COVID-19 pandemic disrupts U-M research projects far and wide

Daniel Rabosky

Daniel Rabosky

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its march across the globe, a wide variety of University of Michigan research projects are feeling the effects, both at home and abroad. Though these disruptions pale when compared with the human suffering caused by the disease, they are significant to the individual researchers involved.

Here are a few of the U-M researchers who have been affected.

Evolutionary biologists Daniel Rabosky and Alison Davis Rabosky are in Panama. He is on sabbatical, studying biodiversity and why there is so much of it in the tropics. Davis Rabosky is studying the evolution of behavior, particularly in snakes. The Raboskys, who are both faculty members in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, were originally scheduled to return in July but have been tracking coronavirus developments and considered leaving early, then decided to ride it out in Panama.

"Lots of things went into that calculation,” Daniel Rabosky said in an email. "The shutdown of the schools here is far and away the biggest impact. Attending to child care, home schooling and other necessities takes priority over science at the moment. It’s a new dynamic, and we are figuring things out as we go-as, presumably, are most people and especially those with kids at home.”

Vertebrate ecologist Johannes Foufopoulos has been studying the evolution of Aegean wall lizards, specifically their anti-predator responses, on dozens of Greek islands for more than a decade. Results from the study suggest that animals living on small, long-isolated islands face the greatest risk from introduced predators-such as feral cats and rats-and should therefore receive priority in conservation efforts.

Each spring after the semester ends in Ann Arbor, Foufopoulos and his students head to the Greek islands for the field season. But that won’t be possible this year, due to COVID-19.

"Our lab research has been hugely disrupted,” said Foupoloulos, an associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability. "We are not able to travel anymore to our field sites on the Greek islands, which means that the evolution experiments we have been conducting-letting lizard species evolve on islands under controlled conditions-are going to be really problematic. You need to measure the animals at specific times annually to track the evolutionary trajectories.”

David Gerdes , chair of the Department of Physics, has cancelled two observation runs scheduled to take place at telescopes in Chile in April, with the cancellation of a third likely. One of the world’s premiere astronomical sites, observatories in Chile are currently on lockdown, with only skeleton crews carrying out basic maintenance operations, he says. Gerdes’ lost time was a particular setback, he says, because the intended observations were extremely time-sensitive.

"NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is currently speeding through the heart of the Kuiper Belt, well beyond Pluto, at 36,000 miles per hour. We were going to search for objects in the Kuiper Belt that New Horizons could photograph from close range-continuing a successful program that led to observations of three objects last year,” he said. "This is an irretrievably lost opportunity, as New Horizons is going, going, gone in a few years, and there will not be another chance to observe the Kuiper Belt up close for decades.”

The team still has time in June and July for this project, but the April data would have been important to establish longer orbital arcs for their discoveries. Gerdes said this would have reduced the uncertainty on the objects’ positions and increased the likelihood of targeting them successfully. The status of the team’s June and July runs is also up in the air.

"Telescope time is awarded competitively, and most telescopes are oversubscribed by a large factor. Nearly 100% of the nights are scheduled months in advance. The loss of one’s time due to bad weather or equipment failure has always been an occupational hazard. You don’t get a rain check for a later date,” Gerdes said. "What’s new about the current situation is a total shutdown that will go on for weeks, if not months. This will affect a broad swath of scientific programs.”

Tyeen Taylor , a research fellow in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was set to leave for Siberia next week for field work measuring how climate change is affecting vegetation and permafrost in the Arctic.

He and Valeriy Ivanov , an associate professor in the same department, had also organized a Navigating the New Arctic international workshop for 30 researchers from all over the world. Travel bans and the worsening pandemic forced them to cancel the research trip, but the workshop will happen. It starts March 25, roughly on schedule.

"I’m pivoting to doing science at a social distance,” Taylor said. "We are restructuring to a virtual format that accommodates the realities of humans at home in a less than ideal situation-for example, the workshop is less time intensive and we’ve identified more focused and efficient objectives. We must accommodate time zones spanning about 12 hours of difference and the distribution of scientific disciplines across those time zones.”

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Multiple planned fieldwork trips-along the U.S. East Coast and to Bermuda and the Caribbean-for a climate change study led by paleoclimatologist Sierra Petersen have been disrupted by COVID-19. The National Science project looks to reconstruct climate during the last interglacial period about 125,000 years ago to determine regionally specific temperature patterns under a warmer background climate.

Petersen was slated to go to Bermuda in April to collect fossil seashells and modern water samples, but the trip has been canceled.

