After Original Volunteer Avenues Close during the Pandemic, CSI Junior Finds a Way to Make a Difference

Ashley Roberts

Ashley Roberts, a junior in The Verrazano School Honors Program at CSI, and an English Linguistics major, is used to volunteering. She has participated in mission trips to Guatemala and Ireland to help communities in need, assisted with community projects in New York City, and also collected food for local pantries. Eventually, her focus shifted to improving the environment. As a Verrazano student and a former member of the year-long Emerging Leaders program, she dedicated time, helping to clean up the CSI campus, as well as local parks and beaches. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic came along and most of her original options to volunteer ceased to exist. Giving it some thought, Roberts came up with an idea.

“Since most volunteering was canceled,” she said, “I asked my leaders in Verrazano for permission to do volunteering outside of the organizations we would normally be expected to work with and do my own thing. Thankfully, they trusted me, and once I got permission, I was able to go out a few times when my boyfriend [Andrew Cheng] who was available to help me with cleaning up a few different parks and beaches on the Island.” The first few efforts netted approximately 16 bags of trash from places such as Willowbrook Park and Mount Loretto Park Beach.

Roberts is continuing this project, stating, “Every piece of trash we clean up creates a cleaner, safer, and more beautiful world for our community, environment, and ourselves. Everyone wins! I also hope, as my boyfriend and I do these projects, that it will encourage others to get involved. Maybe it will make people want to do something good for the environment or community, or simply make someone think twice before they litter. I actually have seen people get involved and it was so amazing!”

As for her own motivation for lending a much-needed hand, Roberts notes, “I think it’s extremely important for people to get involved, especially during a time of crisis, to help their communities. There is always a need, but add to it the chaos that a global pandemic causes and the need intensifies exponentially!”

After CSI, Roberts plans to pursue her Master’s in Speech pathology, but she also hopes to continue her community service after she receives her undergraduate degree, saying, “Everyone has a talent or passion. Why not use these talents and passions to do something amazing for good?”

CSI’s Angelyne Acevedo Embodies the Spirit of Volunteerism during COVID-19

Angelyne Acevedo has been working to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Angelyne Acevedo, an Accounting/Business Management major in the Lucille and Jay Chazanoff School of Business, and also a Verrazano School student, is no stranger to volunteering to help out those in need. Prior to the pandemic, she had been making a difference through her membership in the CSI chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS) as Vice President of Community Service, and CSI Student Government. Now that COVID-19 has introduced an almost unlimited number of challenges to people’s lives, Acevedo is still there to lend a hand.

One target audience is her fellow CSI students. As a member of CSI NSCS, Acevedo says that she is contributing to the local chapter’s efforts to foster “fun and interactive” virtual club meetings, and boosting its social media presence to keep everyone connected while they are away from campus. In addition, she reported that CSI NSCS is “connecting with other clubs at CSI in an effort to help those affected by COVID. We have been working with CHASI-NY, the Community Health Action of Staten Island-New York, through food drives and collections to deliver to the public and those in need of assistance.”

Through the CSI NSCS chapter, Acevedo has also been able to spread some joy to another group on the Island, local middle schoolers, in an effort to give these locked-down children something exciting to do. The event was a virtual movie night via Zoom. The kids responded to a poll and selected Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Besides watching the movie with other children, participants were able to connect and share ideas. “Before the film, we asked the children to get their favorite snack to enjoy with the movie and the children had a hilariously heated debate on the deliciousness of movie theater popcorn versus kettle corn,” she said. Considering the success and positive impact of this movie night, Acevedo noted that CSI NSCS is working to create other events for elementary and middle school kids.

As for her work in CSI Student Government, Acevedo said that, like CSI NSCS, it is working to keep student clubs together and active, so that members have an opportunity to stay involved with campus life, albeit remotely. She also stated that Student Government is actively working with the administration to ensure the safety of the College community when the campus welcomes them back, and to assist with academic resource and funding issues to keep courses running smoothly.

Acevedo shared her thoughts on why she continues to volunteer. “It is important to help those in need because without each other, we would be nowhere as a society… Some moments in our lives we have no control over and it can overwhelm us. In order for a community to thrive and succeed, it needs to work together. Helping others helps build a happier society for everyone. It is not only about raising money; we can also give our time, ideas, and energy to each other.”

