‘Busier than ever’: UC Berkeley researchers adapt to impacts of COVID-19

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With the increase in social distancing measures and the shelter-in-place order, UC Berkeley researchers are working from home, halting lab experiments and working on projects related to COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus.

Researchers have been instructed to work remotely when possible, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. She added that principal investigators have been told to suspend their on-campus research as much as possible through May 3.

“Essential access, limited to sustaining research capability, such as animal care, servicing of critical instrumentation, and maintenance of germ lines, has been authorized by the Vice Chancellor for Research Office in coordination with Deans and Chairs,” Gilmore said in an email.

According to Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz, the highest priority for accessing campus facilities is for COVID-19 research. This includes COVID-19 testing at the Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, and the College of Engineering’s open-source ventilator design project.

Campus public health professor Arthur Reingold, who studies infectious diseases, said his staff has been able to continue working from home. Reingold added that studies in the social sciences and in public health often involve interactions with people, some of which can be done over the phone.

Reingold said he has taken on additional work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including modeling data from health care institutions on the number of cases and helping design studies to learn how many people are infected with the disease.

“I think people who do work like mine, in the infectious disease area, are busier than ever,” Reingold said.

Michael Burawoy, a campus sociology professor, said in an email that as an ethnographer, his research involves acting as a “participant observer” by joining communities, which has been rendered “impossible” by the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing measures.

Burawoy added that some ethnographers are turning to alternative solutions, such as analyzing previous research and preparing for future studies, or conducting interviews rather than in-person participant observation.

Lewis Feldman, UC Botanical Garden director and plant biology professor, said those who work in his lab can no longer come work in person. He added that those who have big labs and rely on results to renew their grants will be greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexa Nicolas, a graduate student in the department of plant and microbial biology, said her research focuses on soil microbial communities and viruses. Since her work transitioned to its computational phase last year, she has been able to continue working from home.

Nicolas added, however, that COVID-19 has impacted researchers in her department in different ways, and those who primarily work in labs cannot continue their research. She said some students are starting to write their dissertations, and others are informally analyzing publicly available data about COVID-19. Additionally, those whose research requires it — such as labs with live specimens — have permission to go to their labs once or twice a week to check in, according to Nicolas.

Nicolas said there is research and grant writing related to COVID-19 happening within IGI. She and other students are involved in an early-stage IGI project to understand where COVID-19 hot spots may be in the Bay Area, such as hospitals and BART.

“This is not a time where people are twiddling their thumbs,” Nicolas said. “I think my continual concern in this is that people are doing amazing work and stepping up to volunteer their time, and in volunteering our time, I’m worried our labor is devalued and we’re being overworked.”

Goldman School of Public Policy professor Hilary Hoynes said in an email that her projects, which require accessing data through the Federal Statistical Research Data Center in the basement of Barrows Hall, are now on hold.

Hoynes added that like that of many other campus faculty members, her research has shifted to focus on COVID-19.

“I am engaged in many new projects, tracking and analyzing our policies aimed at helping families in need,” Hoynes said in the email.

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.