University considers research options in the fall

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Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

The Technological Institute. Northwestern hosted its EXCEL Scholars program for McCormick freshmen virtually this summer.

Yonjoo Seo, Reporter

Northwestern faculty and administrators discussed plans to increase laboratory access for research on the Evanston and Chicago campuses during Thursday’s Return to Campus Discussion Series webinar.

The University is in its fourth step of its Phased Return to Campus, and has been carefully observing the increased activity on campus and considering expanding in-person options. Only authorized faculty and staff, graduate students and researchers are currently allowed to return to campus. Limited laboratory research was allowed on campus Spring Quarter and has gradually increased during each stage with social distancing and mask requirements among the enforced safety protocols.

Vice President for Research Milan Mrksich said the early stages of reopening research laboratories have gone well and people have complied with social distancing guidelines and personal protective equipment requirements, along with following the individual lab plans.

Some graduate and postdoctorate researchers had previously voiced concerns at a Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council meeting and in a survey, saying they felt unsafe returning to the labs and feared retribution for voicing their concerns. Mrksich said in the webinar that primary investigators and managers were not allowed to pressure researchers to return, and any complaints would be handled by a central office with no direct affiliations to their supervisors.

“We will consider increasing the number of people that can be in a lab, as we did in July, after we make some adjustments,” Mrksich said. “Eighty-five percent of the lab research population is pretty much operating normally, in the sense that they have got access to the labs.”

Although the libraries remain closed, Kelly Mayo, interim dean of The Graduate School, said there are opportunities for curb-side pickup and scanning services, along with the University’s extensive digital resources and research consultations.

In addition, Mayo said one change for Fall Quarter is undergraduates will be able to conduct independent study research in laboratories with permission.

“We recognize that the research experiences for undergraduates are really, really important both for the students and for the labs that they’re working with,” Mrksich said. “And it was hard for us in June, as we got started again, to not include undergraduates.”

The University is planning to conduct daily COVID-19 tests, opening a testing site on the Evanston Campus on Monday and in Chicago on Aug. 27, said Luke Figora, senior associate vice president and chief risk and compliance officer.

Some of the plans for testing weren’t even considered a month ago, Mrksich said, and the University is looking at this situation daily to evaluate what resources are available.

Associate Vice President of Research Richard D’Aquila said researchers on both campuses pivoted and jumped right into addressing the global challenge, evaluating convalescent plasma treatment options and contributing to clinical trials among other studies.

“The goal is reactivating (research) as much as we can but still doing it in a way that minimizes risk of transmission,” Mrksich said. “We’ll keep looking and evaluating and working with the public health experts and others to try to make the best decisions.”

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