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Grand Challenges: Pandemic Readiness Initiative (PRI)

Grant Type: Impact Award
Topics: Global Health, Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery

Grand Challenges Grants Program


Since 2020, the world has been impacted by a devastating pandemic, leaving millions of people dead. COVID-19 revealed failed communication, inequitable impacts, and the lack of a proactive and coordinated response that was evidence-based. The pandemic further revealed that, although system-level responses and resources are necessary, we also need to understand human behaviors in public health emergencies. Social and behavioral science research can provide this knowledge for action.

The new Pandemic Readiness Initiative (PRI) integrates a broad array of social and behavioral sciences to learn from COVID-19 and other disasters to better prepare for future public health emergencies. Our faculty are experts in public health and risk communication, health literacy, health equity, social media and other digital technologies, public opinion, cognitive processing of messages, disaster management, and cultural studies. Faculty use traditional quantitative and qualitative social science methods and cutting-edge data science techniques. Animated by core principles of health equity and community engagement, the team promotes educational opportunities for students, faculty, and practitioners across diverse fields.

Team Members:

PI: Cynthia Baur (SPHL), Endowed Chair and Director, Horowitz Center for Health Literacy

PI: Brooke Fisher Liu (ARHU), Professor, Communication

Stephen B. Thomas (SPHL), Professor, Health Policy and Management and Director, Center for Health Equity

Carina Zelaya (ARHU), Assistant Professor, Communication

Anita Atwell Seate (ARHU), Associate Professor, Communication

Cody Buntain (INFO), Assistant Professor, Information Studies

Christina Getrich (BSOS), Associate Professor, Anthropology

Ernesto Calvo (BSOS), Professor, Government and Politics

Sarah McGrew (EDUC), Assistant Professor, Teaching and Learning, Policy, and Leadership

Beth St. Jean (INFO), Associate Professor, Information Studies

Naeemul Hassan (JOUR), Assistant Professor, Journalism

Donald Milton (SPHL), Professor of Global, Environmental, and Occupational Health

Kathleen McPhaul (SPHL), Associate Research Professor, Global, Environmental, and Occupational Health

Joshua Weitz (CMNS), Professor and Clark Leadership Chair in Data Analytics, Biology

Stephen Beckett (CMNS), Associate Research Scientist, Biology

Abba Gumel (CMNS), Professor & The Michael and Eugenia Brin Endowed E-Nnovate Chair in Mathematics


  • Center for Health and Homeland Security, UMB
  • Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins University

Pandemic Readiness Initiative Project Summaries - 2023-2024:

Primary Contact: Cynthia Baur, PhD (School of Public Health,

Team Members: Christina Getrich, PhD, Carina Zelaya, PhD, Meg Jordan, MPH, Sandra Crouse Quinn, PhD, Katherine Raymond, MSW

This project aims to establish a baseline understanding of community experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and in its aftermath. This project also aims to gain insights about community intentions to prepare for and apply lessons learned in future pandemics. Community leaders from counties across Maryland will be invited to engage in focus group discussions about their community’s experiences. Data from this study will lead to in-depth summaries about the pandemic experiences of communities across Maryland that will help inform community-level pandemic readiness efforts.

This project will recruit community leaders in Maryland communities in late Fall 2023.

Primary Contact: Beth St. Jean, PhD (College of Information Studies,

Team Members: Brooke Fisher Liu, PhD, Jane Behre, MLIS, Miranda Downey, MLIS, J. Nicole Miller, MLIS, Sandra Crouse Quinn, PhD, Twanna Hodge, MLIS

Through surveys and interviews with individuals with long COVID (“COVID long-haulers”), this project investigates their information needs, practices, and experiences. This project also investigates the various types of factors that have motivated or demotivated their COVID-related information seeking and use, the types of information-related barriers they encountered, and their thoughts about an ideal information source or technology that would be (or would have been) most helpful for them as they navigate(d) long COVID. Learnings from this project will help us uncover ways to better prepare the information environment in future pandemics, epidemics, and personal health crises, to ensure that everyone has convenient access to  trustworthy information that is accurate, relevant, understandable, useful, and actionable.

This project is actively recruiting participants with long COVID; please email Beth St. Jean for more information.

Primary Contact: Cody Buntain, PhD (College of Information Studies,

Team Members: Naeemul Hassan, PhD, Sarah McGrew, PhD, Stephen B. Thomas, PhD, Katherine Raymond, MSW

This project engages local communities around UMD to solicit their insights on the core sources of information they use when judging threats to their health, their perceptions of how technology shapes the information they consume, and how they engage with this technology to assess health threats and learn how to protect themselves. Through a survey, this project will develop maps of hyper-local information spaces and their mediascapes to provide a foundation for understanding contemporary information consumption among traditionally underserved communities. We will build on these foundations using web collection, digital ethnography, and contextual inquiry to learn how these spaces have changed over time, the degree to which technology has served to amplify or suppress voices from these communities, and policy/technological design choices that could better empower these communities.

This project will be actively recruiting participants from Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, Maryland in Fall 2023.

Primary Contact: Brooke Fisher Liu, PhD (College of Arts & Humanities, Department of Communication,

Team Members: Anita Atwell Seate, PhD, Carina Zelaya, PhD, Ernesto Calvo, PhD, Laura Mendez-Pinto, Meg Jordan, MPH, Sandra Crouse Quinn, PhD, Stephen B. Thomas, PhD, Tania Nachrin, MS.

This project answers the following guiding research question: What makes messages memorable and shareable within Black and Latinx communities during pandemics and other crises? The project consists of a multi-sited rapid ethnography with the Maryland Health Advocates In-Reach and Research (HAIR) network of barbershops and salons, which will take place in the fall of 2023. Then, the team will conduct a national survey eliciting perspectives about effective and memorable COVID-19 vaccine messaging among Black and Latinx communities to inform communication approaches for these communities for future public health emergencies. We invite you to stay informed about the progress and outcomes of this project by visiting the UMD Center for Health Equity website. We are committed to fostering culturally responsive communication approaches that empower and engage Black and Latinx communities during times of crisis.

This project will actively recruit participants from the Maryland HAIR network in the Fall 2023, and a broader national sample in Spring 2024.


Grand Challenges Grant Q&A: How Education Can Help Us Prepare for the Next Pandemic

November 6, 2023


Webinar: Lab and Field Experiments for Communicating Viral Exposure Risk

March 29, 2024, 3:00 PM

Description: How can we effectively communicate health risks to change behaviors? In the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that beliefs about viral exposure risk were poorly aligned with actual risk, but those beliefs strongly predicted preventative health behaviors. In this talk, I will highlight several studies in which we developed and deployed behavioral interventions that effectively corrected misconceptions about health risks, reduced intentions to engage in risky health behaviors, and increased booster vaccine uptake. Importantly, these studies demonstrate the value and impact of translating insights from controlled experiments in the lab to large-scale communication campaigns via public websites and social media platforms.

Bio: Alyssa (Allie) Sinclair is the Joan Bossert Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is jointly affiliated with the Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media and the Communication Neuroscience Lab within the Annenberg School for Communication. Allie draws on her expertise in psychology and cognitive neuroscience to develop interventions and communication campaigns designed to change health beliefs and behaviors, enhance learning and memory, and motivate action to mitigate climate change. Her research interests include knowledge and belief updating, risk communication, information seeking and sharing, and misinformation correction. Allie completed her Ph.D. in Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University, where she was supported by graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada.

For information on how to participate in the webinar, contact Cynthia Baur at


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