What it’s really like to do science amid COVID-19
From Germany to India, researchers are grappling with how to run labs and lessons under extraordinary restrictions.
19 October 2020
Quirin Schiermeier, Holly Else, Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, T.V. Padma & Nisha Gaind
Quirin Schiermeier et al.
Autumn heralds the start of a new academic year in much of the world, but in 2020, the term comes with the disruption of the COVID-19 outbreak and a surge in infections in many regions. Many universities have welcomed students and researchers back to campus — often for the first time since nations implemented stringent lockdowns in March.
But the return to institutions comes with unprecedented safety and social-distancing measures, which hinder teaching and laboratory work. And despite these, outbreaks on campuses are becoming a major concern in countries worldwide.
Although some institutions are offering in-person teaching, remote instruction has become the norm in many places. And for those who had already returned to the lab and adapted their work procedures because of the pandemic, the return of teaching brings an increased burden as they try to balance safety with the needs of students. Maintaining research necessities such as animal lineages can also be a struggle under the control measures.
“Even in labs that are open, research is restricted,” says Jamal Nasir, a human geneticist at the University of Northampton, UK, who is returning to his lab after six months away.
Nature looks how researchers and students in four countries are coping with the return to campus amid the pandemic.
Brazil: ‘The loss to research is irreparable’
Brazil has no national strategy to guide its 110 federal universities and institutes on how to resume activities as a new semester gets under way. In July, the Ministry of Education released recommendations that institutions are encouraged, but not obliged, to follow. As of 9 October, 3 had not yet resumed classes and the rest were delivering all teaching remotely.
In universities where campus access is restricted, and services such as animal-research facilities have been left without technicians, researchers have had to cancel or indefinitely postpone projects.
“It is impossible to continue the work,” says João Santana da Silva, an immunologist at the University of São Paulo in Ribeirão Preto. “We are struggling to maintain animal lineages and [living] parasite strains and to minimize the damage. The loss in research and human resources is irreparable.”
The lack of a clear national policy means that, in practice, official recommendations are “not so strict”, says Ricardo Gazzinelli, an infectious-disease researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Belo Horizonte. He says that it was up to individual researchers and group leaders to implement the rules.
Gazzinelli, who coordinates a team of around 50 people working on a coronavirus vaccine and diagnostic tests for COVID-19, decided to ask everyone who entered his 2 labs, including cleaning staff, to take a coronavirus test every 15 days. He also established staggered work times to limit the number of people in the lab, and asked everyone to use masks and to maintain social distancing. The testing identified one infected person who was asked to stay at home.
Although some of his lab members are continuing to work, others have seen their research fall into limbo. A group of scientists who were planning to travel to the Amazon rainforest for a study on malaria transmission found their efforts disrupted by travel restrictions and concerns about putting communities and themselves at risk. “Field work was practically paralyzed,” says Gazzinelli.
Carina Vela-Ulian, a PhD student at the Federal University of Espírito Santo in Vitória, experienced a similar set-back. Her project on bat ecology in the Caparaó National Park was put on hold when the pandemic forced the park to close. “The data for my work [are] fully obtained during field trips,” she says. So far, all of her visits have been cancelled.
Many students are struggling to cope with the stress brought on by disruption to their projects, getting COVID or losing relatives to the disease, says Letícia Couto Garcia, a restoration ecologist at the University of Mato Grosso do Sul in Campo Grande.
For about six months, her group has been unable to visit the plots that they’re monitoring because they lie in the Indigenous land of the Kadiwéu people, and Indigenous groups in the country have restricted visits to shield themselves from COVID-19. “The situation is quite difficult,” she says.
Lecturer Ian Bowden teaches law students wearing face coverings to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. Bolton,UK. Many institutions, such as the University of Bolton, UK, have introduced COVID safety measures such as perspex screens in teaching classes.Credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
United Kingdom: Campus outbreaks surge
The return to universities in the United Kingdom has coincided with a surge in daily cases of COVID-19. Already, more than 100 universities have reported coronavirus cases, and thousands of students are self-isolating.
The outbreaks come just weeks after institutions opened their doors to students and the flare-ups have prompted teaching unions to call for an end to face-to-face lectures.
The rising cases at institutions mean that all teaching should be moved online immediately, says Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents academics. “We are not prepared to take chances with the health and safety of students, staff or local communities,” she says.
Guidance from the government’s Department of Education says that higher-education institutions should open. It says that there is no scientific basis to suggest that face-to-face teaching is unsafe, as long as staff take measures to manage the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. These measures include more cleaning; increasing ventilation; keeping a distance between people; and using face coverings.
Most institutions plan to offer in-person teaching: 89 out of 92 institutions surveyed by the umbrella organization Universities UK said that they would do so this autumn when it is safe. Many are offering a mix of online and in-person tuition to students.
