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Managing—Not Avoiding—Risks

How the Swanson School is Moving Research Forward in the New Normal

PITTSBURGH (Sept. 10, 2020) — When COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., universities were left with a difficult situation. Classes can be moved online, but labs—particularly ones that use living things like animals or cells—could not fully operate remotely or be put on hold easily. 

Like many institutions, the University of Pittsburgh ramped down its research to continue only the most essential work. Now, as it starts to ramp research back up, the University is helping researchers balance the risks.

“After we had been fully ramped-down for several weeks, I had a number of faculty members lamenting this in various ways and degrees,” said David Vorp, associate dean for research at the Swanson School of Engineering and John A. Swanson Professor of Bioengineering. “One in particular expressed that, as engineers and researchers, we are trained to mitigate and manage risk of multiple types, so managing the risk of COVID-19 would be no different and very possible in the lab. It was a valid point.” 

Vorp serves on the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research’s Associate Deans for Research Council and Co-Chairs the STEM Research Restart Working Group, which are working to safely and effectively ramp up STEM research at Pitt. It took hours of discussion and hundreds of considerations to create a plan for resuming Pitt research, but that was only the beginning.

For the most up-to-date information on the status of research at Pitt, visit https://www.svcresearch.pitt.edu/pitt-researchers/research-restart.

Considering Every Possibility

Shortly after the university ramped down onsite research, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar joined with Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd to analyze what research was continuing. Overall, 80 percent of the faculty was operating at approximately 70 percent of pre-COVID research activity. The researchers at the Swanson School were at 40 percent.

To begin planning for an onsite restart, he established seven working groups to create guidelines and processes for the University moving forward in research, education and employee operations.
The seven working groups each have their own area of focus: The School of Medicine; Health Sciences; Animal Resources; Logistics; Remote Research; Arts, Humanities Social Sciences and Libraries; and STEM, which includes the Swanson School. Vorp co-led the STEM group with Adam Leibovich, associate dean for faculty recruitment and research development in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

By the end of April, the STEM Research Restart Working Group began considering all possible factors that would inform the decisions of when and how to restart research in the University’s STEM-based labs. The STEM group consists of 15 faculty members from across disciplines in both the Swanson School and the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, which allowed them to understand the needs of researchers in different fields.

“The STEM Working Group was tremendously vested and worked very hard. There was not a single person who didn’t contribute greatly,” remarked Vorp.

Certainly, one of the biggest questions the group had to address, one that would apply to all fields, is also one of the hardest: How do you enable social distancing in a lab, especially when no two labs are exactly the same?

“Based on our calculations, in order to ensure people can stay six feet apart, there can only be one person per 150 square feet. That means in a lot of labs, only one or two people will have access at a time,” said Vorp. “We need to ensure that everyone has the access they need to pursue their research – a critical function of a research university – while balancing the risk of COVID-19.”

Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is another consideration. Basics, like masks, are now a requirement when working in the lab, and those were procured by the University. However, the STEM group had to make other considerations, as well, such as when a lab already works with hazardous materials and has unique PPE needs. Another consideration is what happens outside of the lab. For example, what about field work? Would researchers be required to drive separately, or wear N95 masks in the car when travelling together to an off-campus location? Other shared spaces, like a lunchroom, are impossible to use without removing masks—what steps can be taken to make sure those spaces are used safely and fairly?

Access and Accountability

The University’s plan, resources, and guidance, based on the latest health and safety recommendations, need to be flexible enough for the array of research situations that exist at Pitt. For that reason, much of the responsibility for approving individual research restarting and establishing safety measures inside the lab rests with the school’s Dean’s office. At the Swanson School, Vorp has been tasked with reviewing and approving COVID-19 mitigation plans for labs and applications to restart. 

“It has been a major effort and undertaking by my office, but one that we take very, very seriously,” he said.

Among the broad requirements for resuming research is a daily attestation questionnaire that people must fill out and sign before coming to campus stating that they are currently healthy and have not been exposed to the virus. Before labs are allowed to resume operations, the principal investigator (PI) must submit a detailed list of all the precautions they would be taking—some of which, like wearing a mask and social distancing, are mandated. Employees and supervisors also complete safety trainings before returning to campus.

Signs in Benedum Hall mark the requirements for the building—keeping six feet of distance between people, only allowing four people on the elevators at a time, washing hands frequently and wearing a mask. Inside the labs, however, the PI is responsible for making sure their lab personnel follow the protocols they set up and work safely. 

“How we do research will fundamentally change because of COVID-19, just like the rest of society,” said Vorp. “But what hasn’t changed is that making sure appropriate safety precautions are taken in the lab is ultimately the responsibility of individual PIs.”

Moving Forward in the New Normal

The planned reopening of research labs has two phases: the first seeks to begin research operations quickly with reduced personnel, and the second will slowly ramp up to full operations while taking precautions to mitigate the risk of exposure. 

Researchers like Tamer Ibrahim, whose lab leverages state-of-the-art 7-Telsa MRI technology to study mental health and other neurological diseases, were eager to resume work and find ways to adapt to the new normal.

“My group has cleverly reengineered our devices and completely changed the way we do human imaging in order to mitigate the risk of infections and spread of the disease,” said Ibrahim, professor of bioengineering. “Despite significant difficulties, we have been conducting human studies for about two months and have scanned individuals as young as 12 and as old as 85 using our RF coil system.

"The resilience of our students, post-docs, and staff is nothing short of extraordinary," he said.

As with most things concerning COVID-19, resuming research is a fluid process, one that is subject to change as new challenges are discovered. Vorp notes that one thing that will not change, however, is that the processes and procedures to keep everyone safe only work if everyone honors them.

“The changes we need to make to the way we work and live are difficult or at best inconvenient, there’s no denying it. But I’m confident that we’re doing the best we can for the safety of individuals in the labs and our community,” said Vorp. “We have to manage risk, not avoid it, so we can do what the University is supposed to be doing, now more than ever: education, research and public benefit.”

Contact: Maggie Pavlick