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Inside look: Labs reopen with strict social distancing, as U. researchers begin ‘Phased Resumption’

<h6>Ans Nawaz for The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Ans Nawaz for The Daily Princetonian

The Phased Resumption of on-campus research is underway, and University researchers are starting to unfreeze cell lines, restart incubators, and remake buffers and media as they try to pick up the experiments where they left off.

“It’s been a total whirlwind,” said Jared Toettcher, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology. “You have to go back in, get everything set up again. Everything had been in more or less a deep freeze.”  

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University restricted research activities on campus to  “Essential Operations” in March. On June 17, following guidance from New Jersey’s government, the University announced it would shift to “Level 2: Phased Resumption.”

While still a step short of “Normal Operations,” this transition means many University faculty members, graduate researchers, and postdocs may return to their laboratories. 

In order to return to the lab, operations plans must be approved by the Office of the Dean for Research and department chairs, and individual researchers must complete a risk assessment questionnaire and mandatory online training, according to Dean for Research Pablo G. Debenedetti. With daily virtual COVID-19 symptom check-ins, routine disinfecting, and strict social distancing protocols, however, returning to lab work hardly means returning to normal.

Shutting down and scrapping progress

The University initially halted all non-essential research activities on March 21. To close down, researchers froze down cells in liquid nitrogen and downsized mouse colonies. Connor Jankowski GS, who works in the Rabinowitz lab, was in the middle of generating a cell line when the shutdown hit. 

“I pretty much had to scrap all of the things that were in progress,” Jankowski said. “Having to start over on a lot of that. It’s frustrating.” 

During essential operations, one to three members were designated per lab to perform critical maintenance, such as upkeep of animals or cell lines. Essential COVID-19-related research was also permitted. 

Nicole Aiello, a postdoctoral researcher in Molecular Biology, was one of the two designated personnel for the Kang lab, which studies cancer and uses mouse models of tumor formation. Aiello came in a few times a week to take care of the mice, keep nitrogen tanks full, and generally make sure that the lab was okay. 

“It gave me a little bit of structure to my week,” Aiello said. “I knew I would always go in on certain days. It felt like a good way to contribute to the lab while there wasn’t much going on.” 

While out of the lab, many researchers worked on writing grants, preparing manuscripts, and reading papers, making the most out of their time away. Although the pandemic has less severely disrupted theoretical and computational work, experimental researchers have faced difficulties. 

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“Unless you are somebody that had a project that was literally 100 percent computational,” Jankowski said, “I think it’s very unlikely that there’s anybody out there that’s going to say: ‘this hasn’t impacted my overall research progress.’” 

Despite these concerns, however, Debenedetti feels that research at the University can continue to thrive, citing strong rates of proposal submissions, grant awards, and other indicators of research activity. “I am very pleased with the way that our research community has handled these very difficult times,” he said. 

‘Phased Resumption’ planning in practice

The research community had been planning for weeks before the University authorized resumption. To prepare for a safe and smooth transition, detailed plans for the Phased Resumption of On-Campus Research were published May 28. 

“The purpose of the plan was to arrive at a safe resumption, in a safe, orderly, and efficient manner,” said Debenedetti, the chair of the Committee on Phased Resumption of On-Campus Research, who published the plan. “This is not something you can do without very careful planning.”  

Debenedetti, along with the other members of the Committee — which include Associate Dean for Research Karla Ewalt, Chemistry and Molecular Biology department chairs Tom Muir and Bonnie Bassler, respectively, and Director of Environmental Health and Safety Robin Izzo — held virtual town halls, focus groups, open houses, and other events to discuss reopening plans with all stakeholders. 

The plan outlines four levels of research operations: full suspension, essential operations, Phased Resumption, and normal operations. The University had been in the essential operations phase since March 21. To move to Phased Resumption, lab heads were asked to submit detailed plans, called Research Lab Operations Plans, or RLOPs, to be approved by the Office of the Dean for Research and department chairs. 

