BYU research adapts to the pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic affected research across the BYU campus over the past year, creating unique challenges and opportunities for each school and college.

While each department’s research varies by field, there are a few key challenges and outcomes many of the colleges and schools experienced in their research.

Setbacks for research

Abby Kooyman is working in the wastewater lab on the BYU campus using a biological safety cabinet. The lab is run by professor Zach Aanderud and is working in conjunction with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to monitor COVID-19 content in wastewater. (Alyssa Dahneke/BYU Photo)

Many colleges and schools within BYU had to deal with implementing physical distancing protocols, working with students virtually and sometimes even canceling research.

Life Sciences Associate Dean Michael Barnes said faculty and students in the College of Life Sciences felt immediate disruption from the pandemic in their research.

Barnes said scientists adapted their labs to accommodate proper physical distancing, while others had to scale back or cancel field research that required travel.

The College of Life Sciences was not the only one affected this way. Associate dean and French and Italian professor Corry Cropper said many projects in the College of Humanities that rely on students being on campus slowed when the pandemic hit.

Cropper also said many conferences were canceled, which caused less collaboration between different institutions. Yet the canceled conferences and meetings also led to more free time to finish projects left on the back burner.

Student-centered research was also affected in the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering, according to associate dean and mechanical engineering professor Tim McLain.

“For us, I believe COVID-19 has had its biggest impact on our ability to collaborate closely, foster interaction and perform experimental work, which is often carried out by teams of researchers,” McLain said.

Professor and graduate program coordinator Neil Peterson said COVID-19’s impact on research in the College of Nursing has been mostly negative.

“For example, one study that was being done at Utah Valley Hospital was stopped early, even though this project was very timely as it was on reducing burnout in nurses in the Emergency Department,” Peterson said.

Social distancing has made research in the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences difficult because its research focuses on people, said associate dean for development and sociology professor Mikaela Dufur.

Associate dean and computer science professor Bryan Morse said the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences has also faced the challenge of not meeting face-to-face with its students and colleagues.

“We do the best we can through Zoom and other remote means, but sometimes there’s nothing really that can substitute for working side-by-side on a problem, whether that’s in a research lab or as a group working at a whiteboard,” Morse said.

Overcoming challenges

Claire Moore/BYU
BYU professors (from left to right) Richard Robinson, Adam Woolley, Aaron Hawkins and William Pitt showcase their new method for testing super bugs in under an hour. (Claire Moore/BYU Photo)

While these challenges were difficult, each college and school found creative ways to overcome them and continue to make an impact in their fields.

“Overall, faculty and students from the College of Life Sciences stepped up to the plate during the pandemic and made significant contributions to the fields of microbiology, environmental science, epidemiology and public health,” Barnes said.

For Cropper and his colleagues in the College of Humanities, the pandemic profoundly impacted the way they teach.

“We have been required to think of new ways to engage students — in class and also in our research. It has meant rethinking how to teach language, literature, writing, art and culture. I think we will emerge as better teachers,” Cropper said.

Many professors are anxious to get back to the research they were doing before the pandemic hit. Dufur said the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences faculty has done an amazing job of continuing student research but hopes to get their research agendas up and running again.

For many professors, their challenge was keeping researchers connected while being apart. Sarah Agate, an experience design and management professor in the Marriott School of Business, kept her research team connected with a virtual running group. She said it was a fun way for them to stay connected and now they will analyze the records they kept.

New research opportunities

A project that started at BYU years ago to create affordable neonatal ventilators has shifted gears in the pandemic. Married BYU alums Kindall and Erica Palmer, with assistance from current students, have adapted their ventilator for adult use. The ventilator has also received FDA approval. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

Though there were many challenges brought by the pandemic, Barnes said it also brought new opportunities for research.

For example, life sciences research teams tested for COVID-19 in wastewater on campus and in Utah County. Other labs tested the effectiveness of alcohol-free hand sanitizers, mask-wearing and the COVID-19 vaccines.

Similar setbacks have not stopped the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering from making a big impact during the pandemic either. Students, faculty and even alumni worked together on projects such as 3D printing masks for first responders and adapting ventilators for FDA approval and adult-use, McLain said.

For the College of Humanities, the pandemic fostered research and writings about what it is like to live through a worldwide pandemic, which wouldn’t have been written or researched otherwise, Cropper said.

“Much of our research is based on literature, art, creative writing, film, language and other timeless productions of human culture,” Cropper said. “And a lot of this material deals with isolation, pandemics, loneliness and sickness — all part of the human condition.”

Agate said the skills she and her research team developed over the last year have helped them to envision more ways to go about their research. These ideas include conducting interviews and focus groups over Zoom, which will enable her team to reach a wider audience.

“I think the technological skills we’re all gaining during this time and comfort engaging with each other in virtual settings is going to open up research possibilities that we wouldn’t have thought of pre-pandemic,” Agate said.

COVID-19 presented a research opportunity for McKay School of Education professor Jason McDonald and a student he was working with. He said the student had been studying online course development team effectiveness before the pandemic hit.

McDonald said once the pandemic started, the student was asked if she could expand the project scope to examine how course development teams work when they are forced to meet at a distance.

She found it was easy for meeting organizers to just transition from in-person to a Zoom video conference. However, people burned out of Zoom meetings quickly. McDonald said most people on the team wanted opportunities to use more creative means of collaboration.

Research forced to stop or pause

Professor David McPherson observes a subject participating in an eye-tracking study in his lab on February 18, 2020. Projects such as this one pictured have been forced to pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic making in-person studies unsafe. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Usually, the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences has projects that involve traveling to archaeological sites and interviewing or observing research subjects in person, Dufur said. There are also projects where the college brings in subjects for MRIs or eye-tracking, but COVID-19 has made many of those interactions and projects unsafe.

McDonald from the McKay School of Education said he was in a position before the pandemic started where he had data he could analyze on his own. He recognizes, however, that this was not the case for many of the students he was working with.

McDonald’s students had to come up with alternative plans even though they were in the middle of collecting data from schools when school was canceled and moved online.

“Teachers’ jobs suddenly became so stressful that in many cases it wasn’t ethical for (the students) to try and collect data in the ways they had planned and that would have been perfectly acceptable in normal circumstances,” McDonald said.

Associate Director for Research and Academic Programs V. Stanley Benfell said the Kennedy Center, the hub of international studies at BYU, had to cancel summer study abroad programs for both 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Benfell said the center’s academic programs focus on international and area studies, so they try to support and foster international research. They do this by offering grants to assist faculty who are presenting their research at international conferences.

Some conferences have become virtual, so faculty can still present research remotely. But COVID-19 has made completing research impossible for some scholars as it depends on their ability to travel, Benfell said.

Hope for the future

Physiology and developmental biology professor Arminda Suli works with a student in her lab. While there have been many setbacks in research this year, the College of Life Sciences looks forward to a bright future in research. (Todd Jackson/Life Sciences)

While inspired by the themes of the pandemic, Cropper said the College of Humanities looks forward to the resumption of travel, collaboration with colleagues at other institutions, the resumption of its eye-tracking lab and the beginning of a new language neurolinguistics lab.

McLain said the College of Engineering looks forward to the time when students and researchers can be back in the labs at full capacity. He said being in person causes a strong and vibrant learning community to develop around challenging research topics through students mentoring and training one another.

As with most colleges, Peterson said the infrastructure for online research has improved significantly and has created more opportunities for projects with focus groups in the College of Nursing.

Peterson said these groups will be an asset in the future of research and will be used in a planned study a graduate student is doing with women and activity trackers.

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