Research, Interrupted: How Covid-19 Slowed Basic Research
Battered by the pandemic’s challenges and pushed to their limits, researchers responded with resilience, creativity, and long hours.
Greg Kirk started his new job as vice dean for Research at the Bloomberg School on Jan. 1, 2020. He planned to spend the first few months mapping out strategic initiatives.
Very quickly, though, everything went all COVID, all the time.
Kirk, MD, PhD ’03, MPH ’95, found himself in meetings to determine how to spend University seed grants, make sure research subjects and faculty and staff were protected, and scale down a 30-year study of HIV in the community to allow for phone interviews, all the while providing clinical care to COVID-19 patients.
He still hasn’t fully moved into his new office.
Across the School, the pandemic changed everything, for pretty much everyone, for months. Laboratory research shut down. Offices were closed. Classes went virtual. Daily life changed in ways no one anticipated.
As life at the School steps back toward normalcy (COVID willing), faculty and students are taking stock of the pandemic’s multifarious impacts. Kirk, for example, enjoyed working with fellow deans to dramatically accelerate the plodding proposal process for seed grants by asking faculty for Shark Tank–style sales pitches. “The sense of collaboration was dramatic,” says Kirk. “If you take really smart people and you throw a huge problem in front of them and say, ‘I’ve got millions of dollars’—well, I think we probably apportioned the money pretty well.” (See sidebar.)
But it hasn’t been easy. Basic scientists like Ashani Weeraratna, PhD, faced multiple challenges.
While labs were shut down and applied public health researchers became publishing machines with all the new coronavirus data, publication rates for wet labs working on non-coronavirus basic research issues dropped precipitously. Experiments based on cell or tissue cultures or animal systems were interrupted midstream. Months of work were lost. When the labs reopened, staff density had to be reduced by working in shifts and maintaining 6-foot distance. “Training students was almost impossible because a lot of what we do involves standing side by side and showing someone how to do these different techniques,” says Weeraratna, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and E.V. McCollum Professor and Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “So we didn't take any students that we had to train … because we just couldn't do it.”
Even as lab workers are back, Weeraratna and other scientists are dealing with another major challenge: the supply chain. “Everything is slower because it takes longer to get things,” she says. And everything costs more—she must pay four times as much for the fetal calf serum she needs to grow her cells in culture. And she and her team have to test each new growth agent to see if the cells grow in it the same way they did with the previous lot. Collagen, a basic component of skin that Weeraratna’s lab uses in experiments to study how skin ages and responds to cancer cells, has been on a six-month backorder. “We used to be able to call and have it here the next day or the next week,” she says.
And she’s heard disturbing stories, like those in tweets from researchers at other universities who ordered 50 milliliter tubes and instead received cats preserved in formaldehyde. “It just speaks to the sheer madness and chaos of the situation,” she says.
Without experimental data, her lab published just a few review articles since the beginning of the pandemic; they usually put out three to four primary research articles a year. As of midsummer 2022, they had just one, in Nature. “It’s a big one,” says Weeraratna, “but still.”
The stress of interrupted research and classes, plus the challenges of restarting, are taking a toll on students, Weeraratna says. “There are plenty of students who have lost a year, and not just at Hopkins but nationally and globally,” she says. Some students she expected would sail through their exams instead got conditional passes, and she’s hearing the same from colleagues at other schools.
She’s also worried about the next generation of scientists who have missed out on lab time and took more straightforward, 9-to-5 jobs in industry. “The Great Resignation that has hit every aspect of business is hitting academia through our trainees,” she says. “There's always been some level of that. But I think we’re at a crisis point in academia right now.”
An early-pandemic faculty survey at the School in October 2020 showed people were very stressed—1 in 5 were thinking of leaving academics, says Kirk. A national Chronicle of Higher Education survey at roughly the same time revealed similar findings.
