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2020/2021 ScholarSip Series Concludes with Discussion on Drexel’s Partnership with SEPTA to Fight COVID-19

June 8, 2021

Recent announcements of the end of many COVID-19 restrictions appropriately coincided with the conclusion of the Drexel University Libraries’ 2020/2021 ScholarSip series and its year-long focus on Responding to COVID-19 through Research and Scientific Problem Solving.

Held Monday, June 7, 2021, the last ScholarSip event of the year featured a ‘food for thought’ discussion with Christopher M. Sales, Associate Professor of Engineering and a member of the Drexel University Nyheim Plasma Institute.

Thirty-two members of the Drexel community attended the event, and many shared the enthusiasm that it might be the last completely remote ScholarSip event for a while.

“After 14 months of working together to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks and practicing social distancing, we are now seeing a steady drop in the number of newly reported cases of coronavirus,” Dean of Libraries Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD, said at the start of the event. “In fact, as you all know, the City of Philadelphia just ended all Safer at Home restrictions—except some mask-wearing requirements—last week, just in time for Drexel’s University-wide commencement ceremony this Friday. It now seems very likely we will indeed see many of you in person for the first ScholarSip event of the 2021/2022 academic year this December!”

Following her opening remarks, Dean Nitecki passed the Zoom room controls to Professor Sales, who spoke about Drexel University’s new partnership with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to study and develop measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on public transit. 

Although he had not performed research on viruses before, Sales immediately recognized the importance of contributing to the fight against COVID-19.

“I started thinking about how I could use my expertise as an environmental engineer and environmental microbiologist to help fight the pandemic,” Professor Sales explained. He started talking with his colleagues at the Drexel University Nyheim Plasma Institute, and they quickly began testing if plasma could be used to sterilize personal protective equipment (PPE). While that work was happening, Gregory Fridman, PhD, a Drexel alum, a former leader of the Nyheim Plasma Institute and co-founder of AAPlasma LLC, was talking with SEPTA about using UV light and other methods to kill the COVID-19 virus on surfaces. Dr. Fridman brought in the Nyheim Plasma Institute to lend their expertise to the discussions.

Initially, the conversations focused on air disinfection technologies, Professor Sales said during his talk. But after touring the SEPTA facilities and seeing their vehicles and talking with employees, he and his colleagues realized it was about more than air disinfection technologies.

“SEPTA really changed and increased their cleaning protocols [because of COVID-19.] The staff and the safety team were really concerned about the disinfecting solutions they were using,” he said. “I was surprised by how much research they were already doing about what was effective and which cleaning solutions were EPA approved. But they needed some help understanding the data about some of the bacteria, and they needed our expertise to examine that data.”

From there, the Drexel research team developed and submitted a proposal to SEPTA that focused on several factors, including analyzing customer perceptions about riding SEPTA, examining potential exposure scenarios and risks, validating indicators used to assess effectiveness of decontamination processes and developing and testing cost-effective disinfection technologies and risk mitigation strategies.

In January 2021, the project received grant funding from U.S. Department of Transportation and work on the two-year project is now underway.

“Our goal for the project is to assess different vehicle, equipment and infrastructure disinfection strategies, and also to assess exposure mitigation measures and then how the data collected from these studies would eventually strengthen public confidence in coming back to public transit,” Sales said. “By the end of the study, we hope to make industry recommendations on the best mitigation strategies for reducing COVD-19 risks.”

After his presentation, Professor Sales answered questions and afterwards, a few attendees remained for a virtual “happy hour” and continued the conversation with colleagues.

Watch the recorded session on the Drexel Libraries’ YouTube channel, and stay tuned for details about the 2021/2022 ScholarSip event series.