Returning to labs

Graphic by Quinn Sherer | Mercury Staff

Research labs opened under limited circumstances since campus closed this spring are now steadily increasing capacity, with COVID-19 safety measures.

During the April 22 presidential town hall meeting, Joe Pancrazio, vice president of research, said the Office of Research has been fully operational — albeit remotely — after campus closed down in March. In a later interview with The Mercury, Pancrazio said that, in fact, university research labs submitted 15% more grant proposals in May 2020 versus May 2019.

“When we often think of research, we mainly see people sitting in wet labs handling test tubes, Bunsen burners, that sort of thing. But the reality is the things that we do in research only (partially) involve onsite data collection,” Pancrazio said. “Instead we spend a lot of time analyzing data, writing up papers around the data, writing grant proposals about the data, having group meetings talking about what we are going to do next. A lot of those operations can be done remotely.”

Though campus closed down mid-March, essential research was still being conducted. Michael Kilgard, chair of the faculty senate advisory group on research, said that one such category of essential research was investigating ways to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

“This university feels strongly that we can contribute, and many different laboratories have not only contributed personal protective equipment but are doing active research to develop new strategies for battling the coronavirus,” Kilgard said. “So those two different classes of research activities had to go through a vetting process where faculty reviewed it and decided that it met the high standard that it was either essential to prevent losing previous research or was contributing to the COVID remediation plan.”

This vetting process was modeled after University of California Berkeley’s procedures, Pancrazio said. Studies operating under time limits, in which researchers were working with animal groups or materials and samples that were going to decay, were also considered essential.

Between mid-March and mid-May, 10% of UTD researchers were allowed to come back to conduct essential research. Since May 26, there has been a limited return to research, with a 25% capacity. Now, increasing capacity depends on two factors, Pancrazio said.

“One is entirely within our control; the other is entirely out of our control. The one that’s in our control is ‘are we able to handle the guidelines that are in place to be safe?’ So, what we’ve been doing is asking people who are coming back to participate in daily health surveys, and essentially let their supervisors and Office of Research know whether or not they’re feeling ill,” Pancrazio said. “What we’re trying to do there is not violate anybody’s privacy; what we’re trying to do is protect the community. Because this is a situation where the health of an individual threatens the health of the community.”

There has been 80% compliance in completing the daily health survey, Pancrazio said. They are sent out daily via email, and ask questions such as whether or not the respondent has had a cough or cold, if they feel ill and if they have been in contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive. Pancrazio said the expectation is that people are honest and there are no ramifications other than staying home.

“(The surveys) are not designed to detect COVID-19; they are designed to determine if someone is ill. Right now, the numbers are about one person in about 800 researches per week registered that they weren’t feeling well. What we’re looking for especially in these next couple months as we start to increase the research capacity, we want to make sure that number doesn’t go up,” Pancrazio said. “And what we really want to make sure of is that a particular lab or group or building doesn’t see an increase.”

Additionally, Pancrazio said that inspections of labs, which look for social distancing and the use of face masks, found that 103 out of 106 labs showed individuals wearing face masks. Additional safety measures included distributing 22,377 masks, gloves and sanitizing products to all research laboratories; installing a plexiglass shield at the front desk in the Bioengineering and Science Building; allowing only one person at a time to use the elevators in research buildings; and erecting signage around buildings instructing people what to do and how to social distance.

In addition to researchers returning to laboratories, graduate students are also able to access labs, Pancrazio said at the most recent town hall held on June 24.

“Individual graduate students can work with their PIs to reserve blocks of time to pursue onsite data collection,” he said at the town hall. “We recently expanded the available hours in lab to 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., which allows additional opportunities for faculty, staff and students to engage in laboratory work onsite.”

With regard to human test subjects, things that can be done online will be done through surveys and Microsoft Teams meetings. Pancrazio said that everything in research involving human test subjects involves risk-benefit assessment.

“We have an institutional review board which looks at all human subjects testing, and now we have another risk and it’s COVID-19. So, the question is ‘what are the strategies to mitigate and discuss risk with potential human subjects?’” Pancrazio said. “We have an excellent dialogue going on between faculty and the institutional review board to create a framework by which we ensure any of the subjects are well informed and understand that they will be wearing masks while on campus. We worry not only about the human subject but also the experimenters.”

Opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research depends on their experience level and how much supervision they need, but integrating them back into research labs in the fall will need to be done safely, Pancrazio said. The more supervision needed, the harder it is to maintain social distancing.

“The variable we can’t control is what COVID-19 does. Even when we create a safe environment for people to do research, we can’t control what happens in Dallas or Collin County, what people do or where they go, how they behave outside,” Pancrazio said. “We are trying to understand what it means for case numbers going up. I think August is going to be very revealing, and we should have a pretty good idea just exactly what it is we’ll be able to do with research labs.”

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