As faculty members transition back to campus, continued vigilance against COVID-19 is paramount.
In mid-March, the future of research activity at Texas Tech University was looking extremely uncertain.
COVID-19 had spread around the globe since late December and the situation was changing rapidly. Within a week, all university-sponsored trips had been canceled, and the university was in the process of bringing home those already abroad. Spring break had been extended an extra week, and faculty members were scrambling to figure out how to transition all their classes entirely online.
On March 17, Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec sent an email to the university community announcing remote work "to get as many employees off campus as possible to ensure everyone's safety and well-being." A follow-up email from Joseph A. Heppert, vice president for research and innovation, specified that researchers, too, must work from home, and all but the most critical, ongoing projects needed to be halted as quickly as possible.
With nearly all campus laboratories shut down, the university then asked researchers to donate any spare personal protective equipment (PPE), which could help health care workers facing severe shortages on the front lines against COVID-19. The Texas Tech community responded phenomenally, donating more than 107,000 gloves, 3,000 masks, 2,500 gowns and two ultraviolet light sterilization units.
Yet, even after shutting down labs and giving away materials, three months later, Heppert is proud to announce that, by some measures, Texas Tech's research activity is actually up from this time last year – substantially. The number of grant proposals submitted in May 2020 was 19% higher than those submitted in May 2019, and proposals to federal agencies, specifically, were up 20% year-over-year.
Research proposals are only the first half of the story, but the other half – how many of those proposals were actually funded and how much money they were awarded – is equally promising. The total dollar amount of sponsored projects was up 18% over the same period in 2019.
Taking advantage of opportunities
As Heppert noted, it's a new record pace for Texas Tech research. While growth has been the norm for several years, it's not necessarily a given in the current environment.
"Our trends have been in the direction of increasing federal awards and increasing proposals, but we know of institutions where there are reports that grant activity is down substantially this year over previous years," Heppert said. "So I was very pleasantly surprised. I think it's a real testament to the fact that faculty realize there are great opportunities for Texas Tech to advance as a research institution and for faculty to achieve their personal goals in expanding their research programs, and they're really taking advantage of these opportunities."
Some researchers, including members of the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium, began new projects focused on one of the many aspects of the pandemic. But in many cases, Heppert said, researchers likely prioritized doing what they could: analyzing existing data, writing studies from a backlog of material needing to be put together and taking time to consider new proposal opportunities – all of which are great strategies, he said, when you suddenly find yourself with a wealth of unanticipated time on your hands.
"That said, it's very hard to see a silver lining in something that's caused so much dislocation and suffering, and I don't like to think about it that way," Heppert said. "I think it's been very hard for people, not just those who write grants and primarily publish papers, but it's been very hard for many people who've had to move their whole activity off campus. If you rely on being in an art studio or a fabrication studio for your scholarly activity, it's been very difficult because, up until recently, you haven't had access to those resources. If you're in a performance area, like music or dance, it's a great hardship not to have access to the studio spaces and the performance spaces you require for perfecting and building new performance activities.
"So, I don't like to couch it as a silver lining. I think what has happened is that, through this very disruptive and, in a lot of ways, destructive experience, Texas Tech faculty, staff and students have taken the opportunity to try to continue to do good things, and they have succeeded in spite of all the really serious challenges they've faced."
In mid-May, researchers got word they would be able to start returning to campus and, slowly, they have been transitioning back. There's been a dent in momentum, Heppert said, because of the several months in which supplies weren't being ordered normally, but buildings and services are now nearly back to full speed.
Much of the donated laboratory PPE has been replaced, thanks to the proactive efforts of individuals in the Office of Research & Innovation and Procurement Services in finding alternate sources for it.
"We were mindful that we did not want to start ordering the materials too early because, of course, the reason the whole university donated those materials to begin with is because there was such a shortage among frontline health care providers," Heppert said. "So, we didn't want to be in a position of depriving those providers of necessities. We did manage to source some PPE, so, slowly, we have been restocking what people donated.
"There are some items that are still in very short supply, like simple safety glasses. Again, it's because there's been a tremendous demand for those in emergency room environments and for health care providers who are doing testing and other kinds of routine health care for individuals. So, we still have little pockets of things we've not been able to source and fully restock, but we're doing pretty well at the present time."
The continued shortages, despite the efforts of groups like the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium to produce more PPE, serve as a constant reminder that the pandemic is still ongoing.
"We appear to have a broader range of PPE available than we did a few months ago, and that increase in supply is wonderful, but having that surplus available is dependent on us as a society continuing to control the spread of this virus. We could very easily get into a situation – if the spike in the virus and infection count gets out of control – where, again, we start to see critical shortages of PPE and other necessary testing materials. So, I'd sound a note of caution. Just because things seem better than they were, does not necessarily mean they're stable yet."
Working in a new normal
The pandemic's recent resurgence, for instance, is affecting how researchers are able to work as they return to campus.
Individuals conducting human-subject research are taking additional steps to ensure the protection of both the participants and the researchers. Those working in crowded laboratories have had to figure out how to apportion time in the lab so they can maintain social distancing.
"We're still right in the middle of a period when COVID-19 cases across the state are at the highest level, on average, that they've been, and hospitalizations are also at historically high levels," Heppert said. "What concerns a lot of us is the possibility that our progress could be turned around if we're not careful and if we don't pay attention to requirements for social distancing, personal and laboratory hygiene, and hygiene in all sorts of common spaces: studios, library spaces and other resource spaces.
"So I think things are going well, but at the same time, I think everybody is nervous because we realize there's still a threat to what we want to try to accomplish."
Masks and face coverings are now mandatory for the entire university community.
"We must try to support everyone's health in this community," Heppert said. "We know that – having been off campus for so long, having been staying at home for so long – there's fatigue with continuing to practice hygiene and social distancing. And yet, these steps are so important for the health and welfare of everybody involved in the research effort, and they'll be critically important, too, in the fall, when students come back to campus."
Heppert said there are two messages he wants to communicate most.
"First of all, we're extremely proud of how everybody in the university community has worked to come through a terribly trying and very damaging time for society," he said. "Those efforts have been fabulous. As a university community, we've pulled together and done some wonderful things.
"If somebody had asked us in fall 2019, if we could conceivably move to teaching our entire courseload online before the end of the year, I don't think anybody would have believed that could have happened. And yet it did happen, and it was successful, and it was valuable for our students. So I think we should celebrate that and recognize those accomplishments."
The second point, however, is that we cannot let down our guard.
"I would really encourage everybody to continue their vigilance around the current situation," Heppert said. "We are not, as a nation, as a community or as a university, out of the woods yet in terms of the potential impact this contagion can have on our community.
"We need to continue to message how important it is for individuals to do the practices we know will help keep people safe and well during this process. We must continue to message the importance of social distancing and cleanliness. We cannot operate the way we used to, but we can resume our research, scholarly and creative activity if we work together to care for each other as a community."