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UNC doctoral student Rachel Woodul applies prior pandemic research to COVID-19

Rachel Woodul poses for a portrait outside Carolina Hall on April 14, 2021. Woodul is a PhD student in the Department of Geography and a pandemic researcher.

Rachel Woodul was putting the final touches on her master’s thesis on pandemic research in March — the same week that the COVID-19 outbreak was announced. 

Woodul is a third-year doctoral student in the department of geography at UNC. She specializes in disease modeling. Alongside her adviser, Paul Delamater, she focused her research on whether or not the country was prepared for the next pandemic — not knowing how applicable this research would soon become. 

Woodul's master’s thesis, which she defended in April 2020, modeled the 1918 flu pandemic if it were to occur today. After COVID-19 began, she used her model to lay out the possible impact of the coronavirus.

“When I started working with Rachel she was interested in pandemics and disease models in health,” Delamater, an assistant professor of geography at UNC, said. “So, she kind of got me interested in the idea of a pandemic.” 

In her research, Woodul found that there are clear connections between where people live, their ability to access healthcare and their likeliness of surviving a pandemic. Woodul found that those in lower socioeconomic classes are more vulnerable to mortality due to a lessened ability to access care.

“Spending three years thinking about pandemics and thinking through the implications, then seeing our country not enact the response plans I knew we had was like watching a train crash in slow motion,” she said. 

As COVID-19 began to spread across the globe, Woodul quickly realized that her pandemic modeling and forecasting work would only be useful if the health care system could function in a crisis. 

“My model assumed that we would have leadership that would take swift and decisive steps to protect the health of the public,” she said. “As we now know, that is a very privileged assumption.”

A week after defending her master’s thesis, Woodul began working with Delamater to help North Carolinians understand the impact of the pandemic. With the help of a grant, they adapted her original model into a more complex and interactive format that tracks cases and vaccinations in North Carolina. 

“The pandemic has laid bare the problems we have in our society, but has also provided a lot of opportunities for scholars to try to help us understand what happened this time, and how we can make it better for next time,” Delamater said.  

Woodul continues to study pandemics through her dissertation work that is focused on COVID-19. This includes looking at vaccine distribution to determine how it can be done more quickly and effectively. 

Moving forward, it is crucial to understand the interplay between where vaccines have been allocated, who is eligible for vaccination and who has access to vaccines, Delamater said.

“Rachel’s work is a great example of how a small idea can bloom and foster some important scholarships,” Ashley Ward, Woodul’s co-adviser and senior policy associate for engagement and outreach at Internet of Water, said. "For all the undergraduates out there that have a twinkle of an idea, Rachel’s work is a good example of why you should pursue those ideas.”

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