Research town hall discusses effects of COVID-19 pandemic, reopening labs

Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - 8:53pm

Research leadership from across the University of Michigan held a virtual town hall with updates and questions about the research operations during the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday afternoon.

Research leadership from across the University of Michigan held a virtual town hall with updates and questions about the research operations during the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell/Daily

Research leadership from across the University of Michigan held a virtual town hall Tuesday with updates about the research operations during the coronavirus pandemic. Held via Zoom, the panel included moderator Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research, and four other speakers. More than 100 questions were submitted to the panelists.

Steve Kunkel, executive vice dean for research at the Medical School, said biomedical researchers are already making great strides in coronavirus research. 

“The biomedical research is currently playing a huge role in assessing the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kunkel said. “We are giving a number of our faculty the green light … to come back to our labs. Over 500 biospecimens have been collected and are currently being researched by our faculty.”

Steve Ceccio, professor of mechanical engineering, discussed attempts to connect the medical community and the engineering community. The attempts include creating a committee between the Medical School and the College of Engineering to address research being done on coronavirus. 

“We’re trying to connect the expertise of engineers with our colleagues in the Medical School,” Ceccio said.

Chris Poulsen, professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and associate dean for natural sciences, said nearly all research for LSA has been paused and their main priority is to support the students, faculty and staff. LSA has extended deadlines for promotions regarding tenure track faculty. They’ve also partnered with Rackham Graduate School to help graduate students by offering access to emergency funding. 

“We’ve (offered support for our students) in several ways,” Poulsen said. “By partnering with Rackham, (we) provide graduate student emergency funding and with LSA units to provide spring and summer funding for graduate students in need.”

Rackham Associate Dean Lutgarde Raskin, elaborated on policy changes specific to the school. According to Raskin, graduate students will receive a passing satisfactory grade for the semester if they maintain a B- in the class and will have the option to “unmask” the grades until July 1.

Cunningham addressed the high-level question of when non COVID-related research labs would reopen across campus and how students would resume their research. 

“While the situation is rapidly changing, when do you anticipate that research might reach a normal at U-M?” Cunningham asked. “When will labs reopen? How will we restart our work? Will we have to work in shifts in social distance?” 

She said it depends on the speed of the spread of the virus, but faculty will have clear plans to maintain social distancing if the labs do open by the end of the month.  

“I want to be clear that we will be closely adhering to the local public health guidance when it is issued,” Cunningham said. “It is ultimately up to, of course, the timing of the virus. That being said, it is likely that when we reopen labs and research in general, there will be requirements for more regulated social distancing, and we are working diligently across the research leadership to plan for these scenarios.”  

Cunningham directed the next question toward Kunkel, asking whether the University has been working with other colleges and institutions on questions related to research. Kunkel said that though the communication is highly functional, all other peer universities are also uncertain about the future.

“We’ve been in contact with not only our institutes of higher education across Michigan but with our Big Ten peers and our peers across the United States,” Kunkel said. “We’ve also been in contact with our colleagues in Washington, D.C., to make sure that … the messages that are passed along are heard at the federal level.” 

Poulsen then answered a series of questions regarding student grants, including what students should be doing and if money is still available from the grants. Poulsen said federal and state grants, unless stopped by the sponsors, are still available. 

“Post-doctorates and graduate students who cannot do their experiments should be given work to do remotely on grant-related activities,” Poulsen said. “If it’s absolutely not possible for them to work remotely, they can still be supported on the grant through the COVID-19 benefits until those benefits are exhausted.”

Cunningham asked Raskin if there were funds available to cover any additional semesters due to COVID-19. Raskin said many Ph.D. students will experience a delay in receiving their degrees for their research. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, and one thing that’s for sure (is) that this research policy has changed how Ph.D. students do their research,” Raskin said. “It’s clear that the progress and the time to degree will be changed for many Ph.D. students, but how exactly that will be the case is unclear.” 

Raskin added that deadlines have been extended. However, an extension for funding is still very much up in the air. 

“In terms of extending funding, we completely understand the need for it and are taking steps to address it, but the specifics of answering this question is going to require some time,” Raskin said. 

Rackham student Dan Kremer works in a chemical biology lab studying cancer cells to create therapies that strengthen the immune system. Kremer reflected on the closure of labs, noting he will need to shift the trajectory of his work in order to complete the research.

“I want to finish everything before I leave the University,” Kremer said. “So, then we just decided to push it back. Now I’m doing my defense in July, and then I have until the end of this summer to get all my requirements done.”

Daily Staff Reporter Alyssa McMurtry can be reached at amcmurt@umich.edu.