The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed lab research at the University of Rhode Island this semester, according to several professors and students across different research departments, including chemical engineering and the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory.
Arjit Bose is one of many professors on campus who said the pandemic has affected lab work. He said that around March, his chemical engineering lab had to shut down completely.
“We didn’t feel safe because nobody knew how to work safely at that point,” Bose said. “We knew too little.”
Since reopening, the rules for how his students can use the lab have become more restrictive to prevent the transmission of the virus. Besides wearing masks, staying six feet apart and sanitizing all surfaces, he allows only five students at a time to be in the lab and students only come to the lab to perform their experiments. As soon as they finish using the lab equipment, they have to leave. While the lab also includes offices for graduate students, these have also been closed until further notice.
Bose acknowledged that these restrictions, while they decrease the risk of spreading the virus, create many dilemmas for both student scheduling and the research itself.
“Productivity is down quite a lot because we have to share time,” Bose said. “And we also have a safety issue that says you cannot work in the lab yourself, so a lot of coordination has to happen.”
Even experiments themselves have become more inconvenient to perform. For example, Bose said that the chemical engineering lab includes a small chamber for making lithium-ion batteries called a glove box. When a new student joins a lab group, someone needs to show them how to use it. This means that two people have to be near each other, which was a problem, according to Bose.
“I think that it has impacted the research because before, we had the freedom sitting in the office, doing whatever you had to, then going to the lab,” said Tania Oliveira, a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering.
Oliveira said she still appreciates that everyone in her lab group is supportive and has been communicating well enough. She also said that the time that students can stay in the lab was recently extended to past 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory has adjusted differently to the COVID-19 pandemic because of its reliance on outside sources and police coming from different areas of the state.
According to Dennis Hilliard, the director of the lab, they did not shut down when the pandemic first hit, but they received only about one case of evidence per week until around May. The pandemic caused many police cases to fall behind because although the lab provides an option for police departments to send evidence in the mail for his lab to analyze, Hilliard suspected that most departments did not trust this method.
“We saw 60 cases in May, we saw 80 cases in June, so we know they were holding onto evidence for a period of time, maybe a couple months,” Hilliard said.
The current method is for officers and lab workers to meet by appointment only in the parking lot to exchange the evidence, but Hilliard acknowledged that they will need to try something different come winter. To adjust, he said they are creating a new non-contact evidence collection area split down the middle by a plexiglass wall that officers can pass evidence and paperwork through to the lab workers.
Hilliard said his lab has encountered similar challenges with scheduling who can be in the lab, especially since there are still classes that come into the laboratory. His other concerns include when his department will need to pay back the pandemic loans, also known as “COVID money,” that they have received to adjust to the pandemic.
“Twenty-thousand dollars is a big hit to our budget,” Hilliard said.
Oliviera said that despite these setbacks that she and other students and lab workers have been facing, seeing the campus community mostly follow the rules and allowing URI to stay open gives her hope.
“I believe that if each one does what we are supposed to, we can keep going with our life not 100 percent normally, but 88-90 percent normal,” Oliviera said.