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University restricts research in effort to prevent COVID-19 spread

Projects halted, labs limited to only critical work, essential personnel

While people turn to scientists for the latest updates on COVID-19, laboratories across campus will more or less go dark after 5 pm today. The constant hum of machines mixing samples will grow quiet as equipment is shut off, new experiments are canceled and entry is limited to essential personnel only.

The decision to ramp down research efforts was released March 15th in a message from Provost Richard Locke P ’18 and Vice President for Research Jill Pipher that was posted on Brown’s COVID-19 website. 

The “ramping down of research laboratories is in support of social distancing to smooth the curve of expected COVID-19 cases and the potential to overwhelm our local healthcare system which has limited resources,” Director of Brown’s Environmental Health and Safety Stephen Morin wrote in an email to The Herald. 

As the University increased efforts across the board to stop the spread of COVID-19, “by Sunday, it became pretty clear that we would be going into a completely different mode and everything would be conducted remotely,” said Mark Johnson, Royce family associate professor of teaching excellence, associate professor of biology and director for the molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry graduate program. 

“My sense is that everybody really wants to cooperate. … Everyone appreciates the leadership of the Provost on this and … is doing their best to comply,” Johnson said.

“Laboratories and research in general are a vital function of Brown University and it takes a campus community to support their operations,” Morin wrote. He added that many groups ranging from faculty to student researchers, as well as facilities management, environmental health and safety staff and administrative personnel, are crucial for the everyday work of laboratories on campus. 

“It could be a risk to all these groups to allow them to continue under normal operations,” Morin wrote. 

Only those who “need to enter for critical work will have access” to laboratory buildings, Morin wrote. Examples of critical work include “equipment maintenance such as preservation (or) maintenance of cell lines, changing out gas tanks or cryogens, filters and water checks.” 

Animals that are currently maintained as research subjects will also receive continued veterinary care, Morin wrote. 

Labs working with bacteria and other cells are able to preserve the organisms grown for their experiments through cryogenic storage — the process of freezing cells in liquid nitrogen. But for labs reliant on more complex living organisms, the solution is not so simple. 

Among the University faculty winding down their research this week is Assistant Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Shipra Vaishnava, who uses mice at the University’s Biomedical Center to investigate how diet and bacteria in the gut impact immunity against infections and diseases. The mice are kept in a gnotobiotic mouse facility in a germ-free environment. These now paused long-term studies require mice to be bred for months, prompting researchers to reduce their mouse populations and cryo-preserve the sperm of their mouse lines for propagation whenever research can resume. “We’ve lost a lot of time that we’ve already invested in these experiments, so anywhere between three to six months,” she said.

Many labs typically have teams of researchers conducting experiments from early morning until late evening, including many weekends. This level of activity has already dropped significantly due to COVID-19 concerns. Aside from the scurry of mice, the only other source of movement in the Vaishnava Lab will now be from the two essential personnel at a time looking after the lab’s animals — for only two to three hours each week. 

Critical work that is permitted to continue also includes “work whose interruption would result in irretrievable or unrecoverable loss of data or samples, or loss of time for an ongoing experiment that could not be recovered within a reasonable period,” Vice President for Research Jill Pipher wrote in a statement to The Herald. 

Pipher added that “Brown is carefully reviewing, on a case-by-case basis, every request to continue critical work.”

In early March, Johnson’s lab began a new study on the relationship between temperature and plant production. Following the new restrictions, the laboratory-based components of the project will be put on hold. But he is grateful that the lab collected a data set a couple weeks ago that they can now analyze remotely.

“In a way projects don't really have beginnings and ends. There are always new things that you want to try in the lab,” Johnson said. Now that labs are being closed, “it's hard to sort of wrap your head around the idea that you can't do that.” 

The closure of the labs is also impacting research trainees, including undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, who cannot continue their work away from the lab bench. Undergraduate students were asked to leave campus by Tuesday evening, The Herald previously reported. 

Vaishnava had undergraduate students doing for-credit research in her lab. For the rest of the semester, she said they will have to instead concentrate on readings, discussions and designing future experiments. Graduate students’ timelines to collect data and finish their research papers may now have to shift, and postdoctoral students can no longer attend the workshops and conferences that were important parts of their education, Vaishnava said.

The interruption of experiments delays publication of their own findings which factors into researchers’ career promotions. But Vaishnava  hopes “since this is such a worldwide, global phenomenon, there would be a mindfulness about it.” 

Samuel Rasche GS, a second-year masters student in the Laboratory for Cognitive and Perceptual Learning and a visiting research fellow from the University of Amsterdam, has also had to pause his work because of necessary restrictions on human subjects research. His research depends on people who attend numerous sessions involving a series of complex tasks that they could not perform remotely on their own. 

Similar to Vaishnava’s lab, researchers working in the same lab as Rasche are practicing social distancing by not permitting more than one person to be in a room at the same time, Rasche said.

For now, Rasche plans to stay in Providence. The University of Amsterdam has not yet requested that he return home, but “a lot of other students and supervisors I know that are from abroad ... went back (home), so that kind of pressures me too to go back,” he said. 

“I just try to stay positive and productive,” Rasche said. “It’s a sad situation because I also met a lot of people here and literally everybody left. … It’s a big change.”

Sarah Berman ’20.5 said that the decision for research to shut down made the transition of leaving campus easier. “Honestly, if the lab had stayed open, I ... would have stayed.” If labs are able to reopen for student research during the semester, “I'm absolutely coming back,” she said. She is able to do some remote work at home on the project that will become her thesis in the fall. 

Researchers have also lost time needed to train students. “We have lost this overlap period of a couple of months that is critical for passing down skills and materials and samples” from graduating researchers to those still in the lab who would be taking over the projects, Vaishnava said.

With the global, national and state-wide situation surrounding COVID-19 rapidly changing, the current protocols are also subject to change. “The University will continue to monitor and re-evaluate the situation, issuing updates and guidance for researchers as often as necessary,” Pipher wrote. 

While the context of COVID-19 is unprecedented, EH and S has previously worked to safely close laboratories in the event that a professor left the University or in the case of renovation. This week they developed a set of guidelines for researchers to follow “to assist researchers in thinking about the steps to be taken to safely close the space temporarily.” 

COVID-19 “is a serious public health issue, and we all have to do our part. … As scientists, we should understand this more than anyone else why these steps are needed,” Vaishnava said. “It’s hard, but I think it’s something we need to do.”

“The health and safety of the research community is our top priority,” Pipher wrote.


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