What does the future hold for Acevedo? After she graduates, she says that she hopes “to earn my Certified Public Accountant licensure. Using my CPA licensure, I plan to help people in underrepresented communities and low-income households increase their financial literacy while building their financial portfolios.”

CSI Alumna Faces a Changed Landscape in Providing Care to Disabled People during the Pandemic

Alexa Donnelly

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, drastically altered how people work, live, and interact with one another. Alexa Donnelly, LCSW, ’14, who is the Deputy Executive Director of Staten Island-based Person Centered Care Services (PCCS), as well as a CSI alumna and member of the CSI Alumni Association Board, has met her own virus-related challenges when it comes to caring for members of the community with developmental disabilities.

The Staten Island non-profit provides support services for more than 600 people who identify as having a disability, including developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse disorders. Ffor PCCS clients with disabilities. PCCS provides apartment living for approximately 60 people who live in their own apartments, and group home living for a total of six people, with three people per home. In addition, there are also home and community-based services, including family home visits, a weekday Day Habilitation program, and employment services, as well as financial support, such as fiscal intermediary and brokerage services, to help people attain more independence in this aspect of their lives.

As a main goal of the services provided is to help those being served integrate more fully into the community, Donnelly said “this has been a challenge with NYC on Pause – we have had to find new creative ways to engage and keep active. It has been particularly challenging in the group homes due to regulations of no visitation from families and an overall expectation of isolation, even as the rest of the city is re-opening.”

Another part of the learning curve for PCCS staff, has been the adjustment to working remotely. The challenge here was that many direct service staff had no experience with virtual platforms, and it was also difficult to set up these new systems. However, PCCS established an electronic health record, eVero, which was developed as an app to ease this transition. Donnelly stated, “this has now proved to be an efficient and creative way to provide support. We hope that this option is here to stay!”

In addition, PCCS has launched two innovations, telehealth and an approach called non-face-to-face, which involves doing tasks on a person’s behalf. Examples include shopping for clients, picking up medication, and in more severe cases where people can’t leave their homes, taking out their trash. She notes that “it gets planned out person by person to ensure their needs are being met, so it’s a bit of a wide range of things we support someone with.”

Of all the adjustments that Donnelly and her organization’s staff have had to make, she noted that the most difficult one is ensuring that the organization has enough medical-grade supplies to care for its clients. “Our services are not often considered medical,” Donnelly explained, “because we practice from a social model, so it was difficult to educate on the intricacies of the service and how crucial it is.” Fortunately, she said that enough supplies have been obtained through partnerships with a number of community-based organizations, as well as through assistance from local officials and State offices. PCCS has also joined a sharing network with other service providers to ensure that everyone has the supplies they need.

Besides the improvements to the electronic health record, Donnelly pointed to another silver lining. “Our field has not upgraded its way of providing services in quite some time. We have not been given the ability to provide services in a telehealth method as well as a non-face-to-face version, which is important for our field to be creative, innovative, and keep up with the needs of the people we support.”

She has also found a personal take-away from this experience. “I feel thankful and blessed to be able to provide support and assistance to so many people during this time. It has been a stressful and chaotic time, but also pivotal in supporting people.”

By Terry Mares

CSI Master’s Student and Urban Park Ranger Explains the Changing Landscape of His Job during the Pandemic

Joe Bushman

Joe Bushman, who is in his final year of the MS in Ecology program at CSI, a Verrazano School alumnus, and also an Urban Park Ranger (UPR) for NYC Parks on Staten Island, has witnessed some changes to his responsibilities in the wake of COVID-19. However, some of the new duties have provided him with the opportunity to help keep people safe.

Pre-pandemic, Bushman said that an average day as a UPR would entail preparing for and developing “Pop-Up” and “The Natural Classroom” programs, where rangers would educate park visitors on a number of topics such as history, stewardship, ecology, conservation, waste management, and more.

Now, additional duties include distributing PPE and ensuring that visitors follow social distancing requirements.

So far, Bushman reported that “There has been a mix of reviews. There are some people who are extremely grateful for the mask distribution and are seemingly more in need than other areas on Staten Island. In other areas, patrons have been very combative about us engaging and educating them on social distancing.”