"We need to collect modern water samples at different times of year to better understand modern variability in water chemistry and to provide context for our fossil shell studies,” said Petersen, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Petersen’s doctoral student planned to accompany another colleague to South Carolina to collect fossils and water samples in May, a trip which is now postponed indefinitely. A third co-investigator and student were planning a trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands in late spring for the same project.

"Late spring is a key time for fieldwork for Michigan faculty and students because classes are over, but many summer programs and commitments have not yet begun,” Petersen said. "This disruption is also coming at a particularly unfortunate time for me personally. I am due to have a baby in June and was hoping to squeeze in one last fieldwork trip before maternity leave.”

Andrzej Wierzbicki , an associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, studies plant biology. His lab relies on the ability to grow and analyze plants. The Biological Sciences Building has a state-of-the-art plant growth facility where his group and several other labs grow their plants. His group’s primary concern is keeping the plants alive. They need to be watered every day. Then, ongoing experiments require crossing different plant lines and collecting plant tissue at specific intervals.

"We are in the process of identifying essential personnel who will have continued access to our plant growth facility for the purpose of maintaining plant growth and preserving plant material for future use,” Wierzbicki said. "Our group is in a relatively good situation going into a campus shutdown because we perform a lot of bioinformatic data analysis.”

During the remainder of the week, the lab will prepare a large batch of experimental samples, which will be submitted for high throughput sequencing at the U-M Advanced Genomics Core. They hope that the Advanced Genomics Core will remain operational and will be able to perform sequencing of their samples. The generated datasets will require extensive bioinformatic analysis, which may be performed remotely and will keep them busy while the lab is closed.

Matthew Chapman , a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, studies the principles of the formation of amyloid-the sticky tangles of proteins implicated in neurodegenerative diseases-using the curli system. Curli are extracellular amyloid fibers produced by E. coli and certain Salmonella species. His lab quickly shut down its experiments in response to U-M’s closure.

"For ’wet bench science,’ we come in to move clear liquids from one tube to another. That has to be done in order for the research as we know it to go forward,” Chapman said. "As of right now, laboratory science is essentially shutting down, and that happened, for my lab, relatively quickly. We mostly work on bacteria and molecules, proteins, and we can sort of store those away on relatively short notice and pick them back up with only the intervening time being the interruption.”

Chapman’s lab uses proteins and bacteria that have been genetically altered to exhibit certain properties. Once these bacteria are made, they can be stored in a freezer until experiments can resume. He says the biggest challenges his lab members will face will be doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers being able to complete crucial experiments in order to move forward to graduation or in their careers.

"In all the years I’ve been lucky enough to be a principal investigator, I have encouraged lab members to be present in the lab, talking and interacting with each other. The best science happens that way,” Chapman said. "Although the shutdown will be a major disruption to research programs around the university, we have an obligation to the community to help limit the spread of the virus.”

JosÚ Alfaro is an assistant professor of practice at the School for Environment and Sustainability. For the last three years, he’s been leading a project to increase energy independence in Puerto Rico, which was left in the dark for months after Hurricane Maria. He and his team recently returned from Puerto Rico after installing a gasifier reactor they built in Ann Arbor that was added to a solar panel grid in the central mountain town of Adjuntas.

"It is all put on hold basically. I have five teams that were supposed to travel: Puerto Rico, South Africa, Peru, Costa Rica and Uganda,” he said. "Most of the travel dates were for May. I have asked all teams to postpone their travel until June at the earliest. In the case of Puerto Rico, I am trying to get the students to move forward with some things they can do at the university but even that is getting dicey.

"I also have a student working on aquaponics. I am really worried about how his work will continue. We have fish already in the system so we can’t really just shut down experiments. But also, I can’t ask the student to continue working at the Botanical Gardens with the system if the student doesn’t feel comfortable.

"Most of my students have been impacted. They are worried about finishing their capstone projects and theses. I am trying my best to work with them on alternatives and worst-case scenarios.”

Ivan Eastin , associate dean for research and engagement at the School for Environment and Sustainability, specializes in forest products marketing, new product development, and international trade policy and wood products. He was scheduled to attend a Tokyo conference this week to give a talk about U.S.-grown wood pellets as a sustainable energy source.

Eastin was also planning to collect survey data to evaluate Japanese interest in burning U.S.-grown wood pellets for electricity generation. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Japanese government decided to increase its use of renewable energy sources and particularly energy derived from sustainably harvested woody biomass. The Tokyo Bioenergy Conference was canceled due to the pandemic.

"I have been doing this type of forest-product-related research in Japan and Asia for almost 30 years,” Eastin said. "While I am disappointed, I also understand the need for public safety, and there is no reason that my research cannot be delayed for a while. In the meantime, I can continue to work remotely with my colleagues in Japan as I prepare for a future trip to Tokyo and Japan.”

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