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Research continues – in some ways – during COVID-19 pandemic

Though some projects are on pause, others move forward

Some laboratories are shuttered, while others have never been busier. Scientists who’d planned research trips around the world have found those trips postponed at best; those who have recently returned find they have more time to write proposals and design studies. Scientific conferences have been canceled, but researchers around the world are able to collaborate through video conferencing.

In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped scientific research cold. In other ways, it has inspired new ways of conducting research – not to mention that it has created a deep need for scientific breakthroughs in everything from medicine to engineering to business.

“It’s been interesting to watch how we can fast-forward the development cycle and make things happen more quickly than they would under normal circumstances,” said Morley Stone, senior vice president for research at The Ohio State University.

“The ability of scientists around the world to rapidly arrive at potential answers is pretty amazing for me to watch.”

Ohio State’s Office of Research has offered seed funding to research projects that rapidly address critical health and community problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic – 12 projects have been awarded a total of about $460,000.

Researchers at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, the Ohio State College of Medicine and a consortium of materials research, engineering and infectious disease experts have worked long hours trying to find new treatments and address supply shortages connected with the pandemic.

And teams at the Infectious Diseases Institute collaborated with state and hospital officials to model the effects of social distancing on controlling the virus’s spread.

But research not connected with COVID continues in some ways, too: Last year, a team of glacio-climatologists from Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center collected ice cores from the glacier atop Huascaran, one of the highest peaks in South America. The ice cores offer clues into the ways Earth’s atmosphere and climate have changed throughout history. Because the cores have already been collected, the team is currently developing research proposals that can make use of those cores. The lab is closed because of the pandemic, but plans for their continued analysis and future research is continuing.

That the field team, led by Lonnie Thompson, a distinguished professor of earth sciences, was able to complete the field project in Peru last year was lucky, the research team said: “If we had had to wait until this year, for whatever reason, there wouldn’t have been a Huascaran project,” said Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a distinguished professor of geography and the project’s logistics leader. “There's a lot of serendipity in research – times when the timing is right and when the timing is wrong.”

Despite the pandemic, Ohio State astronomers continue their daily discussions about new publications connected with their work. But new research is slowed. One example: Ohio State operates telescopes around the world that search for supernovae – exploding stars – in the night skies. And because the observatories where they operate are largely closed, there is no way to collect the data from those telescopes, said Kris Stanek, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State.

“No data, no fresh discoveries,” Stanek said. “Of course, in the scheme of things, this is not a big deal.”

Andrea Tedeschi, an assistant professor of neuroscience, said for now, like so many others whose work has been disrupted by the pandemic, scientists need to find ways to stay motivated and mentally healthy, and to prepare for their work to resume.

“The key will be to prioritize, when this is over, and be realistic – there’s no point thinking that we will be back up and running in just a couple days,” Tedeschi said. “It will take time, and we need to be patient and keep our focus and our motivation so we can resume when it is safe.”

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