On the positive side, Bushman stated that “Quite simply, it feels great to be able to distribute PPE in areas of need. It’s a minor, but positive interaction and helps people who may be struggling in these tough economic times. Being able to make someone smile makes it all worth it at the end of the day.”

As would be expected, there are also challenges, as he noted “The rules we have to follow changed almost daily, as this is a relatively novel situation for NYC.” He added that “Patrons, like all of us, experience some sort of ‘Lockdown Fatigue’ or cabin fever and use the parks as a refuge to “get out of the house” and attempt to regain some degree of sanity.”

As NYC begins a cautious reopening, Bushman explained that “we must now involve social distancing into the plan. This can be easily done for some programs like nature walks, but now we need to be more mindful of sanitizing binoculars after every single use. The natural classroom, Pop-Up, and weekend adventure programs will have to be reimagined to limit potential contact and ensure the safety of patrons.

By Terry Mares

CSI Biology Professor Chang-Hui Shen Conducting Genetic Research on COVID-19, Collaborating with International Scientists

Dr. Chang-Hui Shen

Professor Chang-Hui Shen, who is also the Chair of CSI’s Department of Biology, is lending his expertise in the fight against COVID-19.

“My research focuses on understanding the mechanism of gene activation,“ Dr. Shen explains. “This is relevant not only to molecular biology but also to the field of biomedical research where current therapies are being used and developed that are specifically based on the regulation of gene expression. Since we are in the process of setting up the CSI Genomic Research Facility, we are also working with IBR [the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities] to develop projects to sequence the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19 virus) genome from nasal swab specimens to see if there is a correlation between the infection persistence and mutations in the virus genome, and to examine the role of exposure-induced perturbations in the respiratory microbiome and its contributions to COVID-19 susceptibility and disease progression.” Dr. Shen noted that he and the other researchers are working to secure funding for this research from New York State and the National Institutes of Health.

Recently, Dr. Shen participated in an international conference on COVID-19, Solidarity in Crisis: The Bridge to Bliss. Information Saves, Disinformation Kills, which was a virtual gathering of government officials, scientists, and influencers over 14 time zones and three continents to discuss the scientific and political implications of COVID-19. In addition, he conducted an interview with a Bulgarian television station.

Dr. Shen stated that he and a group of scientists from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, with whom he is researching the development of a biosensor to detect the presence of cell-damaging agents from chemical weapons, were selected to participate in the conference “because of our expertise in the development of biosensor and the genome research. We are developing a project to produce a device that can detect the presence of COVID-19 virus in the environment.” His research on COVID-19 susceptibility and disease progression was also a factor.

Presenting a PowerPoint presentation titled, “The World’s Preparedness for the COVID-19 Pandemic and the COVID-19 Disinformation during the Pandemic,” Dr. Shen discussed why governments around the world were blindsided by the pandemic, the role of disinformation in exacerbating the spread of the virus, the origin and emergences of the virus, and what governments can do to invest in preventing biological risks and creating emergency response measures.

In his presentation, he mentioned that it is possible that the COVID-19 virus went through the evolutionary pathway in animal hosts and acquired the key mutations that enabled it to adapt fully to humans, finally emerging as SARS-CoV-2 in humans. He added that determining the exact pattern and genomic ancestry of viral mutations is difficult, saying that it will be necessary to perform a far wider sampling of viral diversity in animal populations. Furthermore, studies into the history of respiratory infections can also give us more insight. With the most advanced equipment and technology, Dr. Shen emphasized that the CSI Genomic Research Facility is in the perfect position to resolve these COVID-19 mysteries.

There are a number of methods that governments can take to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. According to Dr. Shen, these include:

1. Government investment on preventing biological risks – Prevention, detection, and reporting

Governments should take action to address health security risks. Leaders should closely coordinate and track health security investments to increase the capacity. Health security capacity in every country should be transparent and regularly measured.

We also need to recognize that science plays a very important role in protecting public health in the face of the pandemic. Governments must invest in the biological research. Governments’ scientific institutions should be led by experts protected from political influence. The goal is to create an environment in which physicians, scientists, and other experts are free to communicate evidence-based, factual information without fear of retaliation or retribution. Also, data sharing should be transparent and efficient so that we can prevent disinformation, which can delay the response and cause the damage.

