‘It Will Not Be Easy.' As Labs Begin to Reopen, Enormous Challenges Remain

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. United States, 2020.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. United States, 2020.

Russell Hopcroft spent much of April hunkered down in Fairbanks, Alaska, plotting how he’d return to research once the state ended its lockdown. Late last week, he finally got the call—or rather, the Zoom: The National Science Foundation was granting Hopcroft, a biological oceanographer at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, permission to set sail on his ecological expedition to collect data on critical Gulf of Alaska fishing grounds.

But there would be some big caveats. When the vessel left port yesterday, it held only three researchers, instead of the typical 24. The voyage is limited to 1 week, not two, meaning the scientists will not be able to conduct their usual surveys of birds and marine mammals. And everyone on board is wearing face masks and physical distancing, not a simple task for crews accustomed to working hands-on in close quarters.

“It will not be easy,” Hopcroft says. Still, he says, “I’m considering us pretty lucky—many scientists have not been so lucky.”

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on research around the globe, shuttering laboratoriesaborting field projects, and costing scientists months—if not years—of work. Even as labs contemplate reopening—if and when federal and local governments ease lockdown restrictions—the challenges will be enormous. Most will have to operate with just a few individuals at a time, working in shifts. All large gatherings, including lab meetings and lectures, are likely to be prohibited. And there will be stark differences in strategy between fields—and sometimes even within the same building. At the same time, many institutions are still trying to figure out how and whether to test employees for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing the current pandemic, and what to do if infections resurge.

“We’re not just going to be able to turn on the lights, walk in the door, and go back to normal,” says Edward Hawrot, a senior associate dean at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who is helping guide his institution’s reopening efforts.  

A Tricky Task

One of the biggest challenges labs face is how to keep their members physically distanced to limit any potential spread of SARS-CoV-2. Microbiologist Carolyn Coyne runs a 10-person lab at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies how viruses infect the intestines and placenta. When her lab reopens—possibly mid-May—only half of her personnel will be allowed to work at any one time. So she’s creating a sign-up calendar, with lab benches, desks, and sterile workspaces marked in different colors. “Shifts will be limited to 4 hours,” Coyne tells ScienceInsider, and everyone will wear masks.

An additional complication is that Coyne’s laboratory bleeds into others as part of an “open lab” layout. So, “We not only must consider physical distancing within our own lab,” she says, “but likely with the labs surrounding ours.”

Neuroscientist Christian Haass was able to reopen his neurodegenerative research lab at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in late April. He oversees about 120 people, but only one-quarter will be able to work at any one time. His researchers have been able to get their experiments done by “working on weekends and late into the night,” he says. Making matters trickier is that the German government owns his half of the building, whereas the university owns the other half, meaning different safety rules. “The most extreme example,” he says, “is that we have to wear face masks, while others do not, even though we use a lot of facilities together.”

Working with other researchers isn’t the only challenge—some scientists also have to figure out how to protect human subjects who have volunteered to be part of their studies. Audrey Duarte, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, investigates the aging brain, which involves conducting electroencephalogram and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on older adults—a population particularly susceptible to the coronavirus. She says she’s still waiting for instruction from her university about when and how she resume these studies. “When we can, a big question for us: Should we? And are we even going to be able to recruit people?” she says. “I’ll never be able to say something like, ‘I can assure you that there’s no risk for you coming in.’”

Jennifer Blackford, a developmental psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has similar concerns about the volunteers in her studies—one of which focuses on anxiety in children. “We’re up in kids’ faces, putting electrodes on their body,” she says. The city allowed biological labs to open at half capacity last week, but higher risk research like hers remains on hold. The medical center, where Blackford’s lab is housed, has already instituted temperature screening at every entrance. Still, Blackford notes that anxious children often have an anxious parent, so “We may end up in a situation where our families don’t want to come in.”

