Pandemic-related obstacles are impeding the progress of some research groups at the University of Wisconsin, UW Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Steve Ackerman said in an email to The Badger Herald.
In her role as Undergraduate Research Director of the chemistry Department, Cheri Barta would love to have casual conversations with undergraduates about their day and how their research was progressing.
That was before the collaborative and social environment in research at UW was impaired by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the need to work remotely has made these interactions few and far between, Barta said.
UW paused research focused on human subjects, as well as most other research projects, on March 15, with a few exceptions, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Policy and Compliance Nadine Connor said in an email to The Badger Herald. The restart of research on campus began June 1 and occurred in phases.
July 1, the University went on to resume face-to-face research on human subjects, provided that researchers minimize physical contact, follow all health and safety guidelines and conduct all activities remotely when possible, Connor said.
“In March, we moved thousands of research projects off of campus and turned our attention to the urgent work of stopping the coronavirus,” Connor said. “Many research projects have returned to campus, but some still face the challenges of working remotely.”
While some projects are completely cancelled due to health concerns, many groups are facing complications with remote research. In addition, they must follow health and safety guidelines for their in-person activities.
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“Research activities have slowed down as a result of lower laboratory density requirements implemented to minimize the risk of transmission of the virus,” Ackerman said.
Initially, only operations that could not be conducted at home were permitted to return to campus, Ackerman said. Now, research is permitted on and off-site, but remains restricted by the number and density of people in an area.
After UW shut down most research functions last spring, groups shifted their focus to operations that could be executed remotely, such as grant proposals and research reports, Ackerman said. According to his email, groups submitted 310 more grant proposals in July, August and September of this year than in the same months of the previous year.
This shift to remote work could result in a large quantity of publications over the next six or so months followed by an abrupt drop in publications due to the current lack of experimental data, Barta said. Despite this, projects are adapting around the pandemic and are learning valuable skills for research.
“This has been a really good opportunity to rethink everything you do as a researcher,” Barta said.
UW chemistry professor Sam Gellman said his research group has lost out on informal social interactions while conducting research as a result of density regulations. Adding that remote research provides barriers to these interactions that could be hindering the exchange of ideas.
“I worry the quality will suffer, because students can’t engage with one another in this informal way,” Gellman said.
In light of the pandemic, some projects involving international travel, face-to-face research, field studies and large conferences experienced slowed progress or were halted entirely, Ackerman said.
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Not all research groups faced drastic set backs, however. chemistry professor Shannon Stahl said his research group is lucky to have enough independent work to maintain overall productivity.
Members of the group are able to stagger their schedules so everyone can access the research space and accomplish what they need to, Stahl said, but they still face barriers in collaboration.
“We are pretty much at full force,” Stahl said. “We are not right now constrained in terms of lab access.”
Markedly, some groups shifted focus to research related to COVID-19 and remained operational while others were shut down, Ackerman said. Overall, UW’s labs totaled up to 50 pandemic related research grants worth more than $29 million dollars, and won an additional $8 million through the CARES COVID-19 Testing award, according to Ackerman’s email.
Gellman said he pivoted the focus of one of his projects to look at combating the spread of COVID-19. This project consisted of a small group within Gellman’s lab working every day with safety measures in place.
“It’s been inspiring to see how our world-class researchers at [UW] have hit the ground running, and are on the forefront of fighting COVID-19 by studying the virus from different angles and disciplines,” Ackerman said.
Research groups have had to limit their undergraduate researchers, Barta said. This semester, the chemistry department has 85 undergraduate researchers as opposed to the typical 110 to 120, Barta said.
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Gellman said this is a “crippling” time for undergraduate researchers, as he struggled to supply remote research opportunities. Research experiences can be vital to an undergraduate, as it can provide insight to their career path.
“What’s at stake is a loss of potential excellent future scientists,” Gellman said.
In response to the pandemic, UW started the Pandemic-Affected Research Continuation Initiative to support projects that are short of funds due to continued expenditures while in-person research was halted, Ackerman said. Under the initiative, research groups are able to apply for funding up to $50,000.
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Ackerman said these programs were implemented to continue support for research across the campus in an effort to recover from the struggles of remote research.
“We know this research is vital to our country’s health and our ability to recover and rebuild after this crisis and to prevent future ones,” Ackerman said. “In some cases, time is critical to discovery.”
The Dissertation Completion Emergency Fellowships program was introduced to support those graduate students whose graduation was delayed, but still expect to graduate by August of 2021, Ackerman said. He added that UW is also providing funding to support the Life Cycle Grant for those whose careers may be in critical positions and whose research productivity is affected by personal life events in the pandemic.
COVID-19 has affected all areas of research in some way, Ackerman said, with various groups losing access to both facilities and people. With the reopening of some of these facilities, many research groups are mostly back to normal, but still face barriers within their remote work.
“First and foremost, we want to make sure that research is conducted safely and practices minimize the risk of transmission,” Ackerman said.