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By the Numbers

Students help area town test efficacy of COVID measures

After collecting extensive data on COVID-19 testing, Hanover town officials faced a difficult question: What does it mean? For the answers, they turned to Bridgewater State University seniors Abigail Adams and Andrew Disher.

Abigail and Andrew, who are math majors (statistics concentration) and computer science minors, analyzed data about positive cases, testing methods and costs through a directed study and internship.

“During the pandemic, everyone felt powerless. I felt that, too. Everyone was just sitting around waiting,” Andrew said. “I think we had something to do with helping people get back to normal.”

They verified the cost effectiveness of pool testing, a process used in schools where samples are tested in groups with follow-up analysis performed if a group sample is positive.

They also assessed the success of a combination of pool testing and more targeted testing of people with symptoms or who had been exposed to COVID-19. That analysis helped justify reducing in-school distancing guidelines from six to three feet, said Hanover Fire Capt. Fred Freeman.

“I reached out (to BSU) because statistical analysis is not the forte of the fire department,” Freeman said. “Andrew and Abigail had a tough job. … They had to figure out exactly how you would analyze a local COVID testing program and show its efficacy.”

Freeman praised their determination and perseverance on a project with little direction on how to proceed.  

Their work, completed with guidance from faculty members Wanchunzi Yu and Kevin Rion, provided the aspiring data analysts with experience that cannot be replicated in textbooks. Textbook exercises often identify the data that can best answer a problem, a step Abigail and Andrew had to do themselves, Dr. Rion said.

“It will give them confidence,” he said. “There are skills they developed during this internship that they will continue to apply in other settings.”

They also learned to share their findings in ways that others with less expertise can understand.

“This internship has really improved my ability to communicate with people about what I know and also to really understand the needs of who we are working for,” said Andrew, who is from Plymouth. “I’ve grown a lot that way.”

Abigail, who is from Webster, now has a greater appreciation for how statistics can be used to help people.

Andrew and Abigail are grateful to have improved their skills while helping fight the pandemic. Hanover’s testing program received state and national awards, and their analysis helped town officials secure funding.

“It took me a minute to step back and say, ‘We actually did this,’” Abigail said. “It was rewarding especially in a time when nothing really feels rewarding.”

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