Department chairs were also asked to submit similar Research Infrastructure Plans for approval. Both types of plans included instructions for enforcing social distancing, maintaining hygiene, and limiting density in accordance with U. policy and local, state, and national directives. 

Some researchers who spoke with the ‘Prince’ said these plans made them feel safe returning to work. 

“I think that the reopening plans have been really well thought out,” Aiello said. “I think they will go pretty far in protecting people who work in the lab.” 

At the time that plans were submitted, a decision had not yet been made to reopen research laboratories. The time of reopening, the plan for Phased Resumption stated, “will be determined by the University’s leadership, taking into account the relevant local, state, and national public health directives regarding stay-at-home and social distancing.” 

The final decision to reopen followed Stage Two reopening in the state of New Jersey, which began on June 15, with “the leadership of the University, taking into account the Governor’s Executive Order,” Debenedetti said. 

Key considerations in the Phased Resumption plans included health and safety, hygiene, transparency, flexibility, complexity, and no coercion — the last category meaning that employees or graduate students who felt unsafe would not be forced to return to work. 

Another key consideration was “uncoupling,” which entailed separating on-campus research from on-campus undergraduate instruction and senior thesis research. Under Phased Resumption, undergraduates are not permitted in laboratories. 

Returning to research does not, however, mean that everything returns to normal. 

Once in the laboratory, routine disinfection, hand-washing, and personal hygiene must be practiced, and strict social distancing must be maintained — approximately 160 square feet of space per researcher, according to the plan for Phased Resumption. 

To maintain social distancing, labs have limited the number of members who can come in at any one time. Some labs have divided the days into shifts — with some members coming in the morning and others in the afternoon. Others have created calendars where individuals can sign up for designated time slots. 

“We’re not going back to research the way we were doing research in February,” Toettcher said. “We’re working at more or less 30 percent capacity.” 

Toettcher’s lab has divided the day into three six-to-seven-hour shifts. This means that some members of the lab are coming in around 10 p.m. and leaving at 5 a.m. Jankowski’s lab also has night shifts, which he plans to utilize. 

“I personally will probably be taking a lot of those times in those odd hours,” he said, leaving more room for those who commute from far away or have families to look after. “It’s reasonable to give way to those people and let them take the times that they’re constrained to.” 

Experiments will take time to resume, especially those that involve animals. Although cell lines can regrow rather quickly, a mouse colony can take more than a month. And with fewer animals, scientists need to limit the experiments they conduct, prioritizing those that are most important. 

“It’s going to take some time to get things moving again,” Aiello said. “We have to be really thoughtful with what kind of experiments we’re going to run.” 

She is also concerned that a resurgence of the virus in New Jersey could catalyze another shutdown. 

“We can’t just charge back into it full speed. We need to put a little more thought into what experiments are absolutely necessary.” 

While they are back in the lab, researchers must take additional precautions to prevent the virus’ spread. 

Based on guidance from the Committee on Phased Resumption, all researchers must complete an online training, called Safe Practices for the Resumption of Research, before returning. They must also submit a Risk Assessment Questionnaire, to be reviewed by University Health Services, to determine if it safe for them to resume in-person activities. 

Each day, before coming to work, every researcher must submit a self-evaluation and report of possible COVID-19 symptoms via a self-screening app in TigerSafe. 

Face masks are now mandatory, according to the plan for Phased Resumption. On campus, all individuals must wear a face covering at all times, except when alone in a room or a vehicle. Outside the lab, a reusable face covering is encouraged. Once a researcher enters the lab, they must exchange the reusable covering for a disposable one that is tossed at the end of the day. Lab coats are to be laundered weekly by a professional service. 

