Basic research returns

It doesn’t feel like it to us, but it was not long ago that our Institute’s research labs closed their doors – lights out, machines covered and unplugged, lab notebooks stored away for safety. A precious few long-term and critical experiments continued; essential personnel navigated a mostly empty building to safely check on the studies and the space. The rest of us continued work at home to analyze past data and prepare it for dissemination.

Oregon has thankfully not had to weather (yet?) a COVID-19 surge, which as public health researchers, we have been mortified to watch unfold now in multiple states. This meant that starting in May, we began to implement a Return to Research (R2R for short)!

Our Institute’s basic research scientists are engaged in a range of endeavors to understand basic biological principles on which public and occupational health initiatives can be built. Ongoing work is focused on mechanisms of cancer and its prevention (especially relevant to sun exposure in Oregonian workers), circadian rhythms and sleep (relevant to shift work and its adverse health effects), and how environmental and occupational toxins affect our bodies from the DNA on up.

Matthew Butler, PhD, was our Institute’s pilot lab for the Return to Research. He studies how food timing, light exposure, and hormones govern how we synchronize to our 24 hour life and work schedules. Over the course of several weeks, members of his lab gradually returned to the lab to figure out not only how to restart experiments, but also the ins and outs of pursuing research generally, while minimizing potential coronavirus transmission. These experiences were central to developing research safety plans for the COVID era. Each lab now has its own research and safety plans; these operate within an Institute-wide scheduling system for space and resources (so many calendars!).

It’s September now. All of our basic research labs are back up and running, with an eye toward answering our most important questions while being cautious of this pandemic. Researchers are working hard. Physical distancing, ubiquitous wearing of masks (face coverings), and restrictions on the number of people in the lab at the same time of course hamper the spontaneous flow of ideas that typify our days and make working in the lab so enjoyable. For the time being then, we make it work with frequent internet meetings and lab check-ins.

None of us anticipated shuttering labs and turning off the lights. But the freezers did their job to protect critical resources, our essential personnel kept the dust bunnies at bay, and all of our faculty were able to use this time to think through short and long term projects, be nimble in our plans, and prepare for a solid future in the Institute no matter the coronavirus timeline.