LINCOLN, Neb. – The coronavirus pandemic has forced research at the University of Nebraska’s flagship campus to slow and become increasingly digital. For some areas of study – like animal care and children, youth and families research – continuing research right now is easier said than done.
In addition to traditional education, service and research play a key role in the University of Nebraska system, according to the school’s mission statement. Local extension reaches all 93 counties in Nebraska as a form of service, while many professors and students work to publish new findings each year.
With thousands of students, faculty and staff off campus during the pandemic, some at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln continue to further the institution’s research mission. And during the COVID-19 outbreak, research at UNL is much different.
“It’s going to take a few months before we really see the full extent of how this is affecting the campus,” UNL’s director of research communications Ashley Washburn said. “This is unprecedented. Like everybody else, this is just not the type of situation that we have ever dealt with before.”
Many research tasks can be done from home, Washburn said. This includes analyzing data, running computer models and of course, writing papers. But for the research that just started and needs in-person observation, surveying or tests, that’s become complicated. Some projects that just started have been delayed, Washburn said.
Like the rest of the world, digital communication tools have become the norm for research while most people work from home.
Research is often publicly funded, meaning grant money may come from the state and federal government for research at UNL. Along with grant money comes deadlines, which are usually set in stone. However, during these unprecedented times, deadlines are being waived or extended for many research projects.
Every University of Nebraska employee received an email from President Ted Carter on April 7, detailing how only employees “whose physical presence is officially designated as necessary” are allowed to work on campus. On April 21, Carter announced a limited return to campus for employees and students on May 4, saying working from home will be the university’s “first line of defense” against the virus.
There are some researchers, according to Washburn, who continue their research or monitor on-going campus projects. Those individuals must have identification and approval from the Chancellor’s Office at UNL to be on campus.
Some research needs to be done on campus in labs, research plots or barns. That’s the case for UNL’s Institutional Animal Care Program (IACP), which oversees animal research across the state. This program covers everything from food and fiber research for cattle to biomedical research on lab rodents and UNL’s School of Natural Resources.
IACP director Kelly Heath said the breadth of topics covered “stretches his brain on a daily basis.” During the campus shutdown, Heath estimates that animal research projects are at 60 percent of normal production.
“We have some active research projects that are ongoing that just couldn’t stop,” Heath said. “They were essential.”
Regardless of publishing research, Heath’s staff still has to care for the animals, which regularly happens during holidays and extreme weather events. He now has a skeleton crew, or just an essential crew of two people a day who rotate.
With a smaller crew – that Heath estimates at 25 percent of regular size – IACP cut down on the number of animals to about 40 percent to ensure the quality of care. Heath declined to give specific numbers because animal rights groups often pursue those numbers. The reduction process involved not starting any new projects and ceasing to order and breed more animals.
“We get one chance to get it right,” Heath said of taking care of animals during the pandemic. “At times, it felt like we were getting ahead of ourselves, but I think we did a good job.”
Heath said when the time comes, IACP will be ready to scale up production with minimal disruption to continued and future research.
Another research area affected by the pandemic, Washburn said, is education or similar research, which works directly with people in and out of classrooms.
“We’re now trying to track down thousands of students to take surveys online,” said Katie Edwards, associate professor at UNL’s Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools. “They’re teenagers. It’s easier to get them to do surveys when you go and literally put a tablet in front of their face.”
Edwards’ research focuses primarily on reducing and preventing sexual violence. These federally funded studies entail surveys, interventions, interviews and focus groups, much of which are done in-person and sometimes online. Now, these studies are all online, according to Edwards.
Some of the people involved in the studies prefer online communication or data collection, Edwards said, because they can take the surveys in a place where they are comfortable. Some prefer a paper and pencil because it feels more private than a computer or phone. However, she said, there is loss of the person-to-person connection when only speaking using digital tools. Some of that connection can be restored with a Zoom or phone call. For example, a study based in Arizona includes women with literacy issues – some women prefer to be read the questions and that can be done with a digital communication.
“It’s hard,” Edwards said of those digital interactions. “If someone’s emotional, tearing up or upset, you can still be empathic and have good listening skills, but there’s still something missing with that.”
And the return rate on surveys is not as high with digital collection, Edwards said. Statisticians can work around missing data, but it’s not ideal. Also, long term questions for her arise around funding new studies and finishing current ones.
“We’re going to have to work together and be creative about how we go about doing rigorous science and meaningful work,” she said.
Heath and others in the animal research business worry about losing a specific genetic line of animals during the shutdown. That hasn’t happened at UNL, Heath said, but delays in some breeding could cost researchers a year’s worth of time.
Heath recalled last year’s bomb cyclone in Nebraska as the most similar situation in terms of managing a strange research environment. Last spring, harsh winter weather and flooding across the state did damage that’s still being fixed. UNL facilities in the western part of the state had to adjust to blizzard conditions and make use of disaster plans which changed who worked when. But it still doesn’t compare to current conditions, he said.
While the effects of not having campus open and eventual shutdown was felt right away by students and teachers, not having labs and places to conduct research may not have been immediate. It’s beginning to set in for UNL researchers six weeks after classes moved online. All some can do is keep researching and work to extended deadlines.
Every situation is different. It’s “not a one size fits all” as Washburn described. However, she said, there is one thing every researcher has in common during this time: they’ve never experienced anything like this before.