When Research Hits Home: Studying Disaster Recovery Amidst a Global Pandemic

For many student researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), the projects they pursue and the questions they look to answer are of personal interest to them. However, few researchers expect to live through the actual scenario that they are studyingespecially if they are studying something as harrowing as disaster recovery.

With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic rippling through the country, this is exactly what happened to data science and business information management major Yifan Wu.

Yifan’s research project, titled “Reducing Disparities in Disaster Recovery by Quantifying Social Vulnerability,” studies grocery store sales data across the country to examine how people’s buying behaviors change during emergency events, such as natural disasters. He is also investigating how different communities, such as those at different household income levels, respond to the same disaster situations.

Naturally, Yifan isn’t particularly excited to be caught in the midst of a global pandemic. “The main challenge is that I am locked at home, and there is definitely some mental stress because I am not able to go out,” he reports. “Also, talking to people online is still different from meeting them face to face. I really miss life before COVID-19.”

While the current situation is less than ideal, Yifan does point out that the research he is doing is more relevant than ever. “Right now we have the COVID-19 outbreak, and you can definitely imagine that the sales of some products are skyrocketingsay, the panic buying of toilet paper.”

The real-life implications of Yifan’s research project is one of the things that makes his research so exciting, and he credits the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) for giving him the freedom to pursue such an important project.

Yifan explains, “With UROP, I get a chance to apply what I learn in class to a real-world problem, and I am very happy with it. It’s not using some toy data to make a toy model in class.”

Since 1995, UROP has been working to integrate undergraduate students from all schools and academic disciplines into UCI’s research culture. In addition to introducing students to opportunities for collaboration with faculty, the UROP team provides support through all stages of the research process. Whether students need help developing ideas for research or creative projects, writing proposals, presenting their results, or applying for funding, UROP has the resources and expertise that UCI’s student researchers can rely on. 

According to Director Said Shokair, one of UROP’s major goals is to encourage students to be creative when developing ideas for their projects. He says, “By offering a space where students are free to think critically and pursue projects that they are passionate about, UROP hopes to inspire a life-long passion for discovery and inquiry-based learning.”

For Yifan, working with UROP has been beneficial in many ways. He first got involved with UROP at the recommendation of his professor Maura Allaire in the Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy. Yifan says that he saw UROP as a way to gain research experience and earn recognition for his work. He adds that his experience presented him as an impressive candidate during an internship interview, and he hopes that it will continue to help him find opportunities. He says, “I believe this experience will be very helpful when applying for a job or graduate school.”

Setting students up to make better decisions for a successful future is another major objective for the UROP team. As their mission statement declares, 

By providing professional environments conducive to research advancement and career skills development, UROP provides students with unique opportunities to develop a wide variety of skills that will be useful in any future career or educational plans.

Bolstered by the skills and experience that working with UROP has given him, Yifan feels confident about his next steps. Set to graduate next year, he intends to continue his education by applying for graduate school in the field of data science or computational biology.

When asked if other students should check out the opportunities that UROP has to offer, Yifan’s answer is resoundingly positive: “Yes; I think UROP is a really good program to help UCI undergraduate students succeed. I feel that I am very much supported by UCI, and I’ve already encouraged my friends to apply.”

If you are a UCI student that is interested in learning more about UROP and how the program can help you explore the world of academic research, then visit UROP’s website here or reach out to the UROP team at urop@uci.edu.