Support from university community, standout students help project thrive, co-director Tara Kulkarni says

As Norwich University, and the rest of the country, wait for COVID-19 vaccinations to arrive, the interdisciplinary Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative team keeps working to keep campus healthy in the interim, gathering on-campus samples and searching for genetic tracers of the novel coronavirus.

To spread the word, civil and environmental engineering professor Tara Kulkarni, on Tuesday explained the initiative on Waterbury, Vermont, radio station WDEV’s “Vermont Viewpoint” program.

During a half-hour chat, Kulkarni, who co-directs the initiative and directs the university’s Center for Global Resilience and Security, told host Ric Cengeri how an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students, which includes civil engineering, construction management, chemistry and biochemistry and humanities majors, had since September developed a plan to test wastewater from the Northfield Wastewater Treatment Facility and campus manholes.

“This lets us prioritize resources, and make sure if there is an outbreak, we’re catching it early.” Dr. Tara Kulkarni, co-director, Norwich University Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative

The students and faculty on the project, she said, have looked for viral RNA, a genetic signal of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. The testing works as an early screening tool because the virus can be shed in feces even when infected people are asymptomatic. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said wastewater testing can portend COVID-19 outbreaks by up to seven days before confirmed cases appear in public health data.

Also on the program, which was broadcast on AM (550) and on FM at (96.1), Kulkarni told Cengeri how Norwich’s students adapted Syracuse University professor David Larsen’s design to create an autosampler to put in Norwich campus manholes. The autosampler cost less than a thousand dollars to build, she said, hundreds less than a commercial autosampler would have cost. Collecting samples at consistent, regular intervals, she said, let the group collect a composite sample for gauging.

wastewater 4 min
Students from Norwich University’s Corps of Cadets collect wastewater samples on campus as part of the Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

“We’ve had really incredible support and help from our facility folks on campus,” she told Cengeri. “We’ve looked at all the engineering drawings, opened up a whole bunch of manholes to see how deep they are.”

Kulkarni added that university leaders have backed the project fully.

“Let me tell you, President (Mark C.) Anarumo has been onboard since Day One,” she said.

Because on-campus wastewater samples can be traced to specific buildings, Kulkarni said COVID-19-positive wastewater samples can help forestall an outbreak. Samples from two campus dorms, Goodyear and Gerard halls, taken between Nov. 5 and Nov. 14 yielded positive results, triggering a move to dorm quarantine from campus quarantine and requiring resident students to stay in their rooms, wear masks and wash their hands.

“This lets us prioritize resources,” Kulkarni said, “and make sure if there is an outbreak, we’re catching it early. We’re taking care of the person that might be infected early.”

Given the project’s scatology, Cengeri jokingly asked Kulkarni whether the students were participating as punishment.

“Far from it … these are some of our superstars,” Kulkarni said. “They really are super-service-minded.”

Hear the interview here:

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