Faculty, students and staff were invited to attend a virtual town hall Tuesday afternoon, hosted by leaders in research at the University of Michigan, to discuss and answer questions about the re-engagement of research on campus. The panel was moderated by Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research at the University.

The panel included Steve Ceccio, associate dean for research in the College of Engineering; Roger Cone, the Mary Sue Coleman director of the Life Sciences Institute; Vicki Ellingrod, associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Pharmacy; Steve Kunkel, executive vice dean for research in the Medical School; Chris Poulsen, associate dean of natural sciences in LSA; Michael Solomon, dean of Rackham Graduate School; and Geoffrey Thün, associate dean for research in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Cunningham opened the meeting by acknowledging the successful pilot wave in the University’s efforts to ramp-up research, which allowed for the reopening of eight buildings at about 30 percent of their socially-distanced capacity on May 21.

“I’ll note that we are really proud that we have, at this point, 800 researchers returning to work safely and smoothly on a daily basis in this pilot wave and we have learned much about the logistics of working in this manner,” Cunningham said.

Last Friday, an email was sent to the research community with information regarding the next phase of research re-engagement. Cunningham addressed the announcement by explaining how precedence plays a role in the opening of additional buildings.

“We announced the buildings reopening in Wave Two, which include about 20 new entrances and close to 30 new buildings to reopen on June 8,” Cunningham said. “Priority was given to the schools that were not in the pilot wave. In addition to the schools represented by panelists here today, we will be adding buildings from Dentistry, Kinesiology, STAMPS, Public Health, Music, Theatre and Dance.”

Cunningham noted faculty needs to be given enough lead time for researchers to prepare to work in this new way, emphasizing that research leadership and staff have been working at an increased rate to make sure safety procedures are in place. 

“As with everything, we are working on our COVID time, which is accelerated,” Cunningham said. “In this case, we are providing 10 days from the announcement for when these buildings will reopen or when additional capacity in the buildings (that) have already reopened. This is going to be an interactive phased approach where we need to reassess the needs and evaluate our performance before we can progress to the next wave.”

Ceccio then discussed the reasoning for the University’s implementation of reduced capacity in research labs, saying that the use of shifts will allow for a slow increase in the number of people allowed in the buildings.

“The idea here is that there will be cohorts that will occupy the buildings at this lower capacity, say 30 percent, and then by adding shifts, we can have more people come, use the laboratory, but at different times,” Ceccio said. “The whole point here is to not have the mixing of the people within the cohorts … In the pilot phase, we just want to start with one shift that allows the labs to get set up, make sure things are operating smoothly and make sure all of the safety procedures are enforced. Then, we can slowly build on by adding in new shifts, like we will be doing in the SRB (Space Research Building).” 

Thün went on to explain the process in which the University prioritizes access to specific researchers.

“Determining who will participate presents a significant challenge,” said Thün. “In our case at Taubman College, we recognize that while we were unable to service all faculty, staff and students that wanted to participate in the pilot wave, we could develop a system to advance as much work as possible. To do this, we worked across the college to assess project priorities, balancing funding considerations, project scale and duration, as well as junior faculty career pathways. We assessed individual project requests rather than prioritizing individual PIs (Principal Investigator) and we were then able to accommodate all projects while limiting the total number of team members within the constraints of COVID-19 densities and occupation limits.” 

Cunningham addressed concerns about monitoring possible resurgences of COVID-19 during the research ramp-up. The University is prepared to provide COVID-19 testing in the instance that lab members become infected, Cunningham said. 

“Testing, along with contact tracing, is going to be one of the main strategies we have against the virus transmission in our campus community,” Cunningham said. “Right now, any employee who has symptoms can call Occupational Health, and we have the capacity to have you tested. We also have a contact tracing policy in place on our research website. If someone you are working with closely in a lab becomes COVID positive, you will be contacted and you will be offered testing even if you are not symptomatic. We are aiming to take very seriously — the goal of identifying any transmission of COVID in the labs — so that we can test and quarantine and prevent further spread.”

Solomon explained how graduate students will proceed with their research in a mutually agreeable way with their mentors.

“Graduate students are participating in the work of the laboratories and research, and they are also students,” said Solomon. “Research and scholarship is part of their degree process. How graduate students return to the laboratory, we’ve discussed and agreed, is a collaborative decision between the faculty member and the graduate student. The graduate student has the ability to speak to the ways in which the graduate student would want to return to work. The faculty mentor is there to help support that work and the needs of the laboratory.”

LSA sophomore Saad Shami conducted microbiology-based research in a biophysics lab through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program during his freshman year. Shami, hoping to conduct research with the same lab in the fall, said he feels as though the University is handling the ramp-up in a safe manner.

“You have to be more careful about these kinds of things and make sure everything is still safe for everyone,” Shami said. “ I think the best possible thing would be for us to be socially distanced and wearing masks. But, if we are still able to conduct our research in a socially-distanced way, I am still going to benefit from this.”

Daily Staff Reporter Alexandra Greenberg can be reached at aggreenb@umich.edu.

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