Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 on Academic Research

When COVID-19 disrupted academic research, Dean Johnson led a team to help ensure scientific progress continued safely at Cal State Fullerton.

Decorative illustration of virus

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., it didn’t just wreak havoc with everyday life – it also disrupted academic research. In the early spring of 2020, government-mandated shutdowns meant that Cal State Fullerton researchers struggled to protect and continue their work.

To support them and help ensure scientific progress at Cal State Fullerton during the pandemic, a team led by Marie Johnson, dean of the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, forged a plan that outlined a phased approach to promote the continuity of essential research and fieldwork. That plan then helped inform the guidance to reincorporate research across all California State University campuses.

Why Academic Research Matters

Research and its ability to create new knowledge is a primary responsibility of faculty at higher education institutions. “Our work furthers human understanding, alleviates human misery, and creates a brighter tomorrow,” Johnson says.

Research also supports inquiry-based learning. “At NSM, a typical graduate will have completed between 500 and 1,000 hours of field and laboratory work. Each semester, hundreds of our students typically work side by side with faculty mentors in the laboratory and field,” Johnson adds.

Academic research also contributes to global economic development. According to the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science, academic research in the U.S. accounts for up to half of the basic research nationwide, serving as the impetus for innovation and industry.

“The shutdown not only impacted research and the industries it supports, but it was also devastating to faculty and students,” Johnson explains. “Doing science is what researchers do, so to be shut off from that disrupted our mission to create knowledge and learning by discovery.”

Crafting a Plan to Protect CSUF Research

When the Safer at Home order closed the Cal State Fullerton campus in mid-March, Johnson and her colleagues knew that research couldn’t be paused indefinitely. “The science deans from the 23 California State University campuses were talking every week about common challenges and trying to work out ways we could overcome them,” Johnson says. “We are not a university if we are not doing research.”

Plans were immediately crafted to help essential personnel to maintain cell lines, animal health, and instrumentation. “A lot that has to do with science and research just can’t be done from home,” Johnson explains. “We created certain protocols immediately so these teams would be safe in caring for and protecting critical research infrastructure. However, the bigger work was figuring out how we could continue research and still keep our faculty and students safe.”

“There has never been a massive shutdown of academic research across the country. That made developing and navigating new protocols difficult but exciting.”
Marie Johnson, Ph.D.
Dean, College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics

Johnson then led an ad hoc committee of California State University leaders to model a phased approach to restore research, scholarship, and creative activities. The committee included deans from other California State University campuses, who were joined by executive university system heads Sadiq Shah, Chair of the Council of Chief Research Officers; Brian Jersky, Chair of the Provosts’ Standing Committee for Research and Scholarship; Frank Gomez, Executive Director of STEM-NET; and Ganesh Raman, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research.

“There has never been a massive shutdown of academic research across the country,” Johnson adds. “That made developing and navigating new protocols difficult but exciting.”

Ensuring Everyone’s Safety

Safety was a top priority when crafting the plan. “While developing the plan, we also simultaneously worked on NSM safe work practices so we could ensure that those who would come back to our two buildings to do research would not spread COVID-19 nor contract it,” she says.

The phased approach included input from Cal State Fullerton’s environmental health and safety department and biology faculty as well as from primary investigators at NSM. “I give our primary investigators in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, geology, and mathematics much credit,” Johnson shares. “They took the time to explain not only the importance of why they needed to be on campus and back in their labs, but also how they envisioned doing so safely and efficiently. We reviewed and approved 55 very detailed plans from them.”

Some of the components of the Cal State Fullerton plan include:

  • Scheduling for rigorous cleaning and sanitizing
  • Distribution of personal protective equipment and provision of hand sanitizer
  • Social distancing protocols
  • Signs encouraging safe hygiene practices
  • A time-scheduling requirement so that it is easy to determine who is in what lab at what time
  • Specific guidance on the number of people allowed in each lab space

“The plan allows for flexibility so that each lab can make it work for their needs. By late June, we were able to accommodate one-third of our regular lab capacity,” Johnson says.

Pride in the Plan’s Effectiveness

As the plan rolled out, everyone involved recognized that habits had to change.

“Wearing PPE is normal for scientists, but social distancing is not,” Johnson explains. “We’re inclined to huddle up to view something new under a microscope or discuss a hypothesis. Staying 6 feet apart is just not something that is natural to researchers, but our researchers have made excellent efforts to change habits to stay safe.”

Johnson is also proud that the plan, which was developed in the early days of the pandemic, has proven effective. “In the spring, we didn’t know enough about COVID-19 to fully know how effective the protocols we outlined on paper would be at keeping people safe. We knew we had to be – and have to continue to be – very vigilant in following those protocols,” she says. “I am proud to say that our plan has succeeded in helping researchers get back to doing their science and has kept them safe.”

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