2. Governments’ emergency response

Governments should improve or set up interlocking coordination among sectors so that we can improve the political system and increase government effectiveness. For example, operational links between security and public health authorities, in response to high-consequence biological events.

Countries should test their health security capacities on a regular basis. By holding regular simulation exercises, countries will learn whether they have a functioning system, and they can transparently demonstrate that their response capabilities can function in a crisis and can identify areas for improvement.

Dr. Shen also opined on what we can expect this fall. “The forecasts based on maximum and minimum social distancing efforts highlight the significant impact that policy has on disease spread. According to these forecasts, if the U.S. were to practice its maximum observed level of social distancing for even a few additional weeks, new cases would drop to a much lower level of around 2,000 cases per day by the end of September. On the other hand, a complete return to normalcy would cause cases to surge for about two months. After that initial surge, cases would again reach a long-term plateau, although this would occur at a level that was more than double what would be experienced under current social distancing levels. Therefore, it is inevitable that following a brief period of exponential growth in the beginning of or after reopening, we would expect new cases to quickly settle into a prolonged period of stable, slightly declining levels of disease spread,” Dr. Shen stated.

CSI Professor Louis Petingi Conducting RNA Research in the Fight against COVID-19

CSI Professor Louis Petingi is conducting RNA research in the battle against COVID-19.

College of Staten Island Professor Louis Petingi, PhD, is presently performing research in Ribonucleic acid (RNA, which carries genetic information) prediction and structure, that can help in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2013, he has been collaborating with a research group led by Tamar Schlick, from Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Chemistry departments from New York University. Schlick’s research group is composed of biologists, chemists, mathematicians, and computer scientists, and the team has been supported by several NIH and NSF grants. This group has currently taken a leadership role in fighting the pandemic by conducting research on RNA structure, with support from an NSF grant.

Dr. Petingi’s field of expertise is Graph Theory, one of the subfields of mathematics. “This area of research has been applied to study systems that can be modeled as graphs, such as social, communication, chemical, and biological networks (e.g., DNA, RNA, and protein networks). “My research was focused on the study of the reliability of communication networks (e.g., wireless, Internet, and satellite networks), but in 2013, I became very interested in RNA prediction and structure,” noted Dr. Petingi, “when I had the opportunity to write a paper in this area with Tamar Schlick.” Since then, he has published several research articles on this area of research with Dr. Schlick and her team.

According to Dr. Petingi, “as RNA secondary structures can be represented as graphs, we found how well-known graph-theoretical algorithms can be applied to partition RNAs into basic regions and allow classification and identification of complex structures called Pseudoknots. Many RNA viruses use Pseudoknots in the control of viral RNA translation, replication, and the switch between the two processes. One of the techniques used to destroy viruses is to inhibit the Pseudoknotted region of an RNA. The RNAs of the COVID-19 and SARS viruses are composed of thousands of basic elements called nucleotides, and the exact structure of the Pseudoknots have not been yet experimentally observed, and they have been predicted by algorithms. My current research goal is to develop, more precise algorithms using the graph-theoretical representation of RNAs to predict RNA structure.”

Pseudoknots are also identified using other computational techniques (e.g., dynamic programming, and formal language theory), but Graph Theory offers a different perspective and an alternative research path to systematically investigate the structures of RNAs,” explained Dr. Petingi.

“Collaboration with this group of researchers is not only giving me the unique opportunity to expend my scientific knowledge, but also to serve a higher purpose by helping humanity,” Dr. Petingi concluded.

CSI Faculty and Staff Come Together Virtually to Salute the Class of 2020

Some of the supportive messages that were part of the congratulatory video for the Class of 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting closure of the College’s Willowbrook campus made it abundantly clear to the College of Staten Island Commencement committee that a physical ceremony would not be possible, they had to find a Plan B. Eventually, a subcommittee that formed to determine what that route would be came upon the idea of creating a video to honor the Class of 2020. The video begins with a message of support from CSI President William J. Fritz and ends with a salute from Student Government President Fatu Amara. What comes between those two segments was truly special, as it was a series of photos of faculty and staff members holding signs that offered encouragement and congratulations. In essence, the campus was able to come together, virtually, to give our graduates the honors that they deserve for a job well done.

