemic.

AG: That's an inspiring thought to end on. Thanks so much for your time as well as the incredible work you’ve done throughout the pandemic.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 04/14/21
Updated: 02/7/22
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