A&S Psychology Faculty Members Tackle Research Related to COVID-19

By Richard LeComte

LEXINGTON, KY (July 20, 2020) – Three current faculty members and one incoming assistant professor of the University of Kentucky’s Psychology Department have delved into studies addressing the effects the COVID-19 virus pandemic has had on Americans. The projects range from exploring the virus’s effects on spike proteins on the brain to how middle- and high-schoolers are changing their consumption of media after schools went online.

These incipient efforts will bear fruit for helping the United States cope with the disaster and demonstrate the relevance of research in UK’s College of Arts & Sciences. The faculty members are Pooja Sidney, Christia Brown and Mark Prendergast; the incoming faculty member, Matthew Kim, is coming from the University of Washington.

Pooja Sidney, assistant professor, is working on whether misconceptions about math can affect people’s perception of the pandemic.

“When the COVID-19 fatality rate is compared to other, more familiar illnesses like the flu, how do adults make sense of those comparisons?” Sidney asked.

Sidney and her colleagues at Kent State University (Clarissa Thompson, Jennifer Taber, and Karin Coifman) and University of Wisconsin-Madison (Percival Matthews) have surveyed adults from across the United States. They are seeking to find out whether adults' mathematical skills are related to their understanding of how large or small a health risk is, which often requires making sense of numerical health information in the form of ratios.

“When reasoning about the size of fractions and other ratios, adults make predictable errors that can lead them to misunderstand how big or small the number is,” she said. “When it comes to health statistics, misinterpreting the size of numbers may lead to negative consequences, such as underestimating the deadliness of COVID-19. Furthermore, many people suffer from math anxiety, or a feeling of apprehension or nervousness about math, which may lead them to avoid numbers altogether.”

Sidney and her colleagues have submitted a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences to test a new math-based educational intervention aimed at helping adults avoid common math errors when interpreting health statistics about COVID-19. The team has also proposed to examine whether the brief math intervention leads adults to decide to engage in behaviors that can help stop the spread.

Matthew Kim, incoming assistant professor, is examining how media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic shapes perceptions of science and motivation to pursue science careers among adolescent youth of color.

“In contrast to media sources that portray images of adult scientists, the recently funded NSF Rapid Response research project — “Developing and Researching Youth-Driven Media that Highlights Science as an Act of Service During a Public Health Crisis” — will develop media that portray diverse youth scientists as they conduct scientific research related to COVID-19,” Kim said.

Kim and his colleagues at the University of Oregon (Ed Madison and Jenefer Husman) and Inflexion (Ross Anderson) will produce a documentary-style video that uses digital storytelling principles to highlight the global, community-focused, service-oriented nature of science through unscripted, first-person narratives from youth scientists.

The team will then conduct a qualitative study to determine how adolescents respond to this video, particularly among high school students from groups underrepresented in STEM academic and career pathways. Data from focus groups will reveal students’ perceptions of science, science identities, and motivations to pursue science pathways, and point to potential avenues for intervention at scale.

Christia Brown, professor, and colleagues from the University of Michigan and Arizona State University are collaborating on a project to examine how social media use has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in adolescents.

“Because of the COVID-19 crisis, adolescents are spending considerable time consuming media,” Brown said. “This high consumption of media becomes concerning when recognizing that the current media landscape is highly sexualized. For example, 10 of the most popular television programs among girls in the U.S. found evidence of sexualization of female characters in every show. In other words, if youth are looking at a screen, they are likely seeing an image of a sexualized girl or woman.”

The study will compare middle school and high school students today to research collected two years ago as a way of examining how traditional and social media use differ after the COVID-19 crisis than before.

“We are specifically interested in whether adolescents are consuming more sexualized media after the COVID-19 crisis than before,” she said. “This is important to understand because our research has shown that sexualized media use harms body image, mental health, academic motivations and attitudes about sexual harassment and dating abuse.”

Mark Prendergast, University Research Professor, and colleague John Littleton, CEO of Naprogenix Inc., are investigating the effects of COVID-19 “spike proteins” on the brain. COVID-19 spike proteins may be toxic in the brain, particularly in an alcohol-dependent brain. He and Littleton have submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health.

 “Many patients with COVID-19 are reporting losses of smell and taste, indicating that the virus or proteins associated with it are entering the brain (as HIV-1 does).” Prendergast said. “Because of the unique molecular structure of the virus spike proteins, they are likely to target neurochemical receptors that are ‘upregulated’ by chronic alcohol intake. This suggests that alcohol-abusing individuals may be particularly susceptible to COVID-19-related CNS symptoms.”

Prendergast is working with the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Medicine colleagues to organize a small on-campus conference on COVID-19 research at UK next summer.

“This conference will give UK the chance to share COVID-19-related research, in all of its breadth, to the larger UK community and to the state of Kentucky,” Prendergast said.