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Student, faculty researchers adapt to remote work, limited lab capacity

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, human biology major Ciauna Tran ’21 was working in professor Craig Heller’s human physiology lab on a research project for the Human Biology Honors Program about mitigating perioperative hypothermia. After proposing the project in the winter, she had spent time preparing and adjusting her procedures in order to most effectively measure her results. When it became clear that this spring would not be a normal one, however, Tran said she “had to reconsider if I wanted to continue with this project with the uncertainty that I might not be in the lab for a very long time.”

Tran, who ultimately decided to suspend her research, said “it’s hard specifically with this project to do it remotely because we test on human subjects.” The need for human subjects is just one of many obstacles students and faculty are facing as they navigate scientific research during the pandemic.

The shelter-in-place order issued by Santa Clara County on March 17 marked the start of Stage 0 of Stanford Research, during which researchers were only permitted to perform “Essential Research Functions,” including actions necessary to “complete our shut-down procedures, carry out maintenance activities, conduct certain kinds of clinical research, or conduct COVID-19 research that could mitigate the spread of the pandemic,” according to Stanford’s Research Recovery Handbook. As of May 11, researchers were allowed to resume “Minimum Basic Research Operations,” which include work that “maintains the value of research inventory and samples” or that “enables researchers to work from remote locations to the fullest extent possible,” the Handbook states.

Stage 1, which began on June 1, allowed for the continuation of any research activities that were allowed during Stage 1, as well as any measures necessary to prepare labs for Stage 2.

Since Stanford entered Stage 2 on June 22, more researchers have been allowed to return to campus to conduct “essential on-campus research functions” that they cannot perform remotely due to needs for specialized equipment. At this time, however, neither undergraduate students nor researchers working on theoretical or computational projects are permitted to return to their labs. Over time, principal investigators (PIs) on different projects will be able to increase on-site personnel if their academic units approve; however, they must follow Stanford’s general guidelines and cannot exceed the limit of one person per 250 square feet of lab space. Additionally, Santa Clara County guidance states that total building occupancy cannot exceed 300 square feet per person based on gross square footage.

Biomedical computation major Raymond Yin ’22 told The Daily that one of the most challenging aspects of limited lab access is the incredible difficulty of performing prolonged experiments, such as those that require researchers to maintain cells over time. Yin is also in the Bio-X Undergraduate Summer Research Program (Bio-X USRP), which gives undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct full-time lab research in the biosciences during the summer quarter. With the restrictions on lab access, students in this program had to rethink their projects and come up with research that they could do remotely. 

“There’s a lot of creative ways that people have found to transition their research projects into online projects, but still bordering on something that they are interested in learning more about,” Yin said. 

Although he initially planned on exploring a new drug treatment for acute myeloid leukemia under the guidance of Tian Zhang, a clinical fellow in professor Ravi Majeti’s lab, Yin is now examining the clinical records of patients with this disease and trying to draw conclusions about the best treatment patterns for elderly patients.

Like the students in Bio-X USRP, geological sciences professor Jonathan Payne and his students have found ways to remain productive without access to their lab. 

Most students “are not being slowed down terribly much just by the restriction of access to campus,” said Payne, whose lab group does “a combination of statistical analyses, geochemical analyses and modeling, as well as field based studies.” 

Since March, “the balance of the work has certainly shifted over toward the modeling and statistics,” Payne continued. 

Even so, the ability to work without lab equipment will “only last so long. At a certain point, we do need to be in the lab, and we do need to be in the field,” he said, especially for projects that involve “measuring the chemical properties of samples and looking at samples through the microscopes.”

In addition to lab resources, much of Payne’s research involves international field work, which he said is “difficult, if not impossible” right now. According to the Research Recovery Handbook, off-campus field research requires “approval by the department and cognizant Dean” with input from the Field Research division of the Research Continuity Policy Group, a set of associated working groups that advise the Academic Policy Group on how to most safely resume research.

The Field Research working group, which is chaired by Payne, has “reviewed the safety plans for a number of field research projects, and I think that a number of those will go forward,” Payne said, though he noted that permission is dependent on “what the situation is on the ground where they want to work.” In viewing these proposals, the group is “looking to balance the various aspects of the research in terms of not just ‘what’s being done?’ but ‘what’s the level of urgency for getting the work done now?’”

This case-by-case approach is not limited to field work, however; the University is now allowing research groups to request approval from their departments to meet outdoors. Although these gatherings are limited to four people, and those involved must undergo training in advance and follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, this new policy allows for more collaboration among researchers, which is a key element of the research process. Yin said that one of the primary disadvantages of not being in the lab is not having all of the researchers in the same space, as “a lot of the communication has to go on in [messaging app] Slack instead of going on between benches in the lab, which kind of hinders the overall progress, because a lot of these projects are highly collaborative between different labs and between different members of each lab as well.”

Although these opportunities for in-person meetings will facilitate the return to lab research, most students and faculty are still not permitted to meet face to face. One benefit among all of the setbacks caused by COVID-19, however, is that undergraduates, graduate students and professors are finding ways to connect virtually for both lab work and science coursework.

“Being stretched beyond your comfort zone is often a good thing in the long run,” Payne said. “People [instructors] are adapting… I think it [the pandemic] is rapidly accelerating our interest in and our ability to deliver things like virtual field trips since we can’t take people into the field directly. In the long run, there will be some benefits that come from this. I do think, though, that the vast, vast majority of us, given the safe option of going back… would prefer that.”

Contact Anna Goldman at anna.r.goldman ‘at’ gmail.com.

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