UT-Austin researchers adapt practices for COVID-19 protocol, continue research

Amanda Figueroa-Nieves

Researchers around campus have reworked their schedules and forged new relationships with students to follow COVID-19 safety precautions while continuing research.

The Fall 2020 Planning Research Working Group designed a daily work shift and scheduling model under the UT Health and Wellness Working Group to allow some research to continue on campus. Through this model, the same group of researchers works the same shift consistently to isolate any outbreaks to a single shift, according to the provost’s website. 

Oncology professor William Matsui said his lab is working in two separate, three-person shifts. He said the limitations on staff make it difficult for researchers to publish their work.

“The people in my lab are here to do lab research, so if you can't do that, then I think it becomes frustrating,” Matsui said. “If you can't do any work, then you can’t publish, and if you can't publish, then you're not going to be able to find a job.”

Matsui said he is helping with the research reopening plans for the medical school, and while researchers have been mostly understanding, many are concerned about how funding from grants may change with the gap in their activity.

“The nature of lab research is that you can't just say, ‘Okay, I'm going to go in today, and I'm going to pick up where I left off,’” Matsui said. “Everything takes a while to get back up (and) running … so the amount of time that there's not sort of data being generated is actually quite long.”


Matsui said while some researchers have tested positive for COVID-19, it has been individually rather than in clusters. He said limiting the spread of the disease is most important.

“People have remained fairly safe, health-wise,” Matsui said. “The most important thing, that trumps getting your stuff done, is being alive.”

Molecular Biosciences professor Christopher Sullivan said two-thirds of his staff returned to work on the shift schedule, but the plan does not apply to undergraduates who work in his lab. 

“Having to tell… 100% of my undergraduate researchers that they cannot advance their careers and make discoveries has taken a toll on some of them,” Sullivan said. “Mentally, I think we all need the right amount of free time and productive time and when that gets out-of-whack, it can be hard on folks, especially younger trainees who feel great pressure to be advancing their careers.”  

Chemical engineering professor Nicholas Peppas said the pandemic pushed him to find ways to connect with his undergraduate researchers, such as creating a virtual journal club where students discuss new publications and advances in the field.

“It has given a new dimension to my life as a professor,” Peppas said. “I see my students, I work with them, I am concerned about their personal problems and so on. I have several students… who lost their grandparents. Today, in my class, I started with one minute of silence.”