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Research and Innovation

Q&A: How to Safely Conduct Research During a Pandemic

Barbara White, research operations manager at NC State’s Department of Forest Biomaterials, discusses her efforts to maintain safety as faculty and students conduct essential research amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

COVID Research - Q&A: How to Safely Conduct Research During a Pandemic - College of Natural Resources NC State

While NC State and other universities around the world transition to online and virtual instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some faculty and students continue to conduct essential research in their on-campus laboratories. 

At the College of Natural Resources, Barbara White is working to create and maintain a safe working environment for researchers in the Department of Forest Biomaterials. 

“In our department we always say ‘safety first,’” explained White, who is the department’s research operations manager. “With a pandemic being a safety concern, that means that everything else has to take a back seat temporarily while we navigate through these times.” 

We recently spoke with White to discuss how the department has safely ramped up research activities during the pandemic. Here’s what we learned: 

How has the Department of Forest Biomaterials maintained a safe working environment during the pandemic? 

White: People have been really good about wearing their personal protective equipment and judging by the amount of cleaning products the department is distributing, they are cleaning their workspaces well to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They are reserving labs and instruments in advance, and are being mindful of the lab occupancy limits. This is helping to maintain social distancing in our laboratories, pilot plant and Hodges Wood Products Lab.

So far we have been lucky and have not needed to do this, but the second benefit of the reservation system is that it is a tool to assist with contact tracing. If someone in the department self-discloses using the NC State process that they have tested positive for COVID-19, within a few minutes I can provide them a list of every person with whom they have worked with over a 14-day period. We also know which labs and offices were involved.  

That information can then be given to the contact tracer so the proper notification procedure can begin. This also allows us to know exactly how much of the department would need to be closed immediately, and then can coordinate with Housekeeping to perform a deep cleaning according to CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines. If we were unable to verify where the person has worked, we may have to shut down all four buildings for a deep cleaning, which would definitely slow down progress on projects.

How has your role had to change due to the pandemic? 

White: The timeline to reopen for research restart was relatively short, and the university had not yet completely written the COVID-19 reopening plan for the fall semester. So I worked with Marko Hakovirta, our department head, and Lori Kazura, who was our acting executive assistant at the time, to develop appropriate guidelines for how our graduate students would be able to conduct research during these times while still protecting their health. I never thought I would actually need to tap into my long ago experience as a medical technologist in this position, but an infection control protocol was needed, particularly given our shared lab environment.  

We also needed to change our day-to-day operations because of occupancy limits in labs and shorter operational hours because emergency services are not staffed at normal levels. The ways in which we work and communicate also had to change, as most faculty and staff are still working offsite, and we needed to account for that in our COVID-19 plan.The situation was changing pretty rapidly through July, so we needed to make numerous edits in order to respond accordingly, and get those circulated to the faculty and students. Once we were satisfied with the research restart, then we had to start planning for the return of the undergraduate students. By that time, the university had produced a plan for that, but we had to evaluate and figure out how to adapt that to our own operations.  

If I had to summarize how the department has gotten through the past several months, I would say we all have had to remain flexible as the situation was, and is, rapidly changing. Even well-known national speakers who give workshops on leadership topics have had to admit that there is no playbook for us to follow on how to navigate these times. We are literally creating the playbook on a day-to-day basis. How we conducted business yesterday may very well be different from yesterday, or tomorrow.  We have to be prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice to ramp up onsite projects, or scale back, depending on university guidelines, the Governor’s Executive Orders and/or the CDC guidelines. We are being creative on how we can keep working so that everyone is able to make progress on their educational and research endeavors while still protecting our safety and health.

In May, after closing due to the pandemic, the university initiated a phased approach to restarting research operations across campus. What was the most challenging aspect of this plan? 

White: Unlike most departments on campus, almost all equipment in the Department of Forest Biomaterials is “community property” versus having every faculty member set up their own lab with equipment that is used solely by their students. Under normal conditions, being able to share these resources is a great benefit. However, we faced some unique challenges that most other departments did not have. In a department such as ours, where everyone is working in multiple laboratories on any given day, it became immediately apparent that we were going to need to expand our current instrument reservation system to include the physical spaces and not just the instruments themselves, and then limit reservations to the 35 percent occupancy limit at any given moment.  

We quickly ran into an unexpected issue with our plan in that the university’s Office of Research and Innovation (ORI) was the entity that had to give approvals to every project to restart. They were carefully monitoring lab occupancies, and it did not take long for us to hit the limit on projects that could be approved since everyone was requesting access to multiple spaces in their restart requests. I contacted ORI and explained our shared labs concept and our calendaring system which allows for us to maintain occupancy limits down to the minute. They agreed that we could manage occupancies with this model, and approved the rest of the projects to restart. 

Why is it important that research operations remain active during the pandemic? 

White: Given that most of our graduate students’ research is lab-based, they have to be able to work onsite in order to perform their experiments. Had we not been able to manage the process of adhering to the occupancies in a shared lab environment, only a handful of projects would have been approved to restart in May and June, with the other projects just now restarting. That would have resulted in lost productivity, and potentially major issues with our research sponsors. 

The other, and more important, impact would have been to the grad students themselves, as some may have missed critical deadlines to submit dissertations, thus delaying graduation. Gladly, as it is today, all projects are in ‘restart’ status.

What do the next few years look like in terms of safety and research?

White: The World Health Organization has said that it may take up to five years to get the coronavirus pandemic under control worldwide. If that is so, then we are likely going to be living with things as they are for a long time to come. The safety protocols we have put into place will likely remain for the foreseeable future. Face masks will be our new fashion accessories. We may have periods during which virus transmission is relatively light and people are able to work onsite as needed, but we could have a hot spot erupt and have to shut everything down very abruptly again.  

We will have to keep our Emergency Closure Plans updated and handy as we may have only a day or two of notice that we are to cease onsite operations for some period of time.  We definitely have to keep an eye on CDC recommendations and the Governor’s Executive Orders, and adjust our operations (and expectations) accordingly.

But one good thing that I think we will see come from this period of reduced access is better planning skills and time management. Since people cannot assume they have 24/7 access to facilities anymore, researchers will invest more time in prior planning so that when they have scheduled time in the labs, they can make the best use of that time.  We may find that we can do the same amount of research, or perhaps even more, if we take some time upfront to have a plan of action in hand. 

Another benefit is that this group of students will be far more creative and resilient than past generations have been.  They are living through a time when the world in which they lived came to a standstill. Going to class in these times has taken on an entirely different meaning for them. They are learning how to collaborate during a time when they are not allowed to congregate in groups. Socializing is taking place on a computer screen rather than in person. 

‘Change’ is the overarching theme where they are learning to adapt at a moment’s notice and still go to class, do research, write papers, write theses and dissertations, and still continue to live their personal lives too. All of these skills will help them in the years to come in that they have been forced to think outside the box and create new ways to work and learn.  These abilities are at the heart of innovation, and these are now imprinted into their DNA.