COVID-19 Research in Civil and Environmental Engineering

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed life globally. Most aspects of how we live and work, including global supply chains, transportation use, environmental impact, or communication methods, have been reshaped by this phenomenon. While ostensibly an issue of personal and public health, the pandemic’s impact on all facets of life necessitates a broadly interdisciplinary approach to combating the disease, mitigating its economic impacts, and building a more resilient world against future threats.

Responding to the Pandemic as Civil and Environmental Engineers

You may have heard that, once this crisis is over, the ways in which we live and work will be markedly different. Civil and environmental engineers play an integral role in building that new, resilient future.

Civil and environmental engineering is uniquely positioned to respond to the many-ordered effects of a pandemic virus. At Northeastern University, civil and environmental engineering education and research are focused on the interconnected topics of environmental health, civil infrastructure security, and sustainable resource engineering. These topics have an important role to play in our collective response to COVID-19. Transportation patterns have transformed as quarantines lengthen and the economy slows. Water, energy, and telecom needs have shifted, creating novel challenges for existing infrastructure. Important environmental factors to public health, including air and water quality, are seeing unprecedented changes. Future buildings may require new designs that facilitate social distancing.

Civil and environmental engineers are leaders in understanding and responding to this new threat. Below, you will see how our professors are joining the fight against COVID-19 through novel, timely, use-inspired research.

Loretta Fernandez in mask with nylon covering, Photo courtesy of Fernandez

Loretta Fernandez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and Amy Mueller, assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering and marine and environmental sciences

Have developed a method for testing particle filtration efficiency of cloth masks – both handmade and commercial – to provide information urgently needed by health care professionals and individuals caring for ill loved ones in their homes.  Their preliminary results, and testing that can be replicated at many different locations that already have the necessary hardware for using this method, suggest what options may provide health protection in cases where N95 and commercial surgical masks are unavailable. It is well known that both the mask material and seal are critical for good protection, and this work allows masks to be assessed on both qualities:  whether the material is adequate and whether the fit is adequate. Learn more.

Mark Patterson, professor of marine and environmental sciences, and civil and environmental engineering; along with affiliated CEE faculty (Steve Flynn, Jennie Stephens, and Brian Helmuth, and others at the Global Resilience Institute)

Developed a course related to resilience regarding this pandemic:

CEE Distinguished Professor Ming Wang is repurposing a device he created to monitor diabetes into something people could use to track the spread of COVID-19.

Ming Wang, COE Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Director of VOTERS research center

Developing a novel, non-invasive, and rapid viral detection system designed to identify intact viruses or their protein component, through saliva. The test works via a protein-protein binding assay that employs two virus-binding proteins to minimize false positive and negative results. This platform leverages the Wang lab’s 10 years of experience in salivary glucose monitoring for diabetes. Wang hopes to move to clinical trials in 6 months.

The advantages of this approach are:

    • High detection rate of greater than 95%
    • POC rapid detection within three minutes including sampling
    • Excellent for asymptotic detection
    • Minimizes the chance of exposing the healthcare workers to the virus
    • Suitable also for port-of-entry and facility, physician office, military installations, urgent care centers, and long-term nursing facilities
    • Reusable kit for various influenza virus detection by changing sensor strips
    • Affordable, per-household price ($100 per kit with 10 test strips—kit sharable with family members)

Auroop Ganguly

Auroop Ganguly, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Utilizing his broad US patent in post-disruption recovery of networked systems, along with his prior experience in risk modeling, transportation resilience and hydro-meteorology, to study the ability of transportation lifelines, businesses and supply chains to recover effectively, reliably, and in a timely fashion from current closures, in order to determine how well communities at large can bounce back from COVID-19, while reducing the possibility of disease spread.

Portraits of Ergun & Kane

Ozlem Ergun and Michael Kane

Michael Kane, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Ozlem Ergun, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, along with Steven Vallas CSSH and Hilary Robinson (PI), School of Law

Building upon NSF “Future of Work” funding to propose additional, time-sensitive inquiry into understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the ‘algorithmic workplace’ (i.e., the gig economy).

Haris Koutsopoulos, professor and associate chair for graduate studies, civil and environmental engineering

Conducting research related to public transportation and disease spread. Public transport plays an important role in urban mobility; however, studies have shown that it can also contribute to the spread of viruses. Professor Koutsopoulos is combining models that have been proposed for infection transmission in indoor environments with his own agent-based simulation models to study the relationship between operations and transmission risks and evaluate alternative deployment strategies during the recovery periods.

Kelsey Pieper, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering

Examining the impact of prolonged water stagnation on commercial properties and related infrastructure. Business closures have resulted in reduced or no water use, creating conditions optimal for corrosion and microbial growth, yet there are no national or industry guidelines for recommissioning buildings. She, along with a team of drinking water and public health experts from across North America, has completed a rapid review discussing strategies for reducing the risk of harmful water when reopening buildings. The team is now seeking to develop a national safety protocol for the process. Journal paper. Espri guidance material.


CEE professor in front of urban infrastructure

Ryan Wang

Ryan Wang, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering

Working on mobility-related social distancing and dynamic travel decision-modeling. He has also been developing virtual reality models to train essential, and non-medical personnel such as grocery store workers, Amazon warehouse workers, etc.

Line of travelers.

Expect a Busy Thanksgiving Travel Week

CEE Assistant Professor Qi “Ryan” Wang has been studying mobility models to see how people move and predicts that travel during the Thanksgiving break will be that similar to pre-pandemic levels.

COVID-19: Students Making a Difference

Over the past year-plus College of Engineering students have come to the cause, transitioning research, co-op experiences, and community efforts to address challenges caused by the pandemic. Here are just a few highlights of their contributions. This article originally appeared in Engineering @ Northeastern magazine, Spring 2021. One week after the pandemic forced him to […]