Science

UG researchers deal with the corona crisis

The Great Lockdown

Experimental research at the UG has come to a sudden standstill. Researchers are doing their best to cope with one of the biggest crises the university has ever encountered. ‘All that’s left to do is create computer simulations and write articles.’


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

18 March om 11:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

March 18 at 11:00 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

Simon Verhulst and his PhD student Merijn Driessen were shocked at the news. The pair, with Driessen taking the lead, have been studying ageing and the immune system for years. Driessen wants to know if all parts of the immune system age at the same time, or if some parts age faster than others. 

For his research, his studies approximately 170 zebra finches in various cages at the Linnaeusborg. Some of the birds have to work hard to earn their food, while others have it easy. He takes blood samples every year in March and September to check their antibodies and their bacterial killing essay. But just as he was gearing up for his March sampling, which would also be the last sampling he needed for his research, he received that fateful e-mail: ‘On Sunday evening, March 15, all buildings of the University will be closed from March 16 to April 10, except for vital activities.’

If I didn’t have any data, I was in trouble.

‘I was pretty worried’, he admits. ‘This was supposed to be the highlight of my research. If I didn’t have any data, I was in trouble.’ What’s worse, in six months, most of his finches will probably be dead; they only live for about three years.

‘Experiments cannot continue’, the e-mail said, ‘except for long-term experiments that have already been initiated and cannot be interrupted.’

Litmus test

The question then arose whether his research was important enough? Would he be getting permission to enter the building?

Driessen and Verhulst contacted GELIFES scientific director Ton Groothuis.  They spent ages e-mailing back and forth. Why was his research so important? Was there no other time at which he could collect his data? 

Verhulst said the way it was handled was a litmus test. ‘Can they cater to everyone? I hope they take the time to decide, but with so many requests coming in it’s tempting to just ban everyone.’

But that afternoon, they got the e-mail they wanted. Driessen is allowed to enter the animal labs five times to take blood samples. It’s an adjustment – he’ll have to sample forty birds at once instead of sixteen. This means the times at which he takes blood vary just slightly. ‘But we suspect this won’t matter as much as we’d initially thought.’ 

He’ll also be missing one immune component, since he’d have to be at the lab every day fro that. But the rest of the data will suffice; his thesis is saved. 

Ideal conditions

Researchers at the UG are scrambling to make everything work. They were still trying to figure out how to teach online when the next hit came on Sunday. Due to the coronavirus, all UG buildings were closing down. 

Faculties like law, arts, or spatial sciences weren’t overly affected. Spatial sciences PhD candidate Fieke Visser quickly went to Mediamarkt to buy a computer so she could work from home. ‘I hope they’ll reimburse me from my research funds.’ 

I’m staying home, reading articles, setting up new things

Law researcher and lecturer Matthijs van Wolferen thinks it’s kind of nice. ‘I’m staying home, reading articles, setting up new things. I’m purely focused on legal research and being productive. It’s all good. But you do need ideal conditions. All my loved ones are healthy and I’m in digital contact with everyone.’

But the Faculty of Science and Engineering is having a much harder time, as are the medical faculty and the behavioural and social sciences. 

Experiments halted

AGOR, the KVI-Cart particle accelerator, is quiet. The operators, who usually work in shifts to keep it going twenty-four hours a day, have been sent home. ‘There were experiments we wanted to do’, says Emiel de Graaf, who works in proton radiography, an imaging technique. ‘Last week, a couple of PhD candidates from Oldenburg cancelled because they weren’t allowed to leave the country due to corona. But now our own PhD students’ experiments and commercial activities have been halted as well.’

It’s going to be very busy once everything gets started again. The cyclotron is constantly in operation, which means people can’t just sneak in a cancelled experiment at a quiet moment. But it is what it is. ‘I gathered all my things today’, says De Graaf. ‘We’re changing our schedule and bringing forward some things, like writing articles. We’re also using simulations. But our bachelor students often use the ‘bundle’ in their research, to gather their own data. They’ll have to do everything in theory now, which is a shame.’

Physicist Steven Hoekstra’s experiments, as well as the construction of his particle decelerator, have also come to a standstill. ‘All we can do is run computer simulations and write articles’, he says. It’s annoying, but nothing will break in the downtime, and there’s plenty of time. ‘Our atoms and molecules are patient.’

Second time

For insect researcher Leo Beukeboom, this is the second time in a short period that he has to deal with his building closing down. Last month the Linnaeusborg closed down so the new ventilation system could be installed. Beukeboom lost several insect populations and his PhD students suffered delays. ‘I’m still working on a letter to the faculty.’ 

I’m still working on a letter to the faculty concerning the last shutdown

And now it’s all happening again. ‘Oh well’, he says. ‘At least we have practice. This time they will be letting people in to maintain the populations. We’re working on a rotation schedule and are making sure there are only ever two people in the room at the same time.’ At least the heating and ventilation will continue to operate this time. ‘That was probably the problem the last time.’

The e-mail from the board wasn’t entirely unexpected, though. Various researchers had been anticipating the lockdown. Hoekstra and his postdoc discussed the possibility last Wednesday. ‘We told each other to keep our data at hand and our logbooks close. We left the experiment in a good state. We vacuum pack everything, so we made sure to turn all the pumps off.’ 

Prepared

Engineer Mónica Acuautla Meneses says that people were hard at work making updates and preparing for flex working. ‘We were also working on adapting projects to make sure the students could keep working.’

Research support Jacob Jolij, with the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, also realised that the RIVM’s stricter guidelines made lab work impossible.  ‘In EEG experiments, for example, people have to get really close and touch each other. We couldn’t do that anymore.’

He and his colleagues have mainly been working to help researchers and students get as much done as they can. It’s quite a bit of work, as students are working on experiments for their bachelor and master theses: six hundred and two hundred of them, respectively. All people he now has to help do their research online. That possibility remains, at least. 

Understanding

Lending desks are working overtime as well. BSS demand manager Pieter Zandbergen gave out twelve laptops. He helped people carry monitors home and them cables to connect them. On Monday afternoon, he ran out. 

The good news is that people are understanding. Almost everyone is happy with the communication and support from the UG. ‘I guess they learned from last time’, Beukeboom says. ‘Communication has been really good’, says microbiologist Dirk-Jan Scheffers. ‘The UG has been really helpful. They’re sending us daily information updates’, says engineer Acuautla Meneses.

Jolij: ‘Everyone understands there was no way to prepare for this.’

Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

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