Universities across the country are facing the challenge of reopening research labs on campus. Two biology professors at New Mexico State University are developing protocols for students of NMSU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute program to lead the way in transitioning faculty, staff and students back into the university’s research labs for the summer semester.
“Our safe research plan is predicated on the conviction that the mentored research environment is one of the safest environments in which these students could work this summer,” said Tim Wright, biology professor leading the effort. “The typical research environment is low density, clean and fully equipped with the personal protective equipment and disinfecting materials necessary to maintain healthy conditions.”
The current cohort of the NMSU HHMI program has 12 undergraduates working with faculty mentors on lab or field-based research projects during the academic year. They spend each summer conducting full-time, intensive research in order to collect data to write a thesis. That data and those theses often develop into published papers that support the students’ further research in graduate or medical professional schools.
“Of the 175 research scholars we have supported to date, 90 have been co-authors on scientific publications, 93 have made local poster and oral presentations, 65 have made national conference presentations, and one has presented at an international conference,” said Michele Shuster, biology professor who leads the HHMI program. “Sixty-four percent of the research scholars who have graduated to date have gone on to graduate, medical, veterinary or dental school.”
Shuster explained the research scholars are just one aspect of the program, which includes various other initiatives including BioCats, student facilitators who support 1,300 students in workshops associated with introductory biology courses each year. This peer-to-peer program has dramatically increased pass rates for students in these courses.
Another program in HHMI is a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE), which is used to provide authentic research experiences to a larger group of undergraduate students. However, the HHMI research scholars have been impacted most immediately by the COVID-19 related restrictions.
“Because this HHMI program is now in its last year of funding, there was no flexibility to postpone summer research, and conducting virtual research projects was simply not possible for most students, as research is very much a hands-on activity,” Wright said. “Furthermore, our students were counting on their stipends to support them this summer; without this support many might have had to seek lower-paying and riskier jobs or go entirely without. Given these constraints, we felt it important to put forward a plan that would allow them to conduct their research safely.”
Wright doesn’t expect the lab environment to have zero COVID-19 infections, given the current rates in the community. Instead, he aims to see that the rates of infection among program participants are no higher than the surrounding community and that research activities do not contribute to the spread of the virus. He points out that people working in the lab environment are already thinking about potential risks to their health from chemicals and biohazards, and of the risks of contamination to their procedures from their own bio-products – and have put engineering and procedural controls in place to minimize those risks.
“It is only a small step to extend these controls to mitigating any risk of COVID transmission that might exist,” Wright said. “While field-based research faces somewhat different conditions, researchers there are also well-prepared to consider risks of transmission and well-equipped to minimize these risks.”
Based on these fundamental conditions, Wright proposed a detailed safety plan that emphasizes current CDC guidelines for safe working practices, including maintaining low density, wearing facemasks, frequent cleaning, self-monitoring of health for COVID symptoms and self-quarantine and testing for any suspected cases. Each research scholar and their faculty mentors will jointly devise and sign a safety plan that confirms their adherence to the general guidelines plus any lab-specific procedures. These safety plans will be filed with the NMSU-HHMI program and compliance will be checked via lab visits by the program staff. A critical part of the approval process for their plan at the university level was compliance with NMSU’s system-wide Return to Research and Creativity plan, which can be found at https://research.nmsu.edu/ReturntoResearch.html.
“It is also a living plan that can be updated as necessary as our knowledge about COVID transmission, and how to prevent it, improves,” Wright said. “It is our hope that the NMSU-HHMI program can demonstrate how research can be safely conducted, and thereby facilitate the robust resumption of this important aspect of NMSU’s mission.”