The University of Cambridge and the University of Manchester, for example, will offer lectures online but small group tutorials and practical classes in person.
The University of Liverpool was one of the first to report a significant outbreak of confirmed cases on campus. As part of its preparations, the institution is welcoming students back in phases and has created an on-site coronavirus-testing facility for its staff and students. University College London has also established its own testing facility.
Many researchers, meanwhile, have already been adjusting to life in the lab amid the pandemic. Giampaolo Pitruzzello, a physicist at the University of York, returned to work in June. His lab has introduced an online system for booking time slots; third-year PhD students have priority so that they can finish their experiments.
Capacity is limited, and social distancing and face masks are mandatory — and Pitruzzello says he feels safe. “There are hand sanitizers everywhere, and there is a one-way system in the corridor so it is actually rare to meet another person,” he adds.
Germany: ‘Online tools are makeshift’
In the winter semester, German universities, which began their academic year on 1 October, are hoping to take a step towards normality. Lab work has more or less returned to normal, and many institutions are reintroducing face-to-face teaching as well. But this comes as COVID-19 infections rise again in Germany.
Germany’s roughly 100 research universities have set out similar plans for the term. These universities want to gradually restart in-person teaching, which wasn’t possible in the summer. This year, lectures will start in November, and some students will be able to return to campuses — albeit in limited numbers — and they will be subject to strict physical-distancing rules.
Courses that allow attendance will mainly be available to students in their first and second years of study and for graduating classes. For other students, remote teaching and learning will remain the norm.
Special provisions to help universities to prevent the spread of the virus and keep people safe vary from state to state, and might change depending on local infection numbers. For example, in Bavaria, where new infections have been rising faster in recent weeks than in most other states, a maximum of 200 students will be allowed to attend lectures and they must stay at least 1.5 metres from each other.
In seminar rooms or labs where they might need to sit or stand close together, attendants must wear face coverings. And students attending in-person classes must leave their names and contact details for contact-tracing purposes.
The set-up isn’t ideal, say researchers. “Students must be able to meet their teachers in person every so often,” says Jörn Birkmann, who teaches spatial and regional planning at the University of Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg. “Online tools that lack interactivity are but a makeshift.”
Birkmann plans to resume teaching in small seminars in November. Meticulous planning and compliance with hygiene provisions will be an extra burden, he says. He fears that COVID restrictions might limit opportunities for students to participate in excursions and field trips.
Since March, research has generally suffered less disruption than has teaching. Urgent lab work and experiments continued even during the lockdown, and most scientists have now returned to the bench.
“It’s awkward to make precision measurements or calibrate magnetic sensors with a mouth and nose mask on,” says Peter Fierlinger, a neutron researcher at the Technical University Munich. But despite some restrictions, meeting group members every day and discussing data over coffee is better than working from home most of the time, he says. “Scientists are pragmatic people who know how to get by.”
Candidates arrives to appear for semester exams held by Abdul Kalam Technical University (AKTU), Noida, India. Face masks are mandatory at many universities.Credit: Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times/Getty
India: Lack of Internet poses problems
India has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases — 6 million in total — worldwide. The country imposed a nationwide lockdown in March, and although restrictions are easing, higher-education institutions have so far been allowed to open only for researchers and post-graduate students who need to carry out lab work.
That means most undergraduates are not yet allowed to return to campus, and teaching must be done remotely.
The situation has created problems for those who can’t easily get online. Ananda Bharadvaja, a physicist at the Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences in Delhi, says that some of his students do not have access to computers, which he has tried to address by pairing them up with others to share computational work.
The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune says that it is e-mailing material to students who are unable to participate in online classes.
The shift online is disrupting scientific subjects that involve practical work. Undergraduate physics students are foregoing lab experience in topics such as thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, says Bharadvaja.
Some institutions, such as the IISER and the University of Delhi South Campus, have postponed lab courses, whereas others are including lab work in remote teaching. At Shiv Nadar University (SNU) near Delhi, staff video broadcast live demonstrations of lab experiments, says physical chemist Biswajit Guchchait.
But he adds that “many students have expressed an interest in hands-on lab experience, so we are considering redoing them once universities reopen”.
Those who have been allowed to return to the lab face safety measures, such as social-distancing, staggered shifts, and mask-wearing. Several universities are testing the temperatures of people entering their campuses.
“We did consider on-site testing [for COVID-19] but haven’t done this as yet,” says Harinath Chakrapani, professor of chemistry at IISER.
Safety measures are an ongoing discussion, says biophysicist Gautam Menon, a biophysicist at Ashoka University at Sonepat near Delhi. “Thermal scanning is not particularly efficient and it might be best to test everyone at regular intervals and ensure that they can comfortably self-isolate if they test positive,” he says.
And although tests for COVID-19 are becoming cheaper and more accurate, “there will be considerable challenges in doing this across campuses in India”.