Research Restart Phase One

The halls of the Hector F. DeLuca Biochemistry buildings look a little different these days. They’re quiet, like much of campus, but slowly and surely seeing more activity than they have since the start of the pandemic. In late March, on-site access to campus was restricted to essential personnel.

Harriet Saunders, a graduate student in the lab of Associate Professor Jill Wildonger, is one of few who have been in the buildings for the duration, from the closure of campus to Phase 1 of its Research Reboot. Saunders was cleared for access during the initial closure in order to care for the lab’s fruit flies, which are critical to their research.

Photo of Harriet Saunders wearing a mask in the lab.“When I was coming in during lockdown, there was nobody here,” said Saunders, who entered the buildings for about two hours each week. “I would go into the fly room and do whatever I needed to do, and by the time I’d come out, the lights in the corridor would [time] out. There was nobody.”

But there were a few.

“It was definitely quiet and empty in the buildings for months,” said Professor Elizabeth Wright, director of the department’s new Cryo-Electron Microscopy Research Center (CEMRC), which was permitted to continue operations during campus closure. Wright remained on-site throughout to supervise a critical phase of the new center’s construction and orchestrate complicated staffing needs during this time of heavily-restricted activity.

Photo of professor and student, both wearing masks, in the lab.Essential staff both on- and off-site played key roles in ensuring safe and productive progress on the project. In particular, center manager Eric Montemayor was “instrumental in our efforts to roll out the CEMRC resources to the research community,” said Wright. Biochemistry IT and DoIT also worked closely with center staff member Matt Larson to install complex IT infrastructure. Biochemistry shipping & receiving facilitated the deliveries of well over 50 crates and large boxes of equipment.

Careful coordination between CEMRC staff, CALS, FP&M, and microscope engineers from ThermoFisher Scientific ensured the commissioning of four high-end electron microscopes: a Titan Krios, Talos Arctica, and Talos L120C for negative stain and cryo transmission electron microscopy experiments; and an Aquilos cryo-microscope for scanning electron microscopy and in situ focus ion beam (FIB) milling of intact cells.

Photo of two scientists, wearing masks, in the lab.The result: continued operations during campus closure means CEMRC is nearing readiness to support research for the broader UW community.

Associate Professor Katie Henzler-Wildman also continued operations during the past months. As co-director of the National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison (NMRFAM) with Professor Chad Rienstra, and as PI of her own lab, Henzler-Wildman experienced the evolution of the process on multiple levels.

NMRFAM was approved to remain open for essential operations at the start of campus closure. Magnets can’t simply be switched off – shutting down and restarting would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – so they must be filled with cryogens on a weekly basis.

Shortly after campus closure, Henzler-Wildman and Rienstra were awarded an EAGER grant to study coronavirus proteins of direct relevance to COVID-19, research carried out in collaboration with Assistant Professor Robert Kirchdoerfer. This award moved NMR from essential operations only to essential operations and research.

Then during the week of June 8, Henzler-Wildman’s lab was approved to resume research as part of Phase 1, along with 32 other faculty labs and facilities in all three buildings.

“It’s been an avalanche of paperwork,” said Henzler-Wildman. “The challenge is how to reasonably capture what’s actually happening in a way that fits onto a semi-standardized form. Research is not set up the way paperwork is set up.” Schedules and operations don’t fit the same way into a form for one lab the way they might for another. Coordinating across common spaces is another challenge, as scheduling and sanitizing must be organized at the floor-level, across labs and PIs. Nevertheless, said Henzler-Wildman, “Overall, it’s gone reasonably smoothly.”

Photo of scientist, masked and working in the lab.In order to resume research operations, labs and facilities submitted detailed plans, identifying essential personnel, outlining schedules, ensuring plans for PPE and density of population, use of common spaces and equipment, and so on in compliance with campus regulations. Plan coordination and oversight was provided by department leadership and team leaders from each floor of the buildings, including Brian Fox, Rick Amasino, Sam Butcher, Aaron Hoskins, Judith Kimble, Wes Pike, Vatsan Raman, Ivan Rayment, Ophelia Venturelli, and Amy Weeks, and approval was ultimately obtained from CALS and campus.

Jill Wildonger’s lab was also approved to move from essential operations to resuming research as part of Phase 1. “I’ve never been so excited to fill out paperwork!” said Wildonger. She and her lab members worked closely together to develop a plan for resuming safe and effective research within their group. “Lab members were instrumental in giving suggestions and providing feedback that shaped these guidelines. We talked about various risk factors and scenarios (riding the bus, for example), trying to anticipate anything that we might encounter.”

“It’s hard to restart after being away for 2.5 – 3 months, and we’re still figuring things out,” said Wildonger. “But we’re getting experiments started again, remembering how to hold a pipette and the thrill of seeing beautiful neurons under the microscope.”

Schedules within the buildings are carefully arranged now to ensure minimal capacity in compliance with Smart Restart, but the lights don’t time out nearly as often these days. Saunders still works by herself in the Wildonger lab most of the time, but there may be multiple members on site depending on the day of the week.

Masks are not new to many lab personnel, but are a new sight in hallways and other common areas. “The masks, gloves, and other PPE aren’t a huge shift for us as we have at least been wearing the gloves and lab coats since I joined the lab,” said Peyton Spreaker, a graduate student in the Henzler-Wildman lab. “I am, however, more cognizant of cross contamination with myself and other surfaces including common use equipment. Usually we only have 2-3 people, as we follow a rule that unless you have wet lab (in-lab) work, you need to be working from home. This gives us the flexibility to come in when we need to and keeps us safe as it minimizes the number of people in lab and our risk of infection.”

As part of the restart, the department supplied masks and hand sanitizer for each lab, and stationed additional supplies throughout the building. Individual bottles of sanitizer were also provided to all personnel who returned to the building. Signage on each floor reminds occupants of distancing guidelines, and each floor has its own method of ensuring safety in common spaces.

Photo of bathroom door with occupancy sign.“We have a sign to flip on the bathroom when it is occupied to make sure there’s only one person in there at a time,” said Josie Mitchell, a graduate student in the Wildonger lab. “There are a lot more signs around reminding people to wash their hands. Many doors have paper towel and ethanol spray for cleaning handles.”

Campus custodians are not entering labs or offices at this time, so departmental staff have extra work to do in ensuring spaces remain clean and trash free. Building operations staff are considered essential personnel and have continued to work on site since the initial closure. Among other duties, they routinely walked the buildings to ensure alarms, leaks, equipment failures and other issues were promptly identified and resolved. They were also on site to oversee operations approved to continue during campus closure, including the delivery of infrastructure critical to the CEMRC, and, on a smaller scale, to empty breakroom refrigerators of food that was abandoned when campus was vacated.

Distancing guidelines have allowed research to resume, but as in so many public arenas, these behavioral shifts have altered interpersonal dynamics. “While everyone was generally excited to get back to the bench, there was a tinge of sadness in realizing that we wouldn’t have the same in-person interactions that we had previously,” said Wildonger.

“Lab doors are mostly closed and contained,” said Mitchell. “Overall, the building is much quieter. I don’t run into friends or colleagues as much because everyone must keep socially distanced in their own labs and many people have shifts that don’t overlap.”

As campus enters Phase 2 of its safe restart, the department remains attentive and responsive to a new and evolving normal.

“There’s more work to be done to stay safe and open for business,” said Brian Fox, Department Chair, “but I’m encouraged by the vigilance and compliance I see when I walk through our buildings. I applaud the efforts of everyone involved in our restart on all levels – it was a herculean effort.”