Despite the pandemic, research in many HSC labs goes on

By Jan Jarvis

Research During Covid 19 Web

In the evening, Kelly Peterson parks his car in a vacant lot and walks across an empty campus into a dark building with no one around.

Sometimes the HSC research specialist arrives at 6 p.m., midnight or even later.

“I have just always worked off hours, but since COVID-19 it’s a little different since no one is ever really there now,” Peterson said “At night, almost nobody is here except for the janitorial staff.”

Despite Covid-19, life goes on at the lab of Dr. Jerry Simecka, where Kelly works. The lab is one of a handful that are staying open at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

But it is hardly business as usual. The lab, where drugs to treat bacterial infections are being tested, has undergone a few changes.

“We set up rules so there are not too many people in the lab,” said Dr. Simecka, Regents Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences. “Everyone is working in shifts with a maximum of two practicing social distancing. Everyone is wearing PPE and masks.”

Since industry-sponsored research is conducted in the lab, the work must continue, even as COVID-19 cases increase.

“We have contracts with deadlines that must be met,” Dr. Simecka said. “The research is important. The sooner we can get these drugs out, the sooner they will help people.”

Those in the lab are well prepared to practice the restrictions brought on by COVID-19.

“We work on infectious agents routinely and know how to minimize exposure,” Dr. Simecka said.

Others HSC researchers are continuing their work from home.

Rebecca Cunningham, PhD, finished a three-month long study on sleep apnea just in time.

“We were so lucky to finish this a week before everything happened,” said Dr. Cunningham, Associate Professor Pharmaceutical Sciences. “It was serendipitous.”

With data from the study already collected in the lab, Dr. Cunningham and her team are able to analyze the information from home.

“We meet online to discuss the data,” Dr. Cunningham said. “We won’t be able to start new work, but we can analyze what we have.”

Her husband, Tom Cunningham, PhD, Associate Dean of Research and Regents Professor of Physiology, is also working remotely on his research and conducting his administrative duties.

It can be challenging, said Dr. Rebecca Cunningham.

“Today we had to debate who got the office and who got the dining room table to do their video-conferencing,” she said. “I lost.”

In all seriousness, she said, it works out as long as they communicate the times for the remote meetings.

“Our internet is capable of both of us using it, along with one kid gaming,” she said. “It’s a matter of being flexible, creative and learning new technology,” she said.

Michael Allen, PhD, Associate Professor Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics, who runs the tick pathogen testing for the state, faced some unique challenges when he closed his lab. Luckily, it has worked out well.

“For the microbiome-related research in our lab, since January we have sequenced over 66 billion bases of DNA – equivalent to the whole genomes of nearly two dozen people,” he said. “Fortunately, we have been investing heavily in our computing infrastructure, and the temporary shutdown of the wet lab has provided everyone with the time needed to analyze the data.”

His team members have continued to analyze data from their homes and now meet via Zoom.

“In short, we’re all still hard at work, just more frequently in pajamas!” he said.



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