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
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?”
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
CSI’s Pre-Medical/Pre-Physician-Assistant Club are upping their game in
response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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 email@example.com.