Nathalie Becerra-Mora, a doctoral student in chemistry, is pictured late last year in the university’s Integrated Microscopy and Graphics Expertise Center, or IMAGE Center. (Photo by Russell Bailey)
March 30, 2020
Research continues at SIU as faculty make adjustments to health emergency
CARBONDALE, Ill. – When it comes to ongoing, high-level research, a health emergency such as COVID-19 can impede and threaten projects that are in progress.
At Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where research is a hallmark setting it apart from many other institutions, faculty and student researchers are finding innovative ways to continue their work.
Gary Kinsel, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and vice chancellor for research, said the university remains committed to fulfilling its role as a leading research institution, even during the ongoing medical emergency.
“Most research done at any given time is part of a much larger project with both short and long-term goals,” Kinsel said. “These projects address critical issues related to health, the environment, societal needs, energy availability and more. While researchers may have to adjust their focus during this time, all of these efforts will position them to re-engage with their research as soon as this crisis is past.”
Kinsel said a top priority is maintaining basic functions in labs with personnel and supplies.
“Beyond this, the situation remains quite fluid,” he said. “We continue to receive updates from the federal government and state funding agencies with respect to budgeting of funded projects, timelines for project completion, reporting requirements, etc., and we are adapting to these changes as they are communicated to us. We are also looking to support the community and the region by reaching out to Southern Illinois Healthcare with offers of equipment, personnel and personal protective equipment supplies.”
The state directive to stay at home to stem the spread of COVID-19 impacts every aspect research at SIU. In some cases, the effect is straightforward. Research facilities such as the Mass Spectrometry Facility can have limited operations. Mary Kinsel, associate scientist and director of the facility, said it will accept no samples from off-campus sources, while students working toward graduate degrees there are staying at home to read the literature, analyze data, and write up results.
“We also will be checking on our instruments to make sure no damage occurs during this period,” Mary Kinsel said. “We will try to respond to requests to analyze on-campus samples where possible, although samples requiring extensive processing and lengthy analysis times will have to wait until we return to normal operations.”
In other cases, researchers are not only moving courses on online instruction, but trying to creatively solve the challenges presented in their laboratories.
Across the SIU campus, faculty researchers report varying challenges to maintaining their research projects. From ensuring an ongoing supply of laboratory items to prohibited international and even local travel, however, challenges are largely being met with creative solutions, alternative approaches and new regulations. In some cases, plain old patience and positive thinking are playing a role, too.
Extra caution in medical labs
Keith Gagnon, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the SIU School of Medicine, said his labs have been reduced to only essential functions, with the number of student researchers inside limited to no more than five at a time.
“Usually, we have around 15 students in there doing work at any given time, and we’re very strict about enforcing all our safety rules,” Gagnon said, adding that all student researchers must wear N95 respirators along with their lab coats, gloves and eye protection, as well as observe social distancing protocols. “We’re keeping it down to only the essentials operations and maintenance, as the chancellor said.”
Gagnon’s research involves ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, as well as gene therapy approaches using CRISPR technology to improve its potential effectiveness and safety. To that end, Gagnon maintains several research grants from the National Institutes of Health, as well a privately sponsored research contract with a company.
Keeping work alive
One serious challenge he faces is keeping the limited quantity of special human cell lines viable during the limited operations. The cells are used to screen for potential therapies at the molecular level.
“Cells are like pets: You have to feed them and change them every day,” he said. “We’re freezing some of them, but that’s a risk as you don’t know if you can revive them. And some of our cell lines are derived from human patients, and you can’t purchase them or otherwise obtain them again if they’re lost.”
A lab that is shuttered or otherwise compromised project might also lead to losing his private research funding, which, along with the NIH grants, provides substantial support to his lab, its student workers and his research.
Recalibrating for the times
In the meantime, Gagnon is focusing his students’ classroom assignments on reading and writing scientific literature, which is always a major part of the process. All students, he emphasized, are not required to come to the lab, meaning the few who do come in are there by choice.
He worries what might happen if the medical emergency continues for a long period of time and is hoping funding agencies will be understanding and generous given its impact on research labs like his.
He’s also concerned about continued access to critical lab supplies.
“These are the sorts of things I’m worrying about. I’m afraid if we sort of limp along for months and we end up having to shutter labs what might happen to all those concerns,” he said. “But every major research institution is in the same situation. We may have an advantage being located away from a major metropolitan area.”
Travel restrictions cause issues
Across campus, anthropology Professor Roberto Barrios worries his latest anticipated trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands might be delayed or canceled by the ongoing emergency. Under contract to University of the Virgin Islands, Barrios is charged with drafting the five-year social section of the territory’s Hazard Mitigation and Community Resilience Plan. Doing so requires face-to-face interviews and observations, which will guide him in formulating a plan for protection and disaster recovery that fits with the local culture and social landscape.
Along with an advanced undergraduate student, Barrios has visited the territory twice this year; once in January and once in March. Then everything changed.
“Our last fieldwork visit in March was completed just as the virus was expanding to Europe,” Barrios said. “On the last day I was in the territory, the first case of COVID 19 was being announced on the Island of St. Croix. We were fortunate that we concluded this second round of fieldwork right before.”
Protecting vulnerable populations
The virus hit as the Virgin Islands’ population still reels from hurricanes Irma and Maria. That, coupled with the virtual absence of a health care infrastructure there, makes the population highly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, Barrios said. But the timing of their visit allowed the researcher to gather time-critical information concerning how the territory can absorb compound disasters, which are disasters that follow in close succession prior to recovery from the first.
“We have dozens of hours of recorded interviews to transcribe and analyze as well as sections of the plan to draft with our current data,” Barrios said. “So at the present time our work is not being negatively affected, and we are using the time allowed to us through the shelter-in-place order to work on the analysis and writing we are well-positioned to conduct.”
Barrios plans a third round of data-gathering this summer, although the unknown nature of the virus’ spread through populations is preventing specific plans at the moment. There’s also the major question of such travel inadvertently reigniting the pandemic in that area.
“Our biggest concern is when the shelter-in-place restrictions will actually be lifted and to make sure we are not carriers of the virus when we return,” Barrios said. “We prioritize the well-being of our interview respondents above all else and we want to make sure we do not play any role in infecting the people with whom we interact.”
Time will tell
Gary Kinsel said he agrees the duration of the stay-at-home orders is probably the biggest concern for researchers at SIU.
“While SIU absolutely supports this order as the best approach to slow the spread of the virus, it will present ever increasing challenges to the researchers on campus as the length of time that researchers must perform their work remotely increases,” he said.