We're a little crazy, about science!

Clinical research in a pandemic

Male and female characters scientists or lab attendants working in science laboratory using microscope, lab glassware, vector flat illustration. Scientific research, experiment, science and education.

One of the more interesting things about the pandemic is that everything at the university level shut down. They still send out emails suggesting that everyone wants to go back to in person classes, but they haven’t followed through with that threat. Human participant research has been halted and even though we’re probably going back to “normal” in the fall, right now nothing is happening. That’s at the university level though, clinical research is a different story.

My research is done in a clinical setting, a research hospital to be exact. I have a co-appointment at the university and at the hospital