Andrew Kennedy, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Bates College. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

When Bates College returned to in-person instruction last fall, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Andrew Kennedy and his two-student team – then-seniors Jillian Serrano and Wuyue Zhou – decided to take on the Herculean task of gathering, analyzing and posting daily COVID-19 data from the 11-member New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), of which Bates College is a member.

Kennedy, who joined the Bates faculty in 2016 and whose research focus is in neuroscience, is quick to correct the record about the project’s origins: Serrano and Zhou were the driving force behind the NESCAC COVID tracker, he said.

“The first goal was to provide a consistent service for parents, students and employees of the different colleges. But we also had an intellectual investment into how this whole experience in public health would go,” he told The Bates Student.

The three posted more than 200 daily updates to Instagram (@nescac_covidtracker), with Kennedy posting additional analysis to his Twitter (@Prof_AJKennedy).

Name: Andrew Kennedy

Age: 38


Lives: Lewiston

What inspired you to start the NESCAC tracking project? What were the goals of it, and do you plan to continue it in the fall? Two students inspired me to help them with the project, Jillian Serrano ’21 and Wuyue Zhou ’21. They had worked with me in my lab for a couple years already, and they wanted to have a sense for how outbreaks would unfold at other, similarly sized colleges that were also coming back to their campuses in-person. Bates College had essentially the same strategies for conducting the academic year in-person as the other NESCAC schools, so our assumption was that outbreaks at any of the colleges would help predict future outbreaks at all of them.

Kennedy with his dog, Professor Remus Photo courtesy of Andrew Kennedy

How did the two Bates students contribute to the project? They did everything. I helped guide them, but they collected and organized all the data. I would simply meet with them daily for data visualization and to discuss what the data might mean.

Not only do you pull the numbers for each NESCAC college, but you also analyzed the data. How much time did that take you every day, on top of your regular teaching duties? Jillian and Wuyue spent about two hours every day gleaning the data from the college dashboards, and then we would spend about one to two hours analyzing it. It wasn’t too bad, but it was every day (seven days a week) for the whole academic year, so the students demonstrated a lot of reliability, considering this was a side project.

What was your biggest takeaway from the project? Did anything surprise you? Did you receive feedback from students, faculty and staff? We developed a fairly good understanding for how COVID outbreaks occur and can be controlled on a college campus. When Bates had its large outbreak in early April, it was predictable that a lockdown would be able to arrest the spread of the virus on campus without exceeding available isolation housing for infected students.

What are other areas where this kind of daily data collection and analysis can be applied – at Bates or beyond? We collected data from 1.9 million tests across 11 institutions that had their students on campus for the entire academic year. We hope the dataset we collected and organized will be useful for the coming academic year if there is a breakthrough variant or another future public health crisis caused by a respiratory virus. I have a strong faith in the model of in-person education, and even during a pandemic there are ways of keeping some important aspects of our lives if the proper public health measures are instituted and adhered to.

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