Department to Initiate Phased Resumption of Research

By Wendy Plump
Monday, Jun. 8, 2020

The Department of Chemistry will soon initiate a cautious, partial resumption of its research program based on an expansive document created by the Dean of the Office for Research and its Committee on Phased Resumption of On-Campus Research.

Released in late May, the document outlines a methodical process to safeguard the health of the Frick community and the broader campus as it retreats from the March lockdown imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resumption covers all experimental labs. It excludes administration, most staffers, and undergraduate students, who will continue to work and learn remotely.

Princeton University leadership has not yet signaled a start date for the resumption. The campus currently holds at Level Three in the plan: “essential operations.” Once state, local, and campus officials have given the go-ahead for limited access, Frick will move to Level Two: “phased resumption.”

The Office of the Dean for Research is hosting a Town Hall on Thursday, June 11th at 12:00 p.m. to enable the Princeton community to learn more about the plan. The event is open to staff, faculty, researchers, postdocs, graduate students, and anyone employed by or attending Princeton. Committee Chair Pablo G. Debenedetti, Dean for Research, Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and members of the committee along with staffers from Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) will answer questions. Registration is required.

The ongoing, heavily caveated approach to resumption requires chemistry PIs to prepare plans detailing how they will incorporate social distancing, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves, spatial concerns, work station hygiene, equipment sharing, and other protocols in their labs.

A broader plan is also being developed for Frick Laboratory as a whole, including access to the building and core facilities usage. All plans will be approved by the Office of the Dean for Research prior to the phased reopening.

At Frick, the resumption process is being overseen by Tom Muir, Van Zandt Williams Jr. Class of 1965 Professor Chemistry and Chair, Department of Chemistry, and a member of the committee since its inception. Muir emphasized that while these developments are hopeful, they are also marked by an urgent caution. There is a need for strict adherence to all directives laid out in the document, he said.

“People are anxious to get back to work. Most of the scientists, that’s what they’re meant to be doing in this world,” said Muir. “But we have to do it safely. So, it’s not going to be business as normal. Not for a while.

“This is an incredibly hopeful and important step in the process of getting chemists back to doing science. But it’s also incredibly important that everybody reads the document and understands the requirements for going back into Frick, and that they play by the rules.”

Muir also emphasized that the transition is not unidirectional, but has been designed to adapt to multiple scenarios in an environment that changes daily. Updates will be announced through regular department channels.

The document, Plan for Phased Resumption of On-Campus Research, was developed by the five members of the committee after broad consultation with stakeholders across campus. Key highlights are:

  • The plan applies to laboratory-based research on campus. Any work that can be done remotely will continue to be done remotely, including research for theoretical labs.
  • Only individuals who have been cleared to return will be permitted to return.
  • Faculty will develop plans for ensuring compliance with University policies including social distancing, proper use of PPE, cleaning and disinfecting, foot-traffic patterns, and limits on the number of researchers who can be in a lab at any given time based on square footage.
  • Each returning lab will be responsible for developing its own plan based on its unique structure and needs.
  • The Department of Chemistry will develop an overall plan covering the safe usage of shared facilities, public areas in the building, and research infrastructure.
  • The actual resumption of on-campus research will occur only after approved plans are in place. The decision to resume will be made by University leadership in accordance with local, state, and national health and safety directives.
  • At this time, undergraduate researchers and most staffers will continue to work remotely.
  • Each returning individual will be required to wear a disposable mask within the building and dispose of it before leaving the lab; fulfill an online training course prior to re-entering Frick; complete a personal health assessment; and download an app that helps individuals self-monitor their daily health and exposure risk.
  • The plan underscores a no-coercion policy, so that individuals who are uncomfortable with the idea of returning to campus may request an accommodation.

Muir has encouraged faculty and all individuals involved to read the planning document thoroughly, adding that the process will run more smoothly if all parties know what is required.

“It was never going to be like switching on a light that we turned out in March,” said Muir. “But it makes sense to get everything in place as much as possible prior to the actual starting point,” said Muir. “We don’t know when that’s going to be yet.

“But,” he added, “I’m personally excited to get us back to work.”

In addition to Muir, members of the committee include: Committee Chair Debenedetti; Bonnie L. Bassler, Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology, and Chair, Department of Molecular Biology; Karla L. Ewalt, Associate Dean for Research; and Robin M. Izzo, Executive Director, Environmental Health and Safety.

The Plan for Phased Resumption of On-Campus Research may be read in full here: https://research.princeton.edu/research-administration/covid-19-information-researchers/covid-19-research-operations/plan-phased