Silver Linings

Some labs will have to adjust less than others. Archaeogeneticist Johannes Krause, the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, oversees a 120-person department, where researchers extract DNA from ancient human remains. An entire floor of the institute is a clean room, and scientists must don masks and full bodysuits to avoid contaminating their samples. “My sister is a schoolteacher, and she thinks wearing a mask is the worst thing ever,” laughs Krause, whose lab reopened last week. “I’ve been doing it for 7 years.”

Other labs have had a different kind of practice. John O’Meara, chief scientist at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, says once restrictions are lifted, a small crew will be allowed to operate the two telescopes at the top of the island’s dormant volcano. Developing and maintaining instruments will be limited, and one collaborator on the mainland has even had to test out new instruments in his own garage. But O’Meara says his crew is used to disruptions. Last year, protests against the planned nearby Thirty Meter Telescope closed the observatory for several weeks. “We’ve had an unplanned dry run for this,” he says.

Welcome Back?

Still, even as many labs adjust, some researchers will struggle to return. Ainara Sistiaga was nearly finished with her postdoctoral work studying ancient feces at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark when the pandemic hit. After several weeks at home, the dean granted her permission to resume her work. But because of the severe staffing restrictions the university had imposed—“In some cases, there could be as few as one person per building,” Sistiaga says—she wouldn’t have the supervision she needed to probe her delicate samples, some of which are more than 50,000 years old. She’s hoping new rules set to be announced in a few days will allow more people in. “Until then,” she says, “I’m a bit stranded here.”

To prevent early-career researchers from being professionally derailed by the pandemic, many institutions are extending tenure clocks, providing additional funding for grad students, and creating new positions that would allow postdocs to stay longer. But some of these scientists will still be reluctant—or unable—to return.

Alex Kolodkin, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says one of his students has complex rheumatoid arthritis, putting him at high risk for complications from the virus. Other young researchers may need to continue to stay home to care for children or sick family members, Kolodkin says. And Ulrike Diebold, a physicist at the Vienna Institute of Technology, says he has a Serbian student close to finishing his dissertation who, because of pandemic travel restrictions, is unable to make it back to Austria. A different student, from Iran, was supposed to start last month. “He’s stuck there, too, who knows how long.”

An Uncertain Future

Even when research does resume, there’s no guarantee it won’t shut down again, especially if the virus resurges. Janet Hering, director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dübendorf, says her staff of about 500 people began a stepwise return to work this week. One of the institute’s mandates: “Don’t start new projects, and don’t start projects that cannot be stopped again on short notice.”

Still, she hopes that regardless of the strategies scientists follow to return to research, they’ll take some important lessons away from the shutdown. “I do hope that the COVID-19 experience would prompt reflections on some of our past habits, including intensive travel, especially for conferences,” she says. Krause concurs. “Staying at home would save a lot of time, money, and pollution,” he says. “The pandemic has sped up our thinking about this.”

Other changes may also stick. Several researchers say the Zoom-ification of their world has led to dramatic increases in the number of researchers attending everything from lab meetings to thesis defenses—leading to unprecedented levels of collaboration, and perhaps better science. “When we were in the building, only about 30 to 40 people would attend our weekly lab meeting,” Krause says. “Now, we have twice that number, and all of our group leaders are present. That has never happened before.” The pandemic, he says, “will change the way we organize our day, and even how we communicate.”

Sometime this month, the Association of American Universities hopes to provide its member institutions with issues they should consider as they move to restart research on their campuses. “It’s generally agreed that research will be the first thing brought back … and will be a precursor to bringing students back and restarting other programs,” says Tobin Smith, the organization’s vice president for policy.

Whatever happens, Sistiaga hopes scientific leaders will think beyond the current crisis. “My main concern is not the short term of the pandemic,” she says. “It’s the long term of how my generation is going to fare in this new world.”

With reporting by Daniel Clery, Elizabeth Pennisi, Kelly Servick, and John Travis.


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