Rebecca Cunningham talks research during COVID, ramping down operations in virtual interview

Thursday, May 7, 2020 - 10:33pm

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Courtesy of Liat Weinstein

The Michigan Daily sat down with Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research at the University of Michigan, over Zoom Thursday afternoon to discuss her first year on the job, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on University research and her favorite research project. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Michigan Daily: Almost exactly a year ago, you were appointed interim vice president for research. Since then, research at the University has been altered in unprecedented ways to account for the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back on this past year, what would you say were your most meaningful moments or achievements? What were some of your greatest challenges, either COVID-19 related or not, and how did you work to overcome them?

Rebecca Cunningham: Overall, my objective here is to strengthen research and scholarship across all three of our campuses. You might know from your research beat that we have $1.6 billion of research and scholarship conducted across U of M last year alone. We have a lot of our faculty, staff and students leading projects on all kinds of emerging problems and spurring new technologies and driving our economy. 

In the past, as an emerging physician and public health researcher, I focused my career on firearm injury prevention, general injury prevention and substance-use prevention. I found that background in public health and emergency medicine to serve me quite well, especially during these COVID-19 times. This past year, one of the pieces I was most excited about was the launching of our firearm injury prevention research initiative planning committee. Before we get into coronavirus here, we’ve had almost 40,000 die last year by guns and every year after that in the country. 

That being said, we’re now in the time of COVID-19 and the research enterprise has never, like everything else that’s unprecedented, had to go through so many changes so quickly. In a usual year, we are the largest public research university in the country. That means in a COVID-19 time, we are the largest one to ramp down and begin thinking about ramping up again, which has been a tremendous challenge for the research enterprise, faculty, staff and students as well. The safety and the health of our communities and the folks in our lab is paramount, so the decisions we made to really minimize the activity down to critical and essential research that’s going on in our labs had to be done. 

TMD: How has the distinction been made between critical and non-critical research in terms of which labs have had to “ramp down” operations due to COVID-19?

RC: We considered (essential) work that could impact or inform COVID-19 in a short amount of time which is important for the University and for the country to continue (doing). But there's also other types of work that, if paused, would alter (patients’) health and safety. Those are critical. Other ongoing work that, if paused, would either be irreplaceable — years of work that has to be maintained over time — or if ramping down couldn't (work), it needed ongoing maintenance we've permitted to continue in order to protect the long-term strength and health of our enterprise and put us in a good position to start again with strength.

TMD: COVID-19 has presented unique challenges for researchers. What are ways in which different departments at the University have come together to seek innovative solutions to these challenges?

RC: One of the strengths of the University is interdisciplinary work and COVID-19 has this weird effect where it makes everything faster and more intense. It shows the things that were true before to be more so, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For strengths, we have an amazing health system here that responded to the needs of our community tremendously. For example, the School of Engineering partnered quickly to help create solutions for design challenges such as measuring the safety of masks and protective face gear that was coming through. A face shield design was recently created for Michigan Medicine by the College of Engineering that set the standard for 3-D printing of protective gear around the country. 

...Our social scientists have begun to do a lot of work examining the health disparities that the epidemic has caused, as well as the impacts on our life, how we’re living, how we’re parenting, how we’re schooling our kids and how we’re working differently. 

TMD: Many researchers, graduate students, etc. are using this time outside the lab to write dissertations, grants and papers. What are some ways you think researchers can still stay connected to the field while working remotely?

RC: Fortunately, although some of our research needs to be done in person, a lot of our research does not actually have to be done in person or, for a brief amount of time, we can shift the flexibility of our research work to focus on those other aspects. This is a time that a lot of faculty, staff and students are using to analyze data that they collected before and write dissertations and grants. Our grant submission office is open and busy and I expect grant submissions will be up during this time. Also, (for) our human subjects research, a big chunk of it needs to pause during this time because interviewing human subjects in person is not allowed at a time when we're sheltering in place. However, creativity has abounded and a lot of human subjects research has transitioned to what can be done remotely, the same way that we're doing this interview remotely. Some of those lessons are things that we'll learn how to do more efficiently with human subjects research in the future.

RC: I've been a faculty and a researcher here at the University for well over 20 years and I very much value as a primary principle the generation of knowledge by diverse minds and audiences and the research that serves the world and the public. (My focus is) how we can move our research and generate knowledge beyond simply going to an (academic) journal, but how it can go and then be implemented into the community or be implemented into the arts or use in practical matters. To turn back to COVID-19, because everything sort of does, that experience is only more true now of how our research university responds to community needs and how we're able to pivot to (implement research). 

And more broadly, I think I'm very focused on the development of our research pipeline, the importance of engagement from students and early junior researchers and how we maximize that engagement across the whole research sector to bring in diverse voices and find unique solutions. 

One more COVID-19 fact for you is one of the things that's come up during this time when many people are home, we find that our junior faculty women are being less productive in this time than their male colleagues. With more responsibilities at home, (women are) affected differently in their ability to work remotely. I think having a diverse research workforce is important and those are the kinds of things we'll pay attention to going forward.

TMD: What’s your favorite or most interesting research project you’ve embarked on and why? What did it teach you about the benefits and challenges of research?

RC: Picking a favorite research project reminds me of trying to identify a favorite child. It never really works appropriately or easily. So within the injury research that I focused on for several years, the FACTS grant (firearm research grant) is a capacity building grant that was really looking to restart firearm research around the country, and that's been a really important centerpiece of my thinking over these past several years. Prior to that, some of the work we did with opioids and helping a surveillance project, which has helped identify opioid overdoses around the state of Michigan, has been a really important piece. And then as an earlier researcher, we developed one of the best practice programs for violence prevention from hospital emergency departments called Safer Teams. That project has gone on to have an impact in hospitals and the community and I'm very passionate about it.

TMD: Lastly, a more fun/personal question: What are you doing to stay sane during quarantine?

RC: So my family and I have an active ping-pong tournament going on in the evenings. And I’m enjoying the new path that’s on Huron River Drive and Zeeb with my dogs often in the mornings. So I gotta get out, COVID has not canceled spring. It’s canceled everything else, but spring is coming.

Daily News Editor Liat Weinstein and Daily Staff Reporters Hannah Mackay and Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at weinsl@umich.edu, mackayh@umich.edu and varshakv@umich.edu.