Researchers adapt to COVID-19 disruptions in their work

Measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have impacted all areas of society, including research. Collaborating in shared lab space and conducting face-to-face interviews are among activities suspended or curtailed at Canadian universities. Added to that is pressure on many researchers to switch rapidly to an online teaching format.

Although conducting most research under current circumstances is difficult or even impossible, there are cases where long-running research can continue, albeit in a modified format. Three Brock University researchers share how they’re managing to continue their research in a COVID-19 world.

Professor of Health Sciences Ana Sanchez conducts field and laboratory research on neglected parasitic diseases such as soil-transmitted helminths and tapeworm parasites of humans and pigs in Honduras. She also researches capacity building and increasing research proficiencies in developing countries, leading her to work with national and international organizations to develop research systems.

Parasite expert Ana Sanchez’s mid-February vacation to Chile ended with the initial appearance of COVID-19 in South America. As Sanchez was flying home, her PhD student in Honduras was able to carry out a round of testing on children in a remote village to see if a combination of two different de-worming drugs would be an effective treatment for children with parasites.

But right afterward, the country went into lockdown. To complete the study, the student would have had to return to the same village several weeks later to take another sample, which became impossible to do.

Luckily, the study was in its advanced stages, having fully tested some 120 children in one village. The team needed an extra 52 children from the village where the student had gone.

But all is not lost, says Sanchez, noting that, although the study won’t be a complete clinical trial because the sample size is incomplete, “we can recover some of the data and maybe tweak some objectives and still do something with the samples and the data we gathered.”

Specifically, Sanchez and her team will be isolating DNA from the parasite samples collected so far to predict whether or not the drug combination would be an effective treatment.

The method is not perfect, she says, but “we can say with some degree of certainty that the treatment may have worked. I think that could be enough to make recommendations or predictions that this may be the way to go.”

Associate Professor of Psychology Angela Evans is Director of Brock’s Social-Cognitive Development Lab. She and her team study how to talk to children and obtain the most honest and accurate reports about their experiences.

Psychologist Angela Evans is working with Lindsay Malloy of Ontario Tech University and Johnathan Comer of Florida International University on a study on children’s reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the team would prefer to interview families in person, the pandemic has shifted their methodology to an online survey, says Evans.

Evans had been working on another research project with Malloy when COVID-19 hit.

“Both of us were saying, ‘The impact this is going to have on parents and families is overwhelming and fascinating,” says Evans. “It is something we have never experienced before with new challenges and complications. We are both parents ourselves and we’re feeling the impact on our own families and so we thought, ‘What can we do to understand what’s going on and help families through this?’”

To firm up ideas and plans, what followed was “constant communication” of e-mails, text messages and video calls — “more than I’ve ever experienced in such a short time” — among Evans, Malloy and their collaborator Comer, who has previously published numerous studies on children’s reactions to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Malloy mobilized her graduate students and obtained Research Ethics Board (REB) approval from Ontario Tech University, while Evans was able to get priority clearance from Brock’s REB under the REB’s Emergency/Pandemic Plan for Research outlined in the REB Guideline: Functioning of REO and REB During Unforeseen Circumstances.

The entire project was up and running within a week.

“The success of getting this up so quickly is collaboration across experts in areas that are relevant,” says Evans. “While none of us have dealt with anything like COVID-19 before, we didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. All of us are interested in how we talk to children about experiences but from slightly different perspectives, so that helped bring the project together.”

Associate Professor of Health Sciences Adam MacNeil heads up Brock’s Inflammation and Immunity Lab. He and his team conduct research that aims to understand and block undesired inflammation in several chronic pathologies from allergic asthma and food allergies to cardiovascular disease.

Although it’s technically possible for researchers to work more than six feet away from each other in a laboratory setting, they share instruments and storage spaces, making the closure of Adam MacNeil’s physical lab and others at Brock “the right thing for public health.”

But that doesn’t mean the research stops, says the immunologist.

“What do we define as research?” he asks. “Is it just being at the bench doing the experiments, or is it actually a larger endeavour, which is to interact with the literature, write, think and apply those thoughts to research questions that we are trying to answer in the lab?”

Halting experiments is never ideal, says MacNeil, adding that he and his students are “reasonably well-positioned with data currently in hand” to write, or hone, several manuscripts to be submitted to journals as well as work on theses and research proposals.

Despite the cancellation of planned international conference attendance, MacNeil’s team is putting a focus on further developing communication skills that will enable them to share the implications of their inflammation research to both scientific and wider, non-specialist audiences.

The team is also investigating ways that they can extend their knowledge, training, technology and expertise beyond Brock’s walls in the fight against COVID-19.

“Our students have unique talents and they want to make a contribution in these unprecedented times,” says MacNeil. “Aggressive testing is the only way to get a handle on the COVID-19 crisis and get us back to the bench. Canada has the opportunity to engage university research labs and dramatically enhance testing capacity. We’re all in this together.”

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