COVID-19: UCSD to Resume Limited On-Campus Research in June

This article is a part of our news series on the COVID-19 pandemic. For information on how to prevent the spread of the virus, click here.

UC San Diego has announced that the university will work toward increasing the amount of on-campus activity for faculty and staff research beginning June 1. This plan follows the university’s May 5 announcement of their “Return to Learn” initiative, which is currently in its first phase of preliminary COVID-19 screenings. 

The May 15 email cited UCSD’s “Continuity of Research Task Force” as the group who has developed the procedure strategy for how campus will open up for more researchers. 

“The strategy lays out a multi-phase approach in which the level of activity in our labs, facilities and performance spaces will vary in response to public health conditions and stay in line with campus, local and statewide directives,” the email explained. 

The announcement clarified that all research work that can be conducted on a remote basis will continue to do so. Those researchers who will be returning to campus for work will be expected to follow the health guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This will mean researchers will have to social-distance, wear personal protective equipment, and practice good hygiene.

The UCSD Guardian spoke with UCSD Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences David Brenner, for his insight as to how these guidelines will be implemented. 

“As you know we’re one of the world’s great public research institutions and we want to create a safe environment where we can still do research,” Brenner said. “We really think that if we’re proactive and practice good public health measures, we can maintain complete safety and be able to continue to do research.”

Faculty and staff researchers will be able to work on campus under these new guidelines beginning June 1. The email did not include information about when current students involved in research would be able to resume on-campus work. 

The UCSD Guardian also interviewed UCSD alumna Christina Clark, who currently works for Kiger Lab as a research assistant, for her reaction about the university’s decision to increase on-campus lab activity. 

“I think it’s nice to have some general guidance finally,” Clark said. “It was very abrupt in March and we were kind of sent home all of a sudden with no real plan about what comes next. Today was the first time I heard about these phases.”

The email further explained that those individuals responsible for leading research programs will be expected to refer to UCSD’s Research Ramp-Up Guidelines for information on how to safely conduct research activities. Research program leaders will also need to submit plans for their labs’ ongoing operations through the Research Activity Framework tool. Plans will then be reviewed by their division leader and department chair for Health Sciences, or by their division chair and director for Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“I think there’s going to be a lot for labs to think about before June 1st,” Clark said. “In my case we share a tiny microscope room with 4-5 other labs on the floor. There’s no social distancing in there and everyone does imaging. We are thinking about moving our microscope to the second office but that would severely limit who could work in the lab at one time—the office isn’t big enough to have two people 6 feet apart.” 

Clark concluded by discussing how the program could play out for her research department.

“I think it has the potential to work but projects are going to progress much slower than people think and goals will greatly have to be changed about how we do our work,” Clark said. “Wearing masks and gloves isn’t new to us, but the social and time aspects will definitely be a change.”

The UCSD Guardian also contacted Vice Chancellor for Research Sandra Brown for comment.

“Today we launched our Research Ramp-up Guidelines and website. Although we are excited, we proceed with an abundance of caution and hold the health and safety of our community as a top priority,” Brown said. “Our plan was established based on CDC safety standards and in consultation with epidemiologists, infectious disease experts and broad campus involvement. We know that much research is needed to help understand the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on people in the community and around the world, and we look forward to advancing this research.”

This is a breaking story, and The UCSD Guardian has contacted the university for further comment. The article will be updated with any further developments.

This article was updated as of 1:45 p.m. May 15 to include Vice Chancellor Brenner’s  quote, and on May 17 at 1:30 p.m. to include Vice Chancellor Brown’s quote.

Photo by Erik Jepsen for UC San Diego Publications.