At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rice University launched a fund dedicated to conducting pathbreaking research — in science, biomedicine, engineering, social sciences, humanities and other fields — to better understand the coronavirus’ wide-reaching impacts on our society. Such research has continued throughout 2021. Here are a few of the projects researchers focused on last year to tackle what has become a multiyear pandemic:

- Real-Time Sensor: Researchers at Rice University received funding for up to $1 million to develop a real-time sensor system able to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus that causes COVID-19 infection. Read more about Rice’s real-time sensor in Rice News.

- Testing the Water: There are many ways to test municipal wastewater for signs of the virus that causes COVID-19, but scientists in Houston have determined theirs is the best yet. A study led by environmental engineer Lauren Stadler of Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering with the aid of the City of Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine compared five processes used by labs around the country to concentrate samples and find the virus in wastewater from six Houston plants. The process employed at Rice and now Baylor, called “electronegative filtration with bead beating,” proved the most sensitive to signs of the virus as well as the most cost-effective. Read more about Rice's water testing method in Rice News.

- Taking a Toll: During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, only a third of Houston-area households with children reported having enough money saved to cover one month of expenses, according to research from Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium. The survey also revealed that the pandemic contributed to feelings of hopelessness, with a quarter of households overall reporting they felt this way. It also increased the amount of conflict at home, according to the respondents. Read more about how the pandemic has affected Houstonians financially and emotionally in Rice News.

- COVID-19 Dashboard: A new dashboard developed by public health researchers at Rice University's Texas Policy Lab (TPL) will help school districts in Texas and parents of school-age students make better and more informed decisions about COVID-19 mitigation amid the pandemic. Read more about Rice’s COVID-19 Dashboard in Rice News.

- Inhalable COVID-19 Vaccine: Scientists from Rice and Rutgers University are developing an inhalable COVID-19 vaccine spray that would be easier to manufacture and doesn’t require cold storage. This important work could have impacts far and wide. Read more about Rice’s inhalable COVID-19 vaccine in Rice News.

- Spike Protein: The spike protein responsible for COVID-19 infection is like a loaded spring, with a catch. New simulations created by Rice and Northeastern University scientists may help researchers catch a break as they look for ways to defeat the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The scientists, all part of the Rice-based Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP), have simulated the process by which the spike reconfigures itself to attach to and infect cells. Read more about the spike protein responsible for COVID-19 infection in Rice News.

- Mask Up Right: Rice engineers help show SARS-CoV-2 is getting better at spreading through breath and that a loose-fitting mask may be doing you no favors. Read more about Rice’s research on masks in Rice News.

- Screening COVID-19 Drug Candidates: Rice University researchers have introduced an online portal to help researchers screen COVID-19 drug candidates that might attack specific proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Lydia Kavraki, a computer scientist at the George R. Brown School of Engineering, and her colleagues at the University of Houston, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Federal University of Ceará, Brazil, have posted a “user-friendly” web server offering scientists the chance to screen their drug candidates virtually in relation to known protein binding pockets on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Read more about Rice’s COVID-19 drug candidate screening tool in Rice News.

- Decontaminating Masks: A Rice lab has identified the perfect conditions to decontaminate disposable masks. Heating PPE to the right degree kills 99.9% of SARS-CoV-2 virus without degrading material. Read more about Rice’s recipe to decontaminate masks.

- SARS-CoV-2 Mutations: Scientists working on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded project led by Rice University have compiled a list of mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that may make the omicron variant more resistant to neutralizing antibodies, including those from vaccinations. That could increase the risk of breakthrough cases of COVID-19. Read more about Rice’s research into SARS-CoV-2 Mutations in Rice News.

- Public Health Cost of COVID-19: The Translational Humanities for Public Health project launched in March 2020 captured worldwide scholarly responses to the COVID-19 pandemic last year revealing an alarming escalation in xenophobia and bigotry. Read more about the public health cost of COVID-19 in Rice News.