Jennifer Borrero, CSI Vice President for Student Affairs and Alumni Engagement, said that although a virtual Commencement ceremony was considered, the subcommittee rejected the plan because the College is still planning to hold a physical ceremony sometime this fall, if at all possible. Once they settled on the video concept, they asked members of the faculty and staff to send in photos of themselves holding signs with messages to the grads. About 50 photos came in, regardless of the fact that it was Finals Week and a lot was going on at the College.

Amazingly, the video was ready in about ten days, due the hard work of subcommittee members, and the technical expertise of the Library’s Mark Lewental and Tony Gallego, as  well as George Davis IV from the Office of Communications. Everything was ready for the release date of May 28, the day that Commencement would have been held.

Feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive, according to VP Borrero. She said that once they viewed it, some students contacted her to say that they would like to participate if another video was planned. This isn’t going to happen, though, because the Committee has turned its attention to planning the formal  ceremony.

VP Borrero summed up the significance of this video project by stating, “I think it was important for the College to send a message to the Class of 2020 that they aren’t forgotten, we are proud of them, we recognize their achievements, and also we know what an unusual semester and time it is in our nation. So, we just wanted to let them know that we’re here for them, and we love them.”

By Terry Mares

Pre-Med/Pre-PA Club Adds Another Good Deed to Its Effort to Help Others

Examples of face masks created by the Pre-Med/Pre-PA Club

Members of CSI’s Pre-Medical/Pre-Physician-Assistant Club are upping their game in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Club President Narmin Mekawy, who is graduated last May with an MS in Neuroscience and Developmental Disabilities, and who also co-founded the Better Education Foundation (BEF,) a non-profit with a mission to keep girls in school by supplying educational and healthcare services to women and children in underserved communities across the globe, explained that the Club was already working on a project to benefit the community when the pandemic hit. One thing eventually led to another.

“For the past two semesters, the Club has been working on 100% cotton surgical caps that were donated to Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC) on Staten Island, last February,” Mekawy said. “A Club member and fellow graduating student, Anna Wysocka, came up with a volunteer project to create surgical caps for children. The caps are filled with characters, are colorful and playful, and the project gives the children options by letting them choose which cap they would like to wear. This helps relieve any anxiety and stress the child or any patient may feel relating to their illness or procedure by giving them some options to make their own choices from…This was just to let the patients know that throughout their process, there are strangers who are hoping for their recovery. As we continued to work on the project, the world was struck with COVID-19. The limited supply of protective equipment, especially masks, inspired us as a Club to transform the surgical caps project to masks for those who need it, especially those risking their lives working to serve the public.”

Mekawy stated that four members of the Club (Wysocka, Alexis Gorin, Arshia Lodhi, and herself) are currently working on masks, and the going was a bit slow in the beginning, due to limited resources. So far, the volunteers have produced 25 masks, but hope to eventually create many more than that, now that they have more supplies. When they have 50, the plan is to donate them to a hospital, rehabilitation center, or nursing home, most likely within the next two weeks.

The Club’s Faculty Advisor, Grozdena Yilmaz, Lecturer in CSI’s Pre-Professional Preparation in Medicine program, has also been a great help. Mekawy noted that Yilmaz, who is a “board-certified Physician Assistant, has been supportive of and working on the Club’s efforts. She is constantly pushing the Club to stay involved in the community by directing our thoughts and ideas. Initially, we were also hesitant on the project; we didn’t know how the local hospitals would respond. She assured us that all we needed to do was take the right precautions.”

As she and her fellow Club members continue this generous effort, Mekawy underscores what is important now, as we all endure challenging and uncertain times, “I would like to remind everyone that we are thinking of you now, more than ever. During the hardships of COVID-19, it’s necessary to remind each other that compassion is still here. I hope this project will push someone to do something that benefits a stranger.”

For more information on how you can help the Pre-Medical/Pre-Physician-Assistant Club to help others by donating supplies, please email grozdena.yilmaz@csi.cuny.edu.

By Terry Mares