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Research Returns to Campus: Interview with Dawn Bonnell, Vice Provost for Research

Dawn Bonnell, Penn’s Vice Provost for Research, discusses the phased approach towards slowly, and safely, resuming on-campus research activities.

On March 16, faculty, students, and staff discontinued all nonessential on-campus research activities. Now, Penn has entered into the first of a three-part phased reopening of these activities, with a focus on prioritized projects, population density restrictions, and a continued reliance on teleworking.

Penn Today spoke with the Vice Provost for Research Dawn Bonnell to learn more about this first phase of research resumption, how it will inform future reopening efforts, and how researchers across campus are engaged in slowly, and safely, resuming their work.

Q: What is the goal of the Phase I research reopening?  

We want people to come back to research in a way that’s safe for everyone. This requires new practices, new behavior, and new infrastructure. The concept of transitioning in phases is to have a smaller group come in and test whether social distancing plans are working, identify any gaps, and see if additional protocols are necessary

When we know the practices are working well, we can gradually increase the population density until we are at our new normal, which will include still wearing face coverings, implementing cleaning procedures, and social distancing. It’s a strategy to help us, in a structured way, move from our previous behaviors and practices to new behaviors and practices.

Q: What types of projects will be active in this first phase? 

One set of examples is projects and activities that need to be initiated before others can work. Another is research that can have immediate impact, for example, on the COVID-19 epidemic. Each School has a plan for determining what research will come back first and when. Some Schools are not anticipating doing research in Phase I.

Q: How are labs ensuring that their workspaces are safe, and how will safety be monitored?

The ramp-up starts by targeting a population density at any one place at any time of 20% of normal occupancy. This should enable social distancing with a six-foot separation between people. Researchers should be wearing general face coverings when they are around campus and many will use surgical-type masks in the laboratory.

Schools are managing the monitoring process. In some cases, there is a committee that has a monitoring function; in others, individuals are responsible for walking around and ensuring that safety measures are maintained.

We also have a confidential and anonymous reporting pathway for non-compliance and a pathway where people can give us suggestions for improvements, so we can identify any issues and can adjust quickly.

Q: What about research projects that involve field work, community outreach, or clinical trials?

In the University plan, several resource pages address how to evaluate and carry out safe research under specific circumstances. Field work is a case in which travel and conditions in remote locations must be considered in each School. There’s an evaluation process to think through the circumstances associated with the research, what safety measures would be necessary, and the appropriate time to initiate that work.

Many groups at Penn do research that involves interaction with communities. The same evaluation process would assess these projects, and it would not happen until the safety of the community was understood.

Clinical trials move forward with a very structured decision process. The social distancing requirements are set by the health care system, for example the hospital. We also have clinical trials in the animal hospital, and we have nursing and dental clinical research. In each case, the requirements of that care system determine the requirements of social distancing.

Q: What does it mean that this first phase is ‘opt in’ for graduate students and postdocs?

Opt-in means that in Phase I participation in research on campus is voluntary, and students must opt in through a pathway that bypasses their immediate supervisor. There is also an anonymous, confidential path to contact the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and the Office for the Vice Provost for Education if students feel they are being pressured and are uncomfortable.

Q: How will lessons learned during Phase I inform the next steps for resuming additional research-based activities?

Phase I is essentially a pilot on managing social distancing and safety. The immediate lessons will be used to expand the research population on campus safely, first in Phase II and then in Phase III. We can also use these lessons to inform practices when students come to campus.

Q: What will research look like as faculty, graduate students, and staff work towards a ‘new normal?’

A new normal will still emphasize that work that can be done remotely could be done off campus, while productive in-person meetings are carried out safely. We want to ensure the ability to social distance.

Originally published in Penn Today on June 08, 2020. Written by Erica K. Brockmeier.  

Photo by Eric Sucar: Labs across campus, like the Singh Center for Nanotechnology pictured here, are slowly resuming research activities as part of the first of a three-part phased reopening. (Pre-pandemic photo)