Until September, the Office of Environmental Health and Safety will provide disposable face coverings, hand sanitizer, N95 respirators, and disposable gowns as needed — a service for which Toettcher, as a principal investigator of his lab, is grateful. To ensure a steady supply, the University purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) in bulk, which will be distributed upon request to laboratories. EHS delivered an initial batch of disposable masks for labs to use for the first 10 days of opening. 

“There is the issue of making sure everybody has gloves, and masks, and lab coats. There’s a big increase in the level of protection,” Toettcher said. When his lab ordered PPE, it arrived within 24 hours. “It was relatively well-organized, all things considered.” 

Researchers anticipate challenges 

Maintaining a safe distance and wearing PPE are not foreign concepts to most who work in laboratories. The most significant changes may be what happens during breaks or meetings, when researchers typically gather to discuss work — or just to unwind. 

According to the plan for Phased Resumption, in-person meetings must be limited to 10 or fewer people, with social distancing in place. Meals and breaks should take place in open, common areas or outdoors, where social distancing can be practiced. 

The plan encourages researchers to take advantage of open or unused space to restructure work areas and allow for greater distances between desks. Labs have taped floors and placed other visual cues to help provide friendly reminders to maintain space. For most, lab meetings, journal clubs, and other such gatherings will still be held virtually. Remote work is encouraged whenever possible.

Concerns linger about research activities that are difficult to conduct while socially distant.

For example, learning important lab techniques often requires careful, detailed observation and hands-on practice. Navigating training procedures will be particularly important if and when undergraduate researchers return to campus, and when graduate students begin rotations. 

“I don’t know how you would train a new person if you can’t be within six feet of them. I think that’s going to be a really big challenge,” Aiello said. “You need to be able to see what someone is doing up close to learn.” 

Jankowski was supposed to be trained in an animal injection technique before the pandemic, and is not sure how he will learn under social distancing guidelines. 

“You really need to be able to practice and be shown in person,” Jankowski said. “Being able to learn from a video won’t be enough. Learning from somebody else at a distance doesn’t really work.” 

While labs are reopened and researchers can technically resume their work, practically speaking, there are still significant barriers.

“The one thing that is not at all solved in terms of being able to conduct research is anything related to childcare,” Toettcher said.  

“What if you’re a postdoc and you have a newborn child? How do you work at the pace that you need to on a night shift and also be able to take care of a family when there’s no school, there’s no daycare, there’s no childcare of any sort, there’s no summer school,” said Toettcher, who himself has a two-year-old and a six-year-old. 

Parenting during a pandemic has been challenging, but he is more concerned about “non-traditional” trainees who have to juggle family responsibilities with their research. 

“We need to be cautious that it doesn’t lead to huge inequities in outcomes five years from now,” Toettcher added, “when everybody who has a family or was a primary parent couldn’t work at the same pace as people who weren’t in that position.”

Debenedetti said he has not yet heard of safety concerns from department chairs, but the plan for Phased Resumption also lays out mechanisms for unsafe behavior or working conditions. The first step, the plan states, is to advise the individual “in a congenial and caring manner.” If that does not result in change, a report can be lodged with a lab manager, department head, or other advisor. Anonymous reports can also be made on EthicsPoint, a 24/7 independent hotline service for “good faith concerns.” 

The Committee will continue to meet twice a week to discuss possible concerns that arise in the coming months. 

“I am confident of our planning but want to know what is working well and what is not working well,” Debenedetti said. 

Although the pandemic has been a significant setback for some, Debenedetti said that overall, researchers have “responded to the challenge in an extraordinarily positive way.” 

Jankowski, at least, sees a silver lining. 

“If there’s one positive outcome of not being allowed to do any benchwork,” he said, it is that it has “forced you to take the time to think through experiments, gather the relevant literature and design better experiments.” 

Along with reading and writing, many researchers have spent their time in lockdown brainstorming new avenues of exploration and doing deep dives in the literature.

“I’ve come out of it with a lot of ideas that might not have been as apparent to me if I had just been able to continue along the direction I was going before we shut down,” Jankowski added. 

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