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A year into the pandemic, research goes on — but not without changes

Illustrated by Yifei Zhang

By Nicole Lhuillier     3/30/21 10:03pm

After doing a computational chemistry project remotely while campus access was limited last summer, Will Rice College junior Hallie Trial returned to campus lab work in August. At the Ball Lab, where she investigates the synthesis of boronic acids and water, Trial is masked, physically distanced from fellow researchers and, sometimes, reusing gloves — a practice not normally recommended, she said, but necessitated by pandemic shortages of personal protective equipment.

Trial is not alone. At Rice, research takes many forms, and that has remained true throughout the many changes impelled by the pandemic. Over the past year, students and faculty alike have had to adapt their research to comply with pandemic restrictions. The Thresher spoke with researchers to gauge what their work has been like in the COVID-19 era.

The current state of research

Currently, Research Stage 3 is in effect. On-campus research activity following Rice’s pandemic regulations is permitted without any special permission required, according to the Feb. 26 guidelines from the university.

Vice Provost for Research Yousif Shamoo and Associate Dean of Research at the Wiess School of Natural Sciences George Phillips said faculty members can decide individually how best to conduct their research and manage their teams amid the public health measures, which have changed over time. All the research buildings are currently open at full capacity, according to Shamoo. The Bioscience Research Collaborative, a hub of science and social research, is largely an in-person experience, Shamoo said.

“In my own laboratory, all my students are back, doing their work,” Shamoo, a biosciences professor, said. “Some folks are still online, obviously, and those folks who are online, they can’t come in and pipette things. That’s just the nature of the business.”

At the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, most of the research is being done in person, according to Phillips, a chemistry and biochemistry professor and principal investigator at the Phillips Lab. Phillips said some laboratory groups work in shifts in order to follow prescribed room capacity.

“Every department has people that are experimental and depend on doing things with their hands in the lab [as well as] people that don’t necessarily have to come into a lab,” Phillips said. “I count on being able to work with my grad students regularly in the lab. Otherwise, things aren’t going to happen very well.”

Shamoo said laboratories were the first spaces to be opened last summer due to their air circulation feature: The frequent air changes prevent toxins as well as viruses from accumulating.

“Experimental laboratories, I’ll be quite frank, are probably the safest environment you can be in anyway, from the point of view of an aerosolized virus, because in a lab, you have about generally more than 10 air changes an hour, and they’re single-pass air changes,” Shamoo said. “[The air] doesn’t recirculate in the building. That’s to prevent the accumulation of any toxic chemicals, things like that … But in the case of a virus, it’s great because you just keep changing the air in the building. It’s like driving around with the windows open in your car.”

After Rice drastically reduced campus activity in March last year, one of the first categories of on-campus research permitted to resume was COVID-19-related work. Shamoo said two of the most impactful research projects at Rice have been Rebecca Richards-Kortum’s LAMP COVID-19 test and Lauren Stadler’s COVID-19 detection in Houston wastewater. When COVID-19 spread to Houston last spring, all the faculty members who could apply their skills to the pandemic offered to help, according to Shamoo. He said even humanities and social science scholars, who don’t work on diagnostics, can shed light on the situation by examining, for example, the 1918 influenza pandemic.

“I would say definitely everybody in science and medicine and engineering and even in the social sciences and humanities brought what they were doing, saying, ‘Can I contribute? Can I help?,’” Shamoo said.

Most humanities research has continued in remote formats, according to Farès el-Dahdah, director of the Humanities Research Center. He said that he does all his research remotely.

“The moment it went remote, [humanities research has] been in the same stage,” el-Dahdah, a professor of humanities, said. “It doesn’t have these nuances of Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3 because it isn’t that structured. So basically, it’s either needing to adapt to the pandemic or post-pandemic.”

El-Dahdah said conferences, meetings and interviews are online, and the virtual accessibility of certain archives allows some researchers to continue their work. At the height of the pandemic, many archival sources in Europe were not available, according to Shamoo.

“Basically we’ve had to adapt whenever we can,” el-Dahdah said. “But then the activity that is almost sacrosanct in the humanities, which is someone at their desk writing away — that obviously can continue regardless of the pandemic.”

El-Dahdah said he thinks that remote participation via video call will continue to be normal in any research or pedagogic situation even after the pandemic.

“For some of us, we had been using Zoom [for] research projects for a long time, but it was the exception. Now it’s become the norm,” el-Dahdah said. “I think it’s a habit we will keep and we will actually welcome.”

Some projects in the humanities, along with the expression of research in the form of exhibition, have been hampered to some degree by the pandemic, according to el-Dahdah. He said his delegation will not be attending the Venice Biennale this year, for instance; instead, they will send materials for contactless display, as stipulated by COVID-19 protocols.

“If there is a collection somewhere in Austria [that] someone needs to go look at in order for them to continue their project, unless they figured out a way to get that scanned or something, they just can’t do it,” el-Dahdah said.

Shamoo said research involving fieldwork has probably been more impeded than campus research. Travel restrictions have set ecologists and social scientists back, according to Shamoo. While Rice strongly advises against domestic and international travel, university-sponsored travel is permitted, according to the Return to Rice website.

“Some countries are more open than others,” Shamoo said. “Even if you’re doing [research in] a location here in Texas, what you would do in the past — cram everybody into a van, and then you go out to the side and measure the plants or whatever it is you were measuring, insect populations and all that — now you really can’t pack 10 people into a van and drive out to west Texas. We got to do multiple vans and multiple cars.”

The toll of the pandemic on everyday life is not small, and it applies to research as well, according to Shamoo.

