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Professor’s COVID-tracking Earns Her a Spot in New Center of Excellence

November 15, 2021

Professor Colleen NaughtonSchool of Engineering Professor Colleen Naughton has been selected to be part of a Center of Excellence, along with colleagues at UC Davis, funded by a National Institutes of Health grant.

Ceres Nanosciences, a private company that makes products to improve life science research and diagnostic testing, has established nine wastewater-based epidemiology centers of excellence, as part of the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADxSM) initiative.

Naughton and Professor Marc Beutel have been studying wastewater samples to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Wastewater-based epidemiology can help communities monitor infection dynamics for SARS-CoV-2 and can serve as an early-warning system for the virus in a population, Ceres said. The company makes magnetic nanoparticles that the virus attaches to, enabling wastewater-based epidemiology at the building level, at neighborhood sewershed level and at the wastewater treatment plant level.

In October, Naughton worked with UC Davis and Stanford University to start collecting wastewater samples from Merced and Modesto wastewater treatment plants. Results of the analysis can be found on Stanford’s Sewer Coronavirus Alert Network (SCAN) project website along with 10 other locations throughout California: wbe.stanford.edu.

UC Davis has been monitoring wastewater for the city of Davis and the campus using Ceres’ particles since 2020. Starting this summer, UC Merced and UC Davis began collaborating on the new Healthy Central Valley Together, expanding wastewater testing across the Valley. The project will use wastewater-based epidemiology to increase equity in access to public health data for regions with elevated poverty, food insecurity and COVID-19 case rates.

Being part of the new Center of Excellence, along with other external support and partnerships, will help Merced and Davis to add eight wastewater facilities in Yolo, Stanislaus and Merced counties to the testing roster. Each Center of Excellence was selected based on its ability to extend services into underserved and underprivileged communities and provide critical information to public health decision makers.

“People shed the virus before they show symptoms, as well as when they are asymptomatic, so wastewater tracking can be a good early-warning device for communities,” Naughton said.

Naughton, a civil engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering , has been focusing on COVID-related studies since the pandemic began. Once scientists realized they could track the virus by testing sewage, she and her undergraduate and graduate students created the launched the award-winning COVIDPoops19 dashboard, a platform for gathering global wastewater tracking data. Naughton’s lab finds the latest information on Twitter and in publications, news articles and webinars and adds it to the online dashboard, then shares the findings under the Twitter handle COVIDPoops19. Naughton is also a part of a global data center, Wastewater SARS Public Health Response (W-SPHERE), that is creating a repository of the data sets collected through COVIDPoops19 and center partners. In September, the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists awarded Naughton the 2021 Excellence in Environmental Engineering and Science (E3S) Grand Prize in University Research .