The Chronicle survey showed that many academics felt unprotected or abandoned by their universities, but Weeraratna says Johns Hopkins administrators did well. “They were very conscientious about making sure when people went back to the labs, it was safe,” she says. The University offered help with child care, free parking for people coming in to work, and easy and quick COVID-19 tests.
When the pandemic hit, Gabby Headrick, MSPH, RDN, was a doctoral candidate in the Human Nutrition Program in International Health. She remembers sitting in her customary seat in the front row of a classroom just before spring break 2020, wondering if the School would close. It did, and she herself wouldn’t return until July 1, 2021.
Her research work and collaborations became virtual, says Headrick, who was studying healthy food purchasing and equitable access for underserved populations. “So I was sitting in my one-bedroom row home in Butcher’s Hill, Baltimore, for a very long time,” she says.
Headrick, like many researchers, doesn’t like the term “silver lining,” but says the pandemic did give her a chance to develop new ways to collect data and interact with the communities she studies. COVID-19 also created a natural experiment, allowing her to see what happens when SNAP, the government food assistance program she studies, is made simpler and more generous for recipients as it was during the pandemic.
In March 2020, Rezia Braza, PhD, was a grad student at University of Maryland, College Park and looking into postdoc opportunities at the Bloomberg School. Interviews were Zoom only, but Braza wanted to see the School before she committed. So Kim Davis, PhD, MSc, assistant professor in the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, walked her around several labs on Zoom, convincing Braza to sign on at the School.
Braza’s research on how bacteria thwart the human immune system requires both animal studies and in vitro work. When animal studies were pretty much shut down, she focused on in vitro work, getting an exemption to do a non-COVID-19 project because it was time-sensitive.
She’s also discovered the importance of project management. Getting reagents, cell culture materials, and other supplies to arrive on time is almost as important as the ability to look at and analyze data. “It’s really part of the top skills that you have to be able to develop, especially now after COVID-19,” she says. “Because if you don't manage or preplan or schedule everything in the correct way, you won’t even be able to do experiments.”
Braza stuck with her bacterial pathogenesis work through the pandemic and plans to continue to do so. “When COVID-19 is more manageable, these questions [about bacteria] will still be around,” she says.
On the other hand, MMI Professor David Sullivan, MD, says COVID-19 changed his life. Sullivan had spent most of his career immersed in basic malaria research. He focused on hemozoin, a product made by malaria and his “favorite molecule in the world.”
That changed when MMI chair Arturo Casadevall, MD, asked Sullivan to write a one-page proposal for testing convalescent plasma in COVID-19 patients. It garnered a $3 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, $1 million from the state of Maryland (through the efforts of Dean Emeritus Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS ’73), and eventually $53 million from the U.S. Department of Defense. Twenty-four other sites and research groups joined the effort.
Sullivan found himself working seven days a week—organizing the trial, teaching, seeing patients, doing transfusions for the study on weekends, making phone calls to recruit patients, supervising his malaria lab, and trying to find rooms in the hospital for his patients.
He adopted a new motto: “pleasant, relentless persistence.” In such a high-stress situation, he says, “you can still be pleasant about things.”
With the convalescent plasma trial now done and published in the New England Journal of Medicine (it showed that the plasma helped some unvaccinated patients; and Casadevall estimates it saved 100,000 lives), life has gotten a little more reasonable, and Sullivan is back to finalizing three malaria papers.
Sullivan credits physicians, program managers, study coordinators, transfusion nurses, phlebotomists, data coordinators, and Institutional Review Board members at the University for their hard work. So does Greg Kirk. He’s seeing people like Sullivan getting back to pre-pandemic work, and now, he says, may be a good time to evaluate what happened to research during the pandemic.
Kirk says the next pandemic will be different “because we’ve now been through this. It’s akin to someone who’s been in the military and until the live fire rounds go off, you don’t really know how things are going to work,” he says.
And who knows—maybe he’ll have a chance to finish moving into his office.