With the University of Virginia practicing physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are developing creative ways to continue their investigations remotely and with minimal activity in their labs. Some of these studies involve seeking a vaccine and cure for the disease.
Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian, the University’s vice president for research, is responsible for the University’s strategy for advancing and executing – and now protecting – its research enterprise, through a strong partnership with Provost Liz Magill and the deans of UVA’s 12 schools and multiple research centers.
Via email, he recently fielded some questions on the University’s efforts to continue its research programs during this challenging time.
Q. How is research being conducted at UVA during the novel coronavirus outbreak?
A. Our first priority is the safety of our faculty, staff and students. With that in mind, we announced that lab/research teams would only be pursuing key activities on Grounds by the close of business on March 24.
Most labs have identified the key research that they need to pursue, and the key infrastructure that they need to maintain during this time, and have implemented a plan to staff the activities as needed by designating faculty, staff and postdocs as essential to come in and continue key activities. Research and related activities that can be performed remotely, especially by graduate research assistants, have been moved off-Grounds.
We’re asking laboratory and research team members to continue their work in other areas (such as proposal writing, paper writing, reviewing papers, report writing, data analysis and similar activities) that will help meet their team’s long-term goals.
Research involving significant design, modeling and simulation are especially amenable to remote work. Our high-performance computing is fully functional and continues to support computation research.
As far as meeting with fellow researchers and students, we are using various forms of videoconferencing effectively, like Zoom, to maintain social distancing.
If a project involves human subjects, we’ve asked researchers to follow the guidelines we’ve laid out to both protect their subjects and themselves from infection. We’ve posted guidelines, FAQs, contact information and other information on our website.
We also asked researchers to delay initiating any research activities that will require an increase in the number of personnel required to in their labs on Grounds, but do all they can to maintain key activities while not compromising safety.
We are all learning to function with new modes of communication, new rules of personal interaction and a heightened awareness of personal safety and that of fellow researchers. Our research community has demonstrated that they are remarkably creative and adaptable as we work to protect the well-being of the community.
Q. Are all labs shutting down at UVA?
A. No. We’re asking principal investigators and research leads to identify key research experiments/activities that are at a critical phase, meaning that discontinuing or delaying them would cause a major or irreversible loss in project momentum (such as work involving critical cell lines and animals). This high-priority work should be a limited set of the current laboratory bench-based experimentation that is already ongoing, provided that the key personnel needed for the project are able to come in and work, while ensuring social distancing, personal hygiene and following rigorous disinfection practices. The latest information and updates are on our site.
We are asking researchers to exercise judgment in determining what is key research in their laboratory, and how they can continue with minimal key personnel required in the laboratory. Researchers are finding innovative ways to protect special strains of laboratory animals that cannot be replaced, including freezing embryos and sperm, and collecting samples and storing them for future analysis. Others are modifying their work schedules to load samples into analytical instruments and control the experiment remotely. The mode of research has morphed to address the pandemic, but researchers are finding creative ways to pursue their key research.
Q. What is the University doing to protect research workers from illness?
A. Labs must follow both social distancing and rigorous disinfection practices. To de-densify the laboratory setting, we’re asking principal investigators to focus only on key research, maintain their research infrastructure that cannot be shut down, and move any work that can be done off-Grounds. We have also provided guidance on who can be listed as designated employees and are required to be on Grounds labs. We clarified the role of graduate students as students first, and have taken measures to limit their exposure and risk to themselves, fellow workers and the community.
We believe we have achieved the overall objective of doing our part to not contribute to the spread of the pandemic and to keep our employees safe.
Q. What does Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent “stay-at-home” executive order mean for our researchers and labs?
A. If researchers have completely streamlined their research to key activities that are supportable by designated faculty, staff and postdocs, then they may continue their work. We just require that everyone takes care to follow the social distancing, personal hygiene and cleaning procedures I mentioned earlier. We’ve also posted guidance about conducting human subject research remotely, without face-to-face contact with others.
Q. What’s happening with funding and grants?
A. Our Office of Sponsored Programs staff is fully functional and working remotely to make sure researchers are able to continue to apply and get funding for research projects. We have all the latest information on our site about grants from government agencies, and changing deadlines, and flexibilities offered to researchers as a result of the pandemic.
There is grant funding available for COVID-19 research, and we’re helping to connect faculty to those opportunities. At the present time, we do not see any trends in our proposal submission, awards received and expenditures, as it is too early to tell. With the number of targeted solicitations that are coming out relevant to COVID-19, and with our faculty expertise in infectious diseases, we expect to see an active proposal submission period in the coming weeks and months. We also are closely monitoring the recently passed coronavirus stimulus package and working with organizations like the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Association of American Universities to make our case for research.
We’re interested in hearing from researchers about their efforts to keep their key research going and about the challenges they’re facing so we can inform our state and federal lawmakers. We’re asking researchers to email VPR with their updates.
Q. What research is UVA doing directly related to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19?
A. UVA researchers are working hard to find a vaccine and a cure for COVID-19, as well as creating new ways to test for it. We are doing everything we can to help them be successful while protecting our faculty, staff and students from COVID-19 infection.
Here is a list of some of the research and projects on Grounds that directly address COVID-19.