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Saturday May 21st

Here's what you need to know about UNC's ramp-up of research operations

Karly Schmidt-Simard, a PhD candidate in Erika Wise's dendrochronology lab, drills a tree core sample to prepare it for chemical analysis on August 29, 2019. Photo courtesy of Megan May/UNC Research
Buy Photos Karly Schmidt-Simard, a PhD candidate in Erika Wise's dendrochronology lab, drills a tree core sample to prepare it for chemical analysis on August 29, 2019. Photo courtesy of Megan May/UNC Research

UNC's research labs are increasing on-campus operations starting Monday, Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research, announced on May 23. 

Magnuson said in a message addressed to the UNC Research Community that as of May 23 the University’s research labs and facilities were operating at approximately one-quarter capacity.

“In the initial phase of ramp-up beginning June 1, we will increase operations in UNC’s research labs, clinics and other facilities up to 50 percent of their on-site capacity," Magnuson said.

Prior to June 1, research lab operations had been limited to approved “critical research activities,” in the hopes of minimizing the spread of COVID-19. 

"The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) will phase in the return of research faculty, staff and trainees to campus over time in a coordinated process that ensures appropriate physical distancing and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies to protect against COVID-19," Magnuson said. 

As research operations increase, the OVCR plans to monitor the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and will potentially implement tighter restrictions and reduce staffing if localized outbreaks occur.

Dr. Rick Stouffer, co-director of the UNC McAllister Heart Institute, said the University’s research operations can be separated into three divisions: clinical labs with patient contact, clinical labs without patient contact and basic labs. 

Stouffer said clinical lab research involves both direct and non-direct patient contact. Analyzing medical records to determine the cause of heart attacks would be an example of non-patient contact research, whereas testing the effectiveness of a new drug through clinical trial would be an example of patient contact research. 

Basic labs do not involve human research and are based on “the fundamental level of discovery” in understanding how cells and animals work, said Stouffer.

Stouffer said on-campus basic lab research and patient contact clinical lab research were put on hold in mid-March to reduce human interaction and transmission of COVID-19. These labs have had to work remotely from home to continue research operations, said Stouffer.

Victoria Bautch, co-director of the UNC McAllister Heart Institute, is the principal investigator at the UNC Bautch lab. The lab’s research primarily focuses on blood vessel formation and pattern during development.

“My lab has focused on work that can be done remotely during the shutdown — for example, the graduate students have started to work on the introduction to their thesis, we have completed and submitted several research papers and grants and we have analyzed data and planned new experiments," said Bautch in an email statement.

Jonathan C. Schisler, principal investigator of the UNC Schisler Lab and assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine's Department of Pharmacology, said since research operations were reduced in March, his group of on-campus researchers went from 27 to three people.

“It was basically just trying to keep the operation running so that when we come back, we don't have to start everything over from scratch,” said Schisler. “We can still do a lot of computational biology without having to physically be on campus.”

Arjun Putcha, a rising junior majoring in biomedical engineering, said he has been working in the Schisler Lab since the summer of 2019. He is working remotely in Charlotte, but plans to return to the on-campus lab in late June.

“Now 100 percent of my time is data analytics, which is actually helpful in this case, because we were essentially almost done with the physical testing of mice by the time COVID-19 came around,” said Putcha.

When Putcha returns to the lab on campus, he will have to choose a “shift” to work from either 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

This does not mean that researchers will have to work an eight-hour shift, but rather, it will be a window of opportunity for them to do work in the lab, Schisler said.

Stouffer said measures like these have been put in place to accommodate for the ramp-up to 50 percent on-site capacity in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“I think it's gonna give everyone a chance to figure out what works and what doesn't work,” said Schisler in response to the phased return of researchers to campus. “It's possible that this doesn't work out that well and we will have to rethink what we're doing.”

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