Behind the scenes: Three alums played a major role in the deployment of the Covid Watch app

Behind the scenes: Three alums played a major role in the deployment of the Covid Watch app

By Andy OberUniversity Communications
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Joyce Schroeder, head of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is leading the campus rollout of the Covid Watch app. This image shows her working in her lab.
Joyce Schroeder, head of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is leading the campus rollout of the Covid Watch app. This image shows her working in her lab.
Joyce Schroeder
Joyce Schroeder
Alumna Tina White, co-founder of Covid Watch, calls the University an "ideal partner."
Alumna Tina White, co-founder of Covid Watch, calls the University an "ideal partner."
Alumnus Jay Baer, founder of Convince & Convert, says his history as a Wildcat gives this project "personal resonance."
Alumnus Jay Baer, founder of Convince & Convert, says his history as a Wildcat gives this project "personal resonance."

The deployment of Covid Watch, an opt-in exposure notification application that will play a key role in keeping faculty, staff and students safe as campus reopens, is largely due to the work of several University graduates from a variety of fields.

The app allows users who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to anonymously notify others who may have been exposed and it offers next steps. (Read this UANews story for a deeper look at how it works.)

On the front lines of Covid Watch's development on campus is Joyce Schroeder, head of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, who is leading contact tracing efforts on campus. Schroeder, who earned her bachelor's degree in microbiology from the University in 1992, was recruited by Joanna Masel, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and BIO5 Institute member, and Provost Liesl Folks.

She was tapped because of her connections and her collaboration smarts.

"I had been involved in other projects for reentry when Joanna Masel approached the provost and me about adopting this technology," Schroeder said. "After looking into its potential, the provost asked me to lead the app development team for campus."

Schroeder, who is also a member of the BIO5 Institute, says the process has been challenging but fulfilling, adding that bringing diverse groups of people together to accomplish goals is an important aspect of her work as both a scientist and leader.

"As a cancer biologist, one of the things I do in my lab is therapeutic development – trying to develop cancer drugs and get them to clinical trial," Schroeder said. "To do that, I had to learn to bring together a lot of different groups of people that I normally wouldn't have been working with, like patent lawyers and investors. As a department head, you also work with a lot of different types of people to get goals accomplished."

In the case of Covid Watch, she had to bring in players from University Information Technology Services, data science, law, privacy, marketing, epidemiology and mathematical biology. The team evaluated dozens of exposure notification systems before deciding on the app developed by the nonprofit Covid Watch.

That's where another University graduate entered the picture.

Tina White earned her master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University in 2009. After working for Honeywell International Inc. in Phoenix, she began getting excited about machine learning. She co-founded Covid Watch in February and is now a doctoral candidate at Stanford University. White moved back to Tucson to stay with family because of the pandemic, allowing her to follow the app's rollout closely.

"Arizona is the first state using our app. It's nice because it's my home state, too, and I'm here right now with family. We want to pilot in small communities like the University to show that it works – and scale up from there."

White says she was happy that the University was among the first to reach out to Covid Watch about using the platform, calling it an ideal partner.

"They showed up with everything we needed," White said. "They had the resources to do alpha and beta testing of the technology, and they had approval from the governor. Their team is so motivated to bring this technology to their community. It's really impressive."

Schroeder and White are hopeful about the app's potential in preventing the spread of COVID-19 on campus, but say success is largely dependent on a significant enough pool of people willing to download and use it. Schroeder says that will require strong messaging to show students, faculty and staff that Covid Watch is effective while protecting the privacy of its users.

For help with crafting the messaging, Schroeder turned to another University graduate. Jay Baer is president of Convince & Convert, a content marketing and social media strategy company based in Bloomington, Indiana. He attended the University as a Flinn Scholar, graduating in 1991 with a degree in political science.

"We have spent the past several weeks researching student and staff attitudes, crafting messaging platforms, and building specific communication assets that will be deployed soon on University of Arizona websites, emails and social media channels," Baer said. "We aim to create a 'surround sound' effect, whereby nearly all students and staff hear about Covid Watch enough that downloading the app becomes a de facto behavior."

Like White, Baer says his history as a Wildcat makes this project especially meaningful to him.

"This project is so important and incredibly interesting. Not only is the University of Arizona the first university to fully deploy the Covid Watch app, but – given that I am an alumnus – the success of this initiative and its role in keeping Wildcats safe has personal resonance for me."

The app, available on iOS and Android devices, is expected to be fully launched on Aug. 24.

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