In the lab and in the field, PSU researchers overcome pandemic challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic meant many Portland State researchers had to stop their lab activities and fieldwork this spring. Now research has resumed — slowly and carefully.

“We are very aware of the concerns about COVID-19 but also the need to resume research activities for students and faculty who are anxious to get back to work,” says Kelly Clifton, interim associate vice president for research. Research is also an essential element of PSU’s identity as Oregon’s largest urban research university, and one of the ways the university serves its students, metro Portland and the larger world. 

In order to conduct lab and field work safely, Clifton says Research and Graduate Studies has developed a rigorous evaluation process. 

As part of this process, researchers who wish to return to campus or field sites submit plans to Research and Graduate Studies. Every three weeks, these plans are evaluated by a university-wide committee.   

Researchers began returning in June. About 300 people, many of them graduate students, have been approved to return to research or creative activities on campus. 

As you may imagine, research looks a little different during a pandemic.

 Everyone is required to wear masks unless wearing a mask is dangerous for a particular experiment. Only one person is allowed in a lab at a time, and there is an hour-long break between shifts. Researchers are required to disinfect lab spaces before they leave and to keep a list of who has been in the space in case there is a need for contact tracing. Before returning to campus or fieldwork, all researchers must complete a research training specific to COVID-19 precautions. 

“Those are the biggest changes: social distancing, training, coordination,” says Clifton. “It requires a lot of vetting and a lot of planning.”

For the researchers who have been able to return to their labs, this effort has helped them feel more comfortable about returning.  

“I appreciate the policies that PSU has put in place to protect students, staff and faculty,” says Anna Duell, a postdoctoral scholar who studies the chemistry of electronic cigarettes with David Peyton, professor of chemistry. “In particular, the mask policies, cleaning protocols and spatial distancing make PSU feel safer at this time.” 

Duell, who recently received her Ph.D. from PSU, was able to return to her lab in late June. 

While she was away from the lab, she analyzed already-collected data and met with colleagues virtually, but she couldn’t do new experiments analyzing the compounds in e-liquids before and after vaping. Now she can. 

“It has been great to be able to make progress on my research projects,” she says.

Researchers who do field work also had to apply to return to their work. 

For some field researchers, not much has changed with the pandemic. 

 “We’re a bit lucky in that we work in very remote areas,” says Andrés Holz, associate professor of geography. “Our field-based work conditions have changed, but it’s a relatively small adjustment in comparison to what other colleagues are facing.” 

Holz and his team conduct their field work in mixed conifer forests across the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests in northeastern Oregon. At these sites, team members extract tree core samples and cross-sections — called “cookies” — to learn about the severity and frequency of forest fires predating both the arrival of white settlers in the mid-to-late 1800s and fire suppression activities that began and spread widely across the West in the 1900s.  

This is the team’s third summer collecting data on this project, and what they learn will help inform conservation groups and forest managers about best practices for managing these forests. For instance, the research helps determine if, where, and how to restore these forests to make them more resilient to ramping climate change. 

But for researchers whose fieldwork involves people, the pandemic has made things more challenging. 

“We have not been approving face-to-face research at this time, but faculty have been really creative about shifting to an online context,” says Clifton.
Melissa Haeffner, assistant professor of environmental science and management, and her graduate student Clare McClellan, study human-environment interactions. For her thesis work, McClellan pivoted from in-person focus groups to an online tool to collect data from people in six Oregon communities about their values and perspectives related to water. 
Moving forward Clifton says the plan is to continue to slowly add faculty and students to the list of researchers who can return to their non-remote research activities. This will include undergraduates who were already involved in research before the shutdown. There may also be opportunities to expand the types of on and off campus research activities that are allowed to resume, such as human subjects research and in-person interviewing of people on campus. 

However, the course of the pandemic will determine what the fall looks like for research at PSU, and the plans for resuming research are designed to respond to changes in public health data. 

The most important consideration is, of course, safety. “We want to make sure that things are working and that people feel confident in going back and that no one is compelled to return if they don't feel safe,” says Clifton. There is a mechanism for reporting issues or concerns by emailing with the subject line: CONFIDENTIAL: COVID Concern(s).

So far, the plan for resuming research activities seems to be going well. “We did a survey with the first wave of people who have returned to campus and overwhelmingly people felt comfortable or very comfortable.”

Story by Summer Allen

Homepage image: Keisha Mateo '17, photo by NashCo  

Article images:

Anna Duell inserting a sample into an NMR spectrometer, photo by Anna Duell.

Andrés Holz examining tree "cookies" from his lab's fieldwork, photo by NashCo. 

Oregon Water Stories website created by Melissa Haeffner and Clare McClellan to collect data from Oregonians across the state.