Returning to On-Site Research: Key Messages for Trainees

Photo Credit: Don Erhardt / UBC Brand & Marketing

By now, you’ve probably heard that planning is underway for a phased resumption of on-site research. You might also feel unclear on the details, especially if you’ve received multiple emails from your program, Research Institute, Health Authority, etc. and aren’t sure how they all fit together (and how it all applies to you as a trainee, rather than a PI). I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve tried to pull together some Research Resumption 101 highlights to (hopefully) make things a bit simpler.

At UBC, a key resource on this topic is the Office of the VP, Research & Innovation (VPRI). Each UBC faculty is working on its own resumption-of-research plan, but they will all be consistent with the guiding principles laid out by the VPRI. I will update this post with information about the Faculty of Medicine’s plan once it becomes available.

Research Centres and Institutes that are based at hospital sites need to follow the process and guidelines outlined by the heath authority overseeing the hospital site campus. The Health Authority procedures for resumption-of-research plans might be slightly different from those articulated by UBC. However, most sites have indicated that they plan to be consistent with UBC’s policies and procedures. Queries should be directed to the Associate Dean, Research at the hospital site for further specific guidance:

  • PHSA – BCCRI, BCCHRI, WHRC, BCCDC, Mental Health and Substance Use Program, etc.
  • VCHRI – VGH, ICORD, Eye Care Centre, Robert Ho/JBRC, Skin Care Centre, DHCC, etc.
  • PHCRI – St Paul’s, BCCSU, etc

Here are my takeaways from UBC’s VPRI (all points adapted or quoted from this website):

  • There will be multiple, gradual phases to the resumption of on-campus research. We are now preparing to enter Phase 1.
  • Phase 1 “will provide only limited access to on-campus facilities and adhere to strict physical distancing protocols. Subsequent phases which could begin in the summer will see a gradual increase in on-campus research and scholarship activities in line with public health advice.”
  • Because the COVID-19 situation is unpredictable, we may need to reverse course and return to curtailment at any time.
  • PIs must apply to be permitted to resume on-site research, and applications will only be approved if they meet specific criteria. The application process and specific criteria may differ by site, but in Phase 1 the criteria remain quite strict/limited. I will update this post with information about the Faculty of Medicine’s criteria once they are available. 
  • If you’re a grad student who urgently needs to complete your research, you may be given special consideration (“we anticipate that graduate students needing to complete thesis projects will also receive priority”).
  • In Phase 1, anything that can still be done remotely, must still be done remotely (“… access will only be granted to researchers who require on-campus resources and cannot conduct this work remotely”). 

Some additional, important points from Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies: 

  • “If your supervisor has applied for and received a research curtailment exemption so that your research project may continue, the exemption form and exemption permission must be shared with you.” My understanding is that this will remain true as we move into Phase 1 of research resumption.
  • “If you have concerns about continuing the research project, or the ability of the team or lab group to maintain social distancing protocols, you should contact your Graduate Advisor or Department Head. You may also contact G+PS (Mei Ling Chu) for further advice.”

No trainee should return to on-site research if they’re not comfortable doing so.

Trainees have many valid reasons for being cautious about returning to shared spaces, including wanting to protect their own health or that of immunocompromised or elderly family and friends. If power dynamics or other factors make it difficult to discuss this openly with your supervisor/PI, please reach out to your Program Advisor/Director or arrange a confidential “coffee chat” with me or Dr. Carol-Ann Courneya.

On the other hand, some trainees are beyond keen to return to their lab or usual workspace.

Maybe you find it next-to-impossible to focus at home; maybe there’s not much you can accomplish remotely and you fear losing time and momentum; maybe you’ve got a kid at home and can’t get five minutes without an interruption. “We can easily stay 6 feet apart in my lab,” you might think; “why can’t I just go back?” 

The answer relates to the fact that no lab is an island, and thus safety/work plans need to be developed for entire floors and whole buildings. These plans have to balance the needs of many different groups, which requires a lot of planning and coordination. In order for highest-priority research activities to proceed safely during Phase 1, it means being somewhat conservative—that is, continuing to hold off on other on-site activities. As VPRI explains: 

“We appreciate that in many instances it may be possible to maintain physical distancing within individual research spaces. However, we must also consider access to common areas, washrooms, corridors, elevators and stairwells etc. alongside the significantly increased workload demands on campus services such as cleaning and janitorial services.” 

This answer may or may not feel satisfying, but it’s where we’re at for now. If working (or not working) from home has frayed you down to your last nerve, reach out to someone through Counselling Services, Empower Me, or your extended medical benefits. They can help you devise a plan to make this temporary arrangement more livable, so we can get through to a new normal on the other side.