UT researchers adapt their work despite closed laboratories

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Photo Credit: Barbra Daly | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

UT researchers have been adapting and continuing their research despite closed laboratories and inability to collect data as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  

All on-campus laboratory activity not considered essential was paused March 23 as a part of UT-Austin’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, researchers such as assistant professors Sophie Lalande and Kasey Claborn have had to adapt parts of their research work.

Lalande studies how hypoxia — where the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply — affects physiological responses. She said collecting data for her lab included taking blood samples and monitoring breathing, both which require close proximity. Because of this, Lalande said the data collection portion of her research has completely stopped. Now, she is focusing on analyzing the data she has already taken.

“It's really hard to plan for anything when we have no idea what's going to happen,” Lalande said. “If I'm not in the lab, there's nothing else I can do. So, what I'll keep doing is at least publish the data that I already have.”

Claborn, who studies how HIV patients are cared for, said she put her funded projects on hold since she could not conduct research remotely, and some people no longer wanted to participate because they are at high risk for getting COVID-19.

“We tried to make it remote, but unfortunately we work with such a highly vulnerable patient population,” Claborn said. “A lot of them didn't have access to Zoom or ... even to a phone regularly enough, with a data plan, to where we'd be able to collect data the way we needed to.”

Claborn said she instead switched the focus of her research to the effects of COVID-19 on drug users and its impact on substance use.

The pandemic has also led to concerns about funding, but there haven’t been funding cuts from externally funded grants and contracts, said Jennifer Lyon Gardner, associate vice president for research. 

Both Claborn and Lalande said they received extensions on their funding and can continue their work.

“The funding agencies have been great at this point,” Lalande said. “I'm not sure how long that will continue for if we have a second wave of coronavirus. Things might change pretty significantly.”

Graduate student Sten Stray-Gundersen, who works with Lalande, said the holdup of data collection may delay him from earning his Ph.D. He has focused instead on completing his literature reviews for his dissertation.

“I'm progressing as much as I can,” Stray-Gundersen said. “A big part of the doctorate is actually conducting the research and gaining those skills and perfecting those skills of data collection. So, that aspect has definitely kind of pushed my schedule back.”

Lalande and Claborn said they are unsure what the fall holds for their research. Gardner said she is making a plan to resume research activity on campus with different UT colleges and University Health Services.

“This (plan) will happen in phases, not all at once,” Gardner said in an email. “The health and safety of UT researchers is top priority.”