“Everything in the pandemic is just harder, whether it’s buying a coffee or doing measurements in the field,” Shamoo said. “Science is already hard and you throw [the pandemic] on top of it, and it just makes things harder.”

Collaboration at a distance

Phillips said that his laboratory’s research is progressing, albeit at a slower pace than normal. Arranging communications via Zoom, instead of interacting face-to-face spontaneously can be awkward or take more time, so collaboration is slowed, according to Phillips.

“If people can’t see each other except by a Zoom appointment, you can’t just lean over at the next desk and ask somebody something,” Phillips said. “Some things researchers can do independently on their own, and there are other things that are best done as a team, so if your team can’t interact as easily, that definitely slows things down.”

Undergraduate social science researchers Trisha Gupta and Athena Hagerman said the remote format of their work complicates communication with their supervisors. Gupta, a Sid Richardson College sophomore who helps collect and organize data for the McNair Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth, said she visited the Baker Institute a few times last semester only for brief, masked and socially distanced meetings in her research manager’s office. According to the Baker Institute’s website, most fellows, scholars, researchers and administrative staff are still working remotely.

“The remote format is pretty disheartening. Oftentimes, I’ll be stuck on a concept or unable to come up with an idea on how to create a metric or observation measure that will allow us to move forward with our research, and I have to figure it out on my own because email communication is pretty slow and inefficient,” Gupta said. “I feel that the ability to turn around and ask [my manager] questions and bounce ideas off of her would’ve been infinitely helpful at certain points throughout the year.”

Working for the Braille Project under the departments of psychology and linguistics, Hagerman, a McMurtry College senior, organizes and examines data in Braille on Microsoft Excel. She said that because the research is done on the computer, the remote format has not made it harder, but the experience is lonelier.

“It’s nice because I get to work more independently, but it’s annoying because if I have any questions I have to wait until our weekly Friday meetings to ask them. The professors I’m working under are always available for emailed questions, but talking over Zoom is so much better than email,” Hagerman said. “I think overall the remote format has helped me get used to solving problems on my own, but I do miss working with other people in person.”

Shamoo said the ability to work together has been the biggest loss in research during the pandemic. He said the lack of social interaction has been as difficult as, if not more difficult than, the closure and reopening of a lab. According to Shamoo, research entails learning from repeated failures, which is difficult.

“You’ve got to be really used to this cycle of failure, iteration, success, failure, iteration, success. And you do that, but it’s really tough,” Shamoo said. “And so you need to have a friend or colleague [there so] you can look across the bench or look across the computer terminal [and say,] ‘Let’s go get coffee.’ That peer is not just learning [support], but it’s also emotional, intellectual support for what is a hard endeavor, whether it’s a class you’re taking that’s really hard or it’s in a laboratory or it’s in a library.”

Shamoo said he feels that theoretical and computational work like running models online goes well in the remote format. However, even in a theory lab, a lot of learning occurs between peers, rather than being directly transmitted from faculty to student, according to Shamoo. He said the pandemic has disrupted the normal interactions among peer groups, such as a senior undergraduate with three years of research experience mentoring a freshman new to a lab.

“The mathematicians were really unhappy that they couldn’t use their offices [when they were closed due to the pandemic], and I was sort of puzzled by that,” Shamoo said. “[I said,] ‘You guys are mathematicians. Can’t you just sit home and do math?’ And that’s where I learned about the importance of — even in their field — peer-to-peer interactions, like the students feeling they can come to work, think about their work, and then talk to their peers about this really complicated problem, then go home. I think that tends to be important to everybody in any kind of research.”

Trial said the pandemic has made mentorship across all labs a bit difficult — graduate students normally observe and train undergraduates, but social distancing requirements have made this a challenge. Now, students must stand further apart or take turns using an instrument while watching each other carefully, according to Trial, who started working in the Ball Lab at the BRC in the summer of 2019.

The use of the Shared Equipment Authority is another aspect of lab work that has changed, according to Trial.

“I use the [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] instruments quite a lot for my research,” Trial said. “There are two instruments in the same room, so it used to be [that often] you could have multiple people setting up experiments at the same time on those instruments, but now only one person is allowed in the room at a time, which can slow the pace of research a little bit. But I think now that we’ve gotten used to it, people are pretty good at just setting up their experiments and then leaving the room and letting people in.”

Trial said that she and another undergraduate researcher at the Ball Lab are working on independent projects, which allow for physical distance between students. Apart from procedures and equipment, the camaraderie of the lab has also been affected, according to Trial. She said that over the summer her lab group held Zoom movie nights, but since they returned to in-person research, they’ve had one group hangout outside the BRC.

“A lab is a really tight-knit community, especially if the principal investigator of the lab is a person who likes to build community,” Trial said. “I think that’s definitely true in our lab. We used to have nearly monthly gatherings where we would go out to a restaurant or just meet up and hang out, and we don’t really do that anymore.”

Nonetheless, Trial said in-person research continues to be important to her college experience. She and Phillips said they appreciate Rice’s opportunity to continue research activity amid the pandemic. According to Shamoo, campus research has been successful largely because students have followed the public health protocols. It is a key aspect of the university, and it was never fully shut down, Shamoo said: even at the onset of quarantine last spring, tissue cultures had to be maintained and freezers had to be kept running.

“The labs were quiet, but they were still there, getting ready [for us] to come back,” Shamoo said. “The research is a big part of what makes Rice a great university — for undergraduates to come work in a lab or to work with a scholar in religion or whatever their fancy is. So I’d say that we tried really hard to keep that open as best we could throughout all the difficult times over the summer and into the fall. Now I feel [campus research has] done great.”

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