With safety protocols in place, UM-Dearborn begins a phased reopening of research labs

June 8, 2020

Some researchers and their grad students are getting the green light to return to campus labs.

Though many UM-Dearborn professors have found creative ways to continue their research remotely, for others, the pandemic simply brought an abrupt pause to their work. Assistant Professor of Neurobiology Zhi “Elena” Zhang and Chemistry Professor Krisanu Bandyopadhyay are two who found themselves in the latter camp. Together, they’ve been studying the efficacy of nanoparticle-guided drug delivery in the treatment of brain injuries. Needless to say, it wasn’t something they could simply continue on Zoom from a basement home office. 

But last week, Bandyopadhyay and Zhang, who each have a lab in the Natural Sciences Building, received news they’d been cleared to resume on-campus research on Monday. They’re part of the first wave of a four-phase reopening of UM-Dearborn labs that aims to get researchers back to their work, while preserving health and safety. 

To enable the reopening, the university has put in place a number of new protocols to comply with state orders, University of Michigan guidelines and the latest CDC recommendations. First, researchers who’ve been approved to return to their labs have to take an online training on the new health and safety measures. Once they arrive on campus, they’ll be asked to show a public safety officer that they’ve completed a daily self-check health screening, after which the officer will take their temperature using a no-touch thermometer. Wearing masks and maintaining at least six feet of distance between others is required at all times, and researchers are being asked to wipe down work surfaces at several points throughout the day. Restrooms and areas where researchers can take breaks or eat lunch are open at approved locations inside each building. During the Phase I reopening, labs will also only be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Some graduate assistants are also allowed to return, though the close quarters of many labs and square footage requirements for physical distancing means that, in practice, only one or two people will be able to work in a lab at a time. At this time, undergraduate research assistants won’t be allowed to resume their work in campus labs.

UM-Dearborn Director of Emergency Management Laura Drabczyk says the Phase I reopening impacts about 30 researchers in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters’ Department of Natural Sciences. She says once they have a chance to assess how well the new protocols are working for this “pilot group,” they’ll move to a Phase II reopening to accommodate more researchers.

As with many aspects of the pandemic, the situation is still very fluid. In fact, Assistant Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Feng Zhou was all set to be among the researchers returning to their labs Monday. But late last week, he had an idea to move the main piece of on-campus equipment he needed — a high-performance computer — to a graduate assistant’s residence so they could resume their project remotely.

“If we continue to do whatever we can from home, I think it’s safer and more comfortable for everybody,” Zhou says. “And that way, we can hopefully open up a spot for a professor who has different requirements, like equipment that you can’t move so easily.”

Zhou, in fact, has a foot in both worlds. While he can resume work on one of his projects remotely, another involves a driver simulator that he’s using to study trust issues people have with autonomous vehicles. Moving that simulator to a grad student’s apartment would not only be tricky; his study also requires dozens of human subjects. And for now, that presents health and safety issues for which the only protocol is a healthy dose of patience.

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Want to learn more about the safety measures being used in the Phase I lab reopening? Check out UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Health and Safety COVID-19 resource page

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