UNE’s intrepid endeavor to carry out research through COVID-19

It was a day that most among the University of New England community vividly remember: March 13, 2020, the day the difficult decision was made to move nearly all undergraduate and graduate programming online as a novel virus swept its way across the nation. Amid a sea of unknowns – including, at the time, how events such as Commencement could be held and when students would return to campus – was a lingering question: for an institution that prides itself on research, how and when could faculty and student scientific exploration continue?

When that fateful day came, most research operations at the University were ceased, much as they were at colleges and universities across the globe. It was a difficult feat to execute: experiments had been ongoing for months; research animals still had to be cared for; and remote learning had made real-time scientific inquiry virtually impossible.

Compounding the chaos was ever-shifting public health guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Maine CDC, Office of Governor Janet Mills, and UNE’s own public health and medical experts.

Troubleshooting the Unknown

As the virus began to spread across the U.S. and Maine, an all-hands-on-deck effort ensued to limit the number of people in laboratories, find alternative modes of research for students, and keep essential operations flowing.

“We went into emergency operations mode,” said Karen Houseknecht, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and associate provost for Research and Scholarship. “For public health reasons, we stopped work with in-person human subjects. We shut down most work in laboratories, in the field, and on boats. We worked very hard to put procedures in place so that some faculty could continue to do their research onsite – but not everyone.”

The Office of Research and Scholarship soon began crafting creative ways to allow students to finish their projects. Students who could complete their work remotely were given lab computers to analyze their data. Graduate students, at the apex of their studies, were allowed to finish their final experiments and defend their theses under strict physical distancing protocols.

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