Research, teaching assistants continue work as university suspends on-campus research

Joshua Kritzer, associate professor of chemistry, and Jennifer Pace, postdoctoral scholar in chemistry, conduct research in the Pearson Chemical Laboratory on Oct. 24, 2018. Christine Lee / The Tufts Daily Archives

The Tufts research community has suspended all nonessential on-campus research activities in accordance with new guidelines outlined in a March 19 email from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) as of March 20 at 5 p.m.

The new measures have been taken in a concerted effort to minimize opportunities for transmission of COVID-19, Vice Provost for Research Caroline Genco explained.

“The decision to suspend non-essential research activities on campus was based on the University’s commitment to reducing the community spread of COVID-19 and the resulting need for social distancing,” Genco wrote in an email to the Daily.

Genco explained that the restrictions will impact all university-related research. She added that many research activities were still being carried on remotely and that the OVPR is not yet able to predict when normal research activities can resume.

“In the meantime, my office is thinking about how to ramp-up research activities when the time comes; we are being as proactive as possible,” Genco said.

Genco noted that, although all research is impacted by this policy change, a few essential activities are still continuing.

“These activities are defined as those that are absolutely necessary to maintain facilities or irreplaceable research assets, such as: essential care for animals or plants; maintenance of equipment that cannot be shut down or maintained remotely, such as liquid N2 tanks and shared computational networks or servers; and responding to a laboratory or freezer emergency,” Genco said.

She added that sponsor agencies have been understanding throughout these developments and that she expects the university to have continued funding support.

“We are waiting for the details of the initial stimulus package, but we are expecting funding support for both new and ongoing projects,” Genco said.

Simin Meydani, director of the Nutritional Immunology Team at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), corroborated Genco’s statement about funding.

“For example, the Gates Foundation, with whom we have a grant ourselves, we have let them know that this is what is happening. They were very understanding and supportive of the situation,” Meydani said. “I think most funding agencies are going to understand that this is a situation that is not under anyone’s control.”

Meydani said she was more concerned about the impact this may have on students’ research timelines as they work towards graduation, as well as the potential impact on younger professors.

“One thing that does worry me a bit is that, if the situation continues for a long time, what its impact will be in terms of the ability of the young faculty to get their tenure on time,” Meydani said. “This is something that universities, including Tufts, are taking into consideration and are having discussions about it, and we’ll see what solutions they come up with.”

Meydani said that her own work at the HNRCA has been impacted, including an ongoing clinical trial and a couple of animal studies.

“That’s a loss because resources were spent and time was spent in enrolling those subjects, and we were almost close to the finish line,” Meydani said. “Although I have to say that with the true heroic efforts of people in my lab, we’ve been able to minimize the loss of valuable information from the animal studies.”

Meydani noted even if someone wanted to go do work in the laboratories without any person-to-person contact, much of the necessary infrastructure for that work is no longer in place since the new policy came into effect.

Kaley Mientkiewicz, a graduate research assistant at the Kritzer Lab, said that most of her workload has now transitioned to activities she can do remotely.

“Because I can’t be in the lab, I’ve switched more fully to doing a lot of reading and writing and any data processing that I can do on the computer,” Mientkiewicz, a fifth-year graduate student in the chemistry department, said.

She added that she was able to effectively shut down some experiments for the time being without losing too much data.

“I was in the middle of experiments that have pausing points in them so I was able to stop my research at a point and freeze samples so they’ll be ready to go when I get back,” she said.

Mientkiewicz explained that nobody is going into the lab anymore, except one person who is performing an essential maintenance task.

“We have one instrument that every once in a while we need to add liquid nitrogen to it to keep our cell stocks frozen, so we have permission to have one person go in once a week and top that off,” she said.

Despite the obvious disappointments of having to discontinue many research activities, all researchers interviewed for this article underlined the importance of undertaking measures to limit person-to-person interactions.

“I think it’s all done to keep our health at the best possible state,” Mientkiewicz said. “I think that Tufts and specifically our department has communicated really well with all of this and we feel really supported in that way. I support the decision and I think that it was a good decision to make for our department.”

Meydani echoed this sentiment and added that the situation is ever-changing.

“The good thing is that all the guidelines that are developed by either national or international agencies or by universities or by a school, are all living guidelines and they update them as new information becomes available,” Meydani said. “I’m sure that as soon as it’s possible for all of us to go back and start our research, we will be able to do that.”

Graduate teaching assistants

In terms of the employment status of graduate teaching assistants, Kelsey Rowe and Matthew Welchert, first-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidates at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said they will continue to be employed.

Rowe and Welchert work for the political science department and said they will continue aiding with their respective classes, although the format of their teaching has changed out of necessity.

Rowe is a teaching assistant for PS142 and noted that it has become more difficult to engage with students virtually.

“I’m really glad that this happened later in the semester so that at least I got to know students prior to moving online,” Rowe said. “I think it would have been really really difficult to get to know people and have the kind of rapport that we have now had this happened significantly earlier in the semester.”

She is also a research assistant for Professor Karen Jacobsen and noted that research progress has been somewhat impeded by the lack of in-person meetings.

“It’s an adjustment for everybody and as we get into it, our processing speeds in terms of getting through work are all a little slower,” Rowe said. “Things have slowed down a bit, but they’ll pick back up once we get back into the swing of things.”

Welchert, who is a teaching assistant for PS61 said he has been having conversations with his students to figure out how best to make Zoom recitations interactive. He said he is impressed by how the undergraduate students have handled all the changes.

“I tried to put myself in their shoes when I was a freshman or sophomore in college and how I would have dealt with this, and I think they’ve been really impressive,” Welchert said.


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