Campus News

Lessons from UNC Research

As many Carolina employees adjust to the return to campus, they have a successful prototype in UNC Research, which led the way to safe in-person work.

Black man in blue surgical gown and mask looks at cell media under a computerized microscope.
James Meyo looks at cell media under a computerized microscope in the Dittmer Lab in the UNC School of Medicine’s microbiology and immunology department on Feb. 23, 2021. The lab is part of a Carolina collaboration tracking and analyzing SARS-CoV-2 variants. (Megan May/UNC Research)

As many of Carolina’s employees return to campus this month, they have a prototype for success. UNC Research developed a plan back in June 2020 to ramp up on-campus research from critical projects only — COVID-19 related, among others — to 50% capacity. Back then, much was still new, including masking, physical distancing and cleaning protocols.

“And yet, miraculously, we managed to be able to get our research enterprise almost fully up and running, even a year ago despite the pandemic, in a manner that was safe and did not result in any widespread transmission of virus,” said Andy Johns, UNC Research associate vice chancellor.

Not only that, but UNC Research hit a high-water mark in terms of grant awards in 2020.

“If it wasn’t for the flexibility, willingness and cooperation of everyone at all the different schools and units, it wouldn’t work,” Johns said.

headshot of Andy Johns

Andy Johns

Last fall, The Well reported on how UNC Research responded during the early months of the pandemic. We wondered what else Carolina researchers have learned since then. Here’s some of the advice they passed along.

Follow the guidelines.

“UNC has treated thousands of patients with COVID in our COVID units with no definite transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to a health care provider,” said David Weber, professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases. “And the reason for that is masks work when worn properly.”

COVID-19 cases are again on the increase, Weber said. Therefore, if you develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (fever, cough, sore throat, chest pain, chills), you should stay home, call your health care provider and obtain a COVID-19 test.

“We should not assume that our vaccinated colleagues cannot have COVID,” he said. “And we should never assume people are vaccinated.”

Get vaccinated.

Weber strongly encourages everyone who can to get vaccinated.

“COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective but not perfect in preventing infections with the COVID-19 variant. But they are very effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths even from the delta variant,” Weber said.

Dr. David Weber, UNC School of Medicine.

David Weber

Remain vigilant and flexible.

Even though COVID-19 transmission rates have dropped well below their peak levels — thanks in large part to people getting vaccinated — this is no time to let your guard down.

“We’re still learning. We still don’t know what we don’t know,” Johns said. “We may learn more that will inform the approach that we choose to take. So, I think we have to leave some flexibility open to considering what further evolution may need to occur. If, at some point, we start to see a cluster or an outbreak among our research population, that could force us to reconsider our approach.”

Start small and pace yourself.

“Social interactions are emotionally and cognitively demanding. They can be taxing and fatiguing,” said psychologist Aysenil Belger, director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. “What I have seen working well is to reintegrate slowly.”

“People will have different sensitivities. Feeling out everybody’s level of comfort is difficult to do when you are in a large group,” Belger said. “Because it’s less emotionally and cognitively taxing, have one-on-ones and small group meetings with people you know and trust to recreate a safe social environment, at least at first.”

Strengthen the social fabric.

Social interaction may be taxing ― especially at work ― but it is important. Much of what we do as scientists and researchers is done in a team setting and requires connection and communication.

“We are social animals,” Belger said. “Prioritizing activities that are less task-oriented and purely social might be good for rebuilding that social fabric and trust and in strengthening teams. Across campus people have joined research teams during the pandemic. Activities focusing on re-teaming would be beneficial and should be considered.”

And not just with work in mind, she said.

Aysenil Belger

Aysenil Belger

“We have lost some of our human need to be interconnected. As social beings, we nurture our young ones, our older ones, and we talk to our friends and our community.” A pandemic where everyone is a potential viral agent raises all sorts of anxieties and conflicting feelings, which lessens trust in other people.

“We’ve had a very difficult year. Rebuilding that takes time and a kind of practice,” Belger said. She and her FPG colleagues are planning small gatherings that do not focus exclusively on work, allowing people to reconnect and rebuild trust.

Be intentional.

Belger said FPG created specific guidelines for research resumption that adapted the University’s COVID-19 Community Standards to its unique human subject protocols, which include instructions on where to meet research participants, how to communicate with them ahead of time about the safety precautions and how many, if any, researchers could be in a room with a study participant. Following safety guidelines that protect the research team and participants is the primary concern. Outside of research, similar guidelines might help other Carolina units that regularly engage with outside visitors.

