Researchers Return to Campus Laboratories
Four months after WPI restricted nearly all campus access—closing labs and sending researchers home—because of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are carefully returning to their labs.
A total of 90 principal investigators have received approval to re-start on-campus operations, and about 15 other investigators are seeking approval to return.
“It feels amazing. We always want to be in the lab going at full speed,” says Amity Manning, assistant professor of biology and biotechnology. “I’m fortunate that when we had to leave our lab this spring, we had quite a bit of data to analyze over the months we were working remotely. We had manuscripts to write. But this is good timing for us to start getting back in the lab and start making progress and generating data again.”
The return is taking place under tightly controlled conditions and in alignment with state and federal public health guidelines. WPI provided detailed guidelines for a phased re-opening in May and has required researchers to develop their own lab-specific operating plans built around social distancing, face coverings, scrupulous cleaning, and less in-person contact.
Lab-specific plans are reviewed by department heads, the provost’s office, an environmental health and safety official, associate deans, and the Campus Emergency Response Team (CERT) that helps principal investigators adjust their plans as needed. Researchers with the most critical need for laboratory access were considered first.
The process is thoughtful and pushes researchers to create plans that are safe, implementable, and specifically suited to their individual labs, says Bogdan Vernescu, vice provost for research.
“We decided early on that we would issue guidelines but we wouldn’t dictate plans,” Vernescu says. “Some principal investigators have more researchers in their groups than others. We needed them to come up with very specific plans for their particular lab groups.”
Those plans include a range of measures. Some researchers are staggering shifts in labs to limit colleagues’ contact with one another, for example, or spacing lab staff across wider areas to limit contact.
For most labs, the number of researchers allowed back in, even in staggered shifts, is limited. Manning, whose lab focuses on cancer biology, chose to continue to work remotely to allow other members of her research team to get back into the lab.
“As much as I miss the lab, I don’t have to be physically present there right now,” she says. “I have time at home to think about what experiments I want to do, to analyze the data, and write papers and grant proposals. Some students, though, are at the point where they’re making good progress. When we strategized who was getting lab time, we took that into consideration. This is helping the students.”
Faculty and staff across departments coordinated activities to open and operate buildings, too. Facilities staff members have been busy preparing buildings to re-open, and Information Technology Services workers managed key-card access for those approved to return.
At the Gateway Park campus, department heads of biomedical engineering, physics, chemical engineering, biology and biotechnology, and chemistry and biochemistry worked together to develop protocols for returning to the 50 and 60 Prescott Street buildings. Measures include marking floors with directions for foot traffic.
For Haichong (Kai) Zhang, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and robotics engineering, it’s a relief to be back in the lab, working on funded research and collecting new experimental data that he can use to go after new research grants. And having guidelines about how to safely work in the labs is making the return easier.
“We’re definitely re-energized,” says Zhang, who is working on NIH-funded research to build a robotic system to find and monitor prostate cancer. “Having the guidelines makes it clear what is acceptable and what should be still avoided. For myself and my students in the lab, if we don’t need to be in the lab, we work from home. And we are wearing protective material and are sensitive to the need to be careful. We are pleased that we can find the balance between being on campus and working at home.”
Eric Young, assistant professor of chemical engineering, who also is continuing to work from home so more of his students can be present in his lab, said they are at about 80% of their normal research productivity.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to get to 100%, but we’ll be able to do a lot of work,” says Young, who focuses much of his research on the genetic engineering of bacteria, yeast, and fungi. “I’m always eager to work faster. That’s just who I am. It’s just exciting to get back to work and back to science.”
WPI researchers have strong incentives to return to their campus labs.
“They’re eager to get into their labs because they want to do their research and because they’re competing with groups at other universities,” Vernescu says. “They don’t want to waste time. Another challenge is that we have contracts, and if we don’t do the work, we can’t get paid.”
Although re-opening is well under way, Vernescu cautions that researchers are encouraged to conduct meetings, analyze data, and handle other tasks outside the lab whenever possible.
“We are opening work that needs to be done in labs,” he says. “Everything that doesn’t need to be in the lab is not allowed for now.”
-By Lisa Eckelbecker and Sharon Gaudin