Research ‘ramped down,’ labs asked to donate supplies in response to COVID-19 outbreak

Monday, March 23, 2020 - 8:37pm

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design by Michelle Fan

As diagnosed cases of the novel coronavirus continue to climb across the country and throughout the state, the University of Michigan has limited all laboratory research deemed “noncritical” until further notice. The University and Michigan Medicine are also requesting that labs with available supplies, including face masks and gowns, donate their materials to the hospital as soon as possible to prepare for an influx of cases in the coming weeks. 

On Wednesday, Rebecca Cunningham, interim vice president for research and Susan M. Collins, acting provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, sent out a notice informing the University’s research community that all labs should “ramp down” their research activities. This change went into effect Friday at 5 p.m.  

Cunningham and Collins acknowledged the negative repercussions of limiting research projects but said the change was made to protect the health of researchers and students. 

“Our research mission is important, however the health of our researchers and local community is more important,” Cunningham and Collins wrote. “Please note that we are working closely with leadership across the schools and colleges to minimize the impact this poses to your professional advancement, the advancement of your colleagues and to your ability to return to fully functional labs.” 

The order to drastically decrease nonessential research activity came after the University placed restrictions on all projects using human subjects on March 14. This restriction is set to continue until May 1, when the University will reevaluate whether research using human subjects is safe to proceed. 

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order requiring all “non-essential” businesses to temporarily cease operations and asking all Michigan residents to stay home unless absolutely necessary. In response, University President Mark Schlissel announced the University would move all summer and spring term classes online and make an effort to limit the number of people on campus. However, Schlissel said Whitmer’s order would not directly affect University research. 

“The order will not significantly alter the university’s research operations, as we moved last Friday to ramp down all noncritical laboratory research activities,” Schlissel wrote. 

LSA junior Chayton Fivecoat works in a neurobiology lab and is planning on pursuing an honors thesis in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. Fivecoat, who works with mice in what he described as a “hands-on” lab, said his work for this year is completed because his research cannot be done remotely. 

“Before classes kind of went to the wayside, I was in there about 10 hours a week,” Fivecoat said. “(Now) for me, it was completely shut down. I know a lot of my other friends, they can do some stuff remotely, but a lot of my stuff was ... doing benchwork. So my portion of the lab, I can’t do anything. I’m almost powerless to do anything.”

Much of Fivecoat’s work was done in preparation for his honors thesis, which most students begin in junior year and finish a month before their graduation date. Fivecoat said he is still planning on being able to complete his thesis on time but worries the shutdown of research may slow the process down. 

“I think it will slow down my ability to write a thesis just because a lot of the data collection was going to be happening this semester,” Fivecoat said. “But in terms of my projection as a(n) (MCDB) major and as a student, I think I’d be still pretty much on track.”

LSA freshman Saad Shami also worked in a lab as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program this year. Shami worked with Qiong Yang, assistant professor of biophysics, on a project relating to the cell cycle and the mechanisms behind it in an effort to create a biosensor. Shami said because he worked in a wet lab, meaning he handled different chemicals or substances, he cannot do any work remotely.

“Not being able to work in a lab until next semester in sophomore year, it’s not the greatest and I feel like I’m not getting the full experience of UROP,” Shami said. “Shutting down a lot of research projects, it’s definitely the right thing, especially if they want to enforce social distancing. But for the projects themselves, it impacts them because we were still in the early stages of our project. We were trying to spend as much time as possible in the lab, trying to figure out what protein was best to make the biosensor. So it limits us.”

Shami said after classes moved online, the whole lab received an email from Yang asking if supplies could be donated to Michigan Medicine to help protect healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. On March 18, Teri Grieb, senior director for research at the Medical School, sent an email to all research faculty asking labs to donate unopened supplies including N95 masks, face shields and hand alcohol. 

On Friday, March 20, Michigan Medicine published a press release asking the greater community to donate protective gear and announcing the creation of a drop-off donation site at the North Campus Research Complex. Janet Abbruzzese, director of supply chain management for Michigan Medicine, expressed her gratitude for the community’s support in the press release.  

“It’s truly incredible what we have heard from local residents and businesses, and people all over the state, in recent days. We’ve received offers of supplies that they know are needed to care for COVID-19 patients, and our team has ramped up quickly to be able to accept them,” Abbruzzese said. “We have already had an amazing outpouring of supplies from scientific laboratories across the university, and now we are turning to the broader community.” 

In an email to the Daily, Kara Gavin, spokesperson for Michigan Medicine, said the hospital has already received donations since opening on Saturday.

“In just the first day, less than 24 hours after we announced the drive, we had 224 cars, plus two people on bikes and 5 walkers,” Gavin wrote. 

Daily News Editor Liat Weinstein can be reached at weinsl@umich.edu