The University’s 2020 Research Workgroup held its second town hall on May 20. The event’s purpose was to encourage feedback on the Workgroup’s guidelines for resuming research this year. The Workgroup is currently examining the impact of lab management and safety strategies during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and has helped develop a three-phase reopening plan.
The guidelines give advice for phase one for restarting research on campus. According to the document, the University is currently in phase zero, which allows only research related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to occur. In the final and third stage, there will be a full return of research operations.
Phase one, which the University hopes to begin soon, refers to an increase of research activity with a low on-campus density. Research groups will not meet in person and there will be no shared offices. However, labs will be shared with a density of one person per 400 square feet, and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will be allowed to conduct on-campus research, a change from phase zero. All research that is able to be conducted from home and over online platforms such as Zoom will continue to be conducted remotely.
The University will begin phase one when permitted by state and federal guidelines.
During the town hall, which was moderated by Executive Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Stephen Gange, Vice Provost for Research Denis Wirtz and Vice Dean for Research at the School of Medicine Antony Rosen, it was stated that the team anticipates going into phase one at the beginning of June. He noted, however, that the University will not go into this first phase of the plan until the Research Workgroup has determined it will be safe for researchers to return to campus, even if Baltimore City reduces stay-at-home restrictions.
“Unlike some other peer institutions, we are not going to play games about increasing ‘essential personnel’ as a way to resume research beforehand,” Wirtz said. “We are going to wait for that order to be truly lifted.”
Social distancing practices will still be in place in on-campus labs, including mandatory mask wearing and frequent hand washing for researchers. Additionally, no computers, desks or phones will be shared between researchers.
Undergraduate students involved in research will not be permitted back on campus. However, Wirtz highlighted that they can still contribute to the research process remotely if the situation permits.
Samanda Robinson, a rising fourth-year PhD student in the Department of English, has found that despite the restrictive conditions of the pandemic, her research was not significantly impacted.
“Most of my preliminary work on my dissertation prospectus and eventually dissertation are situated with me gathering texts, reading and analyzing those materials and then making connections,” Robinson wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Although her own research is not affected by the shift to phase one, Robinson supports the eventual guidelines.
Hannah Yamagata, a rising sophomore, noted that as an undergraduate student she has faced a dramatic reduction in her research workload since the lab she worked for closed in March.
“[The research] has been completely halted and there’s not really much I can do anymore. There’s no new data to analyze, and now that we’re entirely remote, my grad student has an abundance of time to analyze the data herself and does not necessarily need the extra help,” she wrote.
However, Yamagata understands why undergraduate students are not allowed back in lab spaces during phase one.
“It’s definitely very disappointing and upsetting, but at the same time, completely justified. I wish I could be back in the lab doing experiments, but I also recognize that Baltimore especially has been hit particularly hard by COVID,” she wrote. “I think admin is doing the right thing by prioritizing safety over undergrad research experience.”
Sujai Jaipalli, a rising sophomore who is a research assistant to Professor Tim Weihs’ work on developing medical grafts without using titanium, feels that his research has been completely disrupted. Jaipalli is adapting to virtual research for the time being.
“I am reading on relevant scientific literature and understanding the technical aspects of the project at a deeper level,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “My mentors and I are also looking into some virtual simulations that I would be able to run at home, but that is still a work in progress.”
Jaipalli voiced his support for this element of phase one.
“It is imperative first to allow the senior members of the research lab to carefully design protocols to ensure the safety of all lab members in the future,” he wrote.
During the town hall, Rosen noted that researchers are going to have to comply with a higher standard of mask wearing than they have been during phase zero.
“There is not yet a uniform embrace of the wearing of face masks at all times while on campus,” he said. “This is a plea for everyone to really embrace the wearing of face masks. As we go back and as density increases, the School of Medicine is going to draw a really hard line with enforcing the wearing of face masks on campus.”
Wirtz made it clear that once the University begins phase one, its researchers will be held accountable for maintaining proper social distancing practices.
“We are going to be providing phone lines where people can anonymously report undue pressure, coercion or principal investigators who are not abiding by masking laws,” he said. “We are going to have to take the rules extremely seriously.”
Wirtz noted that the University has accounted for the increased number of masks they will need with more researchers on campus.
“We have placed massive orders of masks,” he said. “10,000 for the Homewood school, another 10,000 for the School of Medicine, and another few 1,000 for the School of Public Health.”
Students who were not able to attend the town hall are encouraged to submit their feedback on the planning process through the online comment form.
Wirtz and Rosen made it clear that the purpose of the comment form and the town hall are to garner feedback from the Hopkins community on the proposed guidelines.
“What we have posted is a living document,” Wirtz said. “We will amend it and update it.”