COVID-19 stops some research at MSU, others helping to fight the virus

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EAST LANSING — Robin Lin Miller is supposed to be in Zimbabwe right now.

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Miller, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, is researching community-led efforts to provide HIV care for LGBTQ people in countries where they face violence, stigma, discrimination, or arrest. 

Her work has taken her to Cameroon and Jamaica and she’d planned to continue it in Zimbabwe. Then COVID-19 spread, bringing travel bans around the world. Now, Miller joins many researchers at MSU and around the country who’ve had to table their research or end it altogether.

“I’m obviously not in Zimbabwe, I’m in my home,” Miller said. “It’s the last month of the project. I’ll have to figure out how to make do with a large part of the data we hoped to have missing.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order took effect March 24, suspending activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life. MSU took a similar path, suspending all non-essential research activities, according to a letter sent to researchers on March 23 from Stephen Hsu, MSU senior vice president for research and innovation.

Some research can continue: work related to COVID-19; work that, if stopped, would pose a safety hazard or that maintains critical equipment or resources; clinical trials that could impact a patient’s care if stopped; and activity that ensures the humane care of animals.

Miller flew back to the U.S. from Cameroon on March 8 and was already planning her next research trip to Kingston, Jamaica, and then to Zimbabwe. If she had made it out ahead of the restrictions, she would be stuck in Zimbabwe instead of at home, Miller said.

But she’s happy to be safe.

“Honestly, I was more concerned about bringing COVID-19 to places in Africa than I was about my own vulnerability,” Miller said.

An abrupt end

Roberto Lopez joined colleagues in throwing away thousands of plants used for research projects that had come to a halt.

Lopez is an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources and a controlled environment extension specialist. He had to end three research projects looking at light quality from LEDs to determine how light influences the flowering of basic bedding plants, like petunias and snapdragons.

Still, he said, it totaled only about two weeks of research. Lopez appeared more concerned for his graduate students.

Current circumstances could make it impossible for graduate students to graduate on time. It’s MSU’s job to find a way to help them finish up, said Paul Hunt, senior associate vice president for research and innovation.

The outbreak and resulting closures could lead to extensions for students working on their theses or dissertations, he said.

MSU researchers have several plots on the east side of campus filled with coniferous trees that have received different treatments as part of a trial to see if it’s possible for the trees to grow without cones, said Bert Cregg, a professor in the Departments of Horticulture and Forestry. They began the work after learning of all the time spent by growers picking them off before selling the trees.

He’s spent four or five years on the project. The final data will be collected this spring, if the restrictions lift. But it won’t be done if it means risking his or someone else’s health.

Richard Lenski, a professor of microbial ecology who has been conducting a live evolution experiment with E. coli bacteria since 1988, temporarily suspended the experiment and closed his lab on March 9 two days before the first coronavirus cases were found in Michigan. .

“As we freeze away the long-term lines, the lab notebook will record:  ‘On this day, the (Long Term Evolution Experiment) was temporarily halted and frozen down for the coronavirus pandemic of 2020,’” he wrote in a blog post.  

Researchers focus on COVID-19

Experts have warned that even when COVID-19 subsides in the United States, there’s the possibility of subsequent outbreaks. 

Joan Rose will be looking for it.

About 30% of coronavirus patients experience diarrhea, which means researchers can monitor the virus in wastewater, said Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in water research and a water pollution microbiologist at MSU.

“We do think we’ll be able to watch the disease in the community as it ebbs and flows,” she said. “Perhaps in the future, when coronavirus returns, it is something that can give us an early warning.”

She’s working with another colleague in New Orleans who had been monitoring water samples before the COVID-19 outbreak.

While she focuses on that work, three to four more projects involving water sampling have stopped.

Jade Mitchell is ramping up her research activity, but her research looks at the risks of being exposed to the coronavirus. 

Mitchell, an associate professor in biosystems engineering who specializes in microbial risk assessment, looks at the risk of infection, illness and death based on exposure to the virus or other infectious agents.

She’s part of a collaboration putting out paper after paper detailing these risks. Researchers across the country are following her work, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m actually a lot busier than I normally would be,” Mitchell said.

MSU’s medical programs are also being utilized to find ways to help through their research.

Researchers at the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center are working to develop a COVID-19 high sensitivity blood test, while other researchers at the MSU Institute of Quantitative Health and Engineering are developing tests that can accommodate multiple people and produce test results within 50 minutes, according to Norman Beauchamp Jr., MSU executive vice president for health sciences.

University researchers have also devised a way to decontaminate N95 masks using commercial ovens, an innovation that could stave off mask shortages and protect the lives of front-line workers. 

“We really are mobilizing all of our resources to develop research to solve these problems,” Beauchamp said.

‘I’m stuck with what I was able to get’

Part of the reason that Miller didn’t travel to Zimbabwe was a fear of inadvertently spreading COVID-19 to places in Africa if she continued traveling.

All she can do now is work with the data she already has and try to fill in the gaps. Much of the information she needs is gathered through face-to-face interactions, being on the ground to see the HIV clinics and see first-hand what it’s like for those health care providers.

“You couldn’t really plan on collecting data by Zoom,” Miller said. “So I’m stuck with what I was able to get from prior visits and will have to come up with the best and most accurate stories that I can on what happened in these projects.”

Contact Mark Johnson at 517-377-1026 or at majohnson2@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMarkJohnson.

Read or Share this story: https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/2020/04/09/coronavirus-covid-19-research-msu-michigan-state-university/2941168001/

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