In-Person Summer Research Happening in USD's Shiley Center for Science and Technology

In-Person Summer Research Happening in USD's Shiley Center for Science and Technology

Since she's been at the University of San Diego, Trina Nguyentu's summer hangout in San Diego has not been at the beach. Her time, instead, has been spent inside the fourth-floor laboratory of the Shiley Center for Science and Technology (SCST) building where she does research work with Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Chair and Professor Joseph Provost, PhD.

In-Person Summer Research 2020

Nguyentu, a biochemistry major, began her second summer of research in mid-June. She's examining the role of NHE — ion transport protein — in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. She's working in-person, on the USD campus, in the building's lab and with Dr. Provost nearby. All of that is business as usual.

The only difference now is that everything surrounding the continuation of her research in the SCST has been altered. Everyone working in the building has had to adjust to a new process due to COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic forced USD to shift to remote learning midway through the spring semester and all students had to leave campus. While USD President James T. Harris stated May 7 in a six-point plan that USD plans to re-open and start the Fall 2020 semester Aug. 17, this summer’s courses are being taught remotely.

Knowing the critical nature of access to labs and continuing a variety of science research projects during the summer, however, four USD science department chairs within the SCST — chemistry and biochemistry, biology, environmental and ocean sciences, and physics and biophysics — and Keith Macdonald, SCST’s building manager, made plans to be prepared and ensure approval from upper USD administrators that vital, in-person summer research wouldn't be interrupted.

"We began putting our plan together in mid-April," Macdonald said. "We worked on it through mid-May. On May 21, the county health came out with a statement that research at the university-level can go on. We had everything in place.”

Approval came from USD Provost and Vice President Gail F. Baker, PhD, and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Noelle Norton, PhD.

Due to the SCST team’s diligence, 75 USD students, spread out over four SCST departments, are doing summer research on campus and in the labs in 2020. Some faculty and students are still doing research remotely, but Macdonald estimated that 25-30 students are active right now in the SCST. Some won't do so until after the first week of July, including one engineering student that Macdonald, who is also a biology adjunct faculty member, will be working with on a biological aspect of her project.

Each lab or classroom door has a sign noting how many people are allowed in a room at one time to ensure safe social distancing. It varies from space to space, but typically anywhere from two to 11 people.

"Between research labs, instrument rooms, supply rooms, prep spaces and teaching labs and classrooms that will all help to accommodate summer research, we are working in approximately 115 different spaces throughout the building," Macdonald said.

Several COVID-19-related precautions were implemented to maintain a safe, healthy environment. Anyone entering the building has their temperature administered right away, signs in and answers a few questions. Everyone must wear a face mask to enter and work in the building. Macdonald organized a safety training video that all faculty, staff and students had to watch and take a short quiz before being allowed to do summertime work. Macdonald and representatives from the SCST-based science departments take turns working the check-in desk to administer the health safety procedures. There are shared responsibilities for consistent cleaning for their respective areas of the building, too.

Nguyentu was here last summer via the Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program enabling new high school graduates admitted for the incoming fall semester USD students to get early acclimation to college, work on a research project with a faculty member and meet current students. Back then, she could come and go in the SCST as she pleased. Now, Nguyentu, who is doing a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) this summer, is mindful of more than just her research discoveries.

"I'm washing my hands more," she said. Nguyentu sprayed and wiped down areas where she worked before moving to another part of the lab room. She wears a face mask and rubber gloves while handling anything. Shelves in Dr. Provost's lab have plastic covering in front of chemicals and instruments for additional protection.

Macdonald, who worked in the SCST even after the spring shift because he’s an essential employee, is happy to have people back where they belong.

"At times, this building, which can easily hold hundreds of people, had no more than two or three others here besides me and only on an intermittent basis. It is wonderful to have some semblance of normality return as the building comes to life with research activity that students are actively engaging in."

— Ryan T. Blystone

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