by Cory Nealon
Published September 25, 2020
Staggered shifts. Disinfectant spray bottles. Virtual meetings.
It’s the new norm as UB’s research enterprise — a $400-million operation that stretches across three campuses touching everything from medicine and the arts to science and public health — moves forward during the pandemic.
All non-essential labs were shuttered at the onset of the outbreak; however, they’ve been a hive of activity since reopening earlier this summer with enhanced safety protocols. Some researchers picked up where they left off, while others placed their pre-pandemic work on hold, and are now part of the worldwide effort to eradicate the novel coronavirus.
“The adaptability and resiliency of our research enterprise, from undergraduate students to the senior-most professors, is nothing short of incredible,” says Venu Govindarju, vice president for research and economic development. “It’s inspiring to see our investigators adhere to rigorous health and safety guidelines while continuing to push the boundaries of scholarship, innovation and creativity.”
A university-wide team led by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development began making plans to reopen labs, studios and other learning environments weeks after the pandemic forced their closure in March.
The emphasis was — and continues to be — on health and safety. To that end, the university procured thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment and required each of UB’s hundreds of labs to develop enhanced safety protocols.
The efforts have been successful. While UB community members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, its impact on research labs, many of which have been up and running since June, has been limited.
David Pawlowski, biosafety officer in Environment, Health and Safety, which played a key role in developing lab safety protocols, says researchers were poised to make quick and effective changes.
“A lot of these labs already had robust protocols in place to ensure that equipment, specimens and hazardous materials are handled appropriately,” he says. “What we’ve done is to help create policies that maximize our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, such as reducing density and disinfecting of common spaces.”
Like New York State, UB’s research reopening is based upon four phases. UB is operating in the second phase, at which learning environments do not exceed 50% capacity.
There can be downsides to this. For example, many labs have staggered shifts, meaning in-person interaction has declined. Also, student researchers who work long shifts may have to limit their time to ensure fellow researchers have access to facilities.
Many groups meet virtually to ensure that projects remain on schedule, and work that can be done remotely is being done remotely. That’s the case even in large research labs, like the Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory, where structural engineers are testing a method to strengthen aging reinforced concrete bridges.
“We moved three 55-foot-long concrete girders, one at a time, into the lab, and have been conducting experiments since the lab opened in June. If effective, this is a major advancement which could extend the service life of these bridges by 10 to 15 years and lead to millions of dollars in savings,” says Andreas Stavridis, associate professor of structural engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
In addition to Stavridis, the team consists of postdoctoral researcher Seyedsina Youssefianmoghadam, four graduate students and one undergraduate student.
“The size of these beams requires a large research team, which poses additional concerns. Besides the obvious social distancing and protection guidelines we follow, we had to adjust how the team works,” Stavridis says. “Each member was trained for specific tasks and we coordinate everyone’s presence in the lab via a group chat. Moreover, we have to plan the tests and analyze the data through video calls. We also wear coveralls, face shields and masks with filters the few days that more than two researchers are working on the beam.”
Not surprisingly, one growing area of research centers on COVID-19. Dozens of researchers representing mathematics, industrial engineering, bioinformatics and other fields are working on solutions to the crisis.
One of these researchers is Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She has gathered a team that is tracing the spread of COVID-19 in Western New York through genome sequencing.
“The goal with this project is to get a sense of the evolution of the virus, and where it came from, to find out its genomic epidemiology, to try and understand the biology of this virus,” says Surtees, whose work is funded by the SUNY Research Foundation and UB’s Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence, which she co-directs.
While UB is offering a mix of in-person and remote learning, coronavirus cases could spike, prompting a 14-day pause for in-person learning, as per orders of New York State.
There are certain research programs, such as those pertaining to national security and health, and essential training involving clinical education of future doctors, nurses and other health care providers, that will continue in-person, despite the pause, says Stan Halvorsen, executive director of regulatory support for the Office of Research and Economic Development.
Other groups may temporarily move to a remote setting, a transition for which they are ready, he adds.
“As a research organization, we’ve given careful consideration to how to proceed in a number of different scenarios,” he says. “We’re confident that our principal investigators will, if necessary, once again quickly adapt to ensure the university’s scholarly excellence remains unimpeded.”