Share what works.

The pandemic has forced everyone to be more creative and flexible at work. “Having study teams talk to one another about what they’ve done and how it’s made work easier has been really helpful,” said Laura Viera, director of clinical research operations at both the School of Medicine and the NC TraCS Institute.

She tries to connect people with problems with those who might offer solutions. “When people come to us and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to have this patient for this type of visit, what do I do?’ I say, ‘Well, I haven’t done that, but I know Terry in radiology has, so let me connect you with him and he can tell you. People have found that really helpful.”

Get outside.

Outdoor space on campus has definitely been appreciated,” Viera said. Whether you’re alone or with another person or two, finding a small table where you can take your masks off for a little bit while you’re outdoors really helps ratchet down the tension.

Viera is also a fan of walking meetings. “It takes some getting used to,” she said. “I’m typically in a meeting with a pen and paper or my computer. In a walking meeting, you have to get over the hump of being comfortable just talking and communicating and taking things in versus jotting down everything.” But that’s also beneficial, she said. For a while, she and a previous director took walking meetings for their monthly check-ins, when they weren’t planning big initiatives or anything else that required note taking or PowerPoint presentations. “It was more to talk through what happened during the past month and generally connect.”

Laura Viera

Laura Viera

Engage your teams.

Even though University employees are officially back on campus, there are still lots of Zoom meetings because of the need to avoid large congregations. “We don’t have the same opportunities to have hallway chats and bounce ideas off of one another, so thinking of ways to keep that team engagement is important,” Viera said.

One example she gave was a rose, bud and thorn exercise at a recent Zoom meeting with colleagues at NC TraCS. Everyone shared the best thing that happened to them (rose), the worse thing (thorn) and what they’re looking forward to (bud). “We try to be more intentional with the team building.”

Make room for serendipity.

Before the pandemic, Ralph House, associate chair for research in the College of Arts & Sciences’ chemistry department, had an open-door policy. “A lot of great ideas happened by people just coming into my office. I have a whiteboard, and we would go to the whiteboard and brainstorm. If I saw a funding opportunity and thought it could be a good fit for someone, it was very simple for me to walk to the individual’s office and talk to them about it.”

He tried to recreate the open-door policy by leaving a Zoom meeting open throughout the day so that people could “drop by.” But that never worked. Too many other meetings drew his attention away.

Instead, now that House and many people he knows are vaccinated, he has begun meeting people one-on-one for physically distanced lunch or drinks. That’s not something he typically did in the past because there wasn’t a driving need for him. The open-door policy allowed for the serendipity to happen. Now his casual get-togethers with colleagues are making space for serendipity.

“That venue for discussion is really great,” he said. “People are more relaxed and because you’re sitting down one-on-one or with two others, the time is completely dedicated to each other. A lot of great ideas come out of it.”

Be space creative.

Working indoors has been challenging because of the need for physical distancing. In one chemistry building, some spaces were gutted as part of a renovation, but the work had stopped. In the meantime, House and his team opened those spaces up and added appropriately distanced desks and chairs. The space has nice windows, and now students use the space to eat or do computer work between experiments. They did the same with conference rooms no longer in use because they weren’t large enough to meet and accommodate COVID-19 policy.

Ralph House

Ralph House

Don’t give up.

“We’re chemists. We wear safety glasses. When you put a mask on, your glasses fog up. It’s really hard to still have to wear the mask when everyone around you has been vaccinated,” said House. But, the discomfort, he said, is worth the effort. “To do science, we have to be in the lab, and it’s fantastic we were able to keep our research enterprise moving ahead this past year. At our core laboratories, we really pride ourselves on students being able to walk up and use instruments. We made that a priority so that COVID didn’t prevent student training on the advanced analytical instrumentation that will help make them competitive in the marketplace.”

House said the pandemic won’t last forever. “Masks are crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19, and some of the new variants we’re hearing about are concerning. We are definitely looking forward to the day we will be able to go back to normal and take masks off in the lab.”

Acknowledge the sacrifice.

“All of these interventions and different changes in behavior require sacrifices. It requires a true partnership,” Johns said. “It requires parties to acknowledge and recognize the challenges that we face and that in order to continue to meet our needs and be responsive to our mission and execute on our research, we have to be willing to do it differently. The entire community has been remarkably resilient and willing and dealing with a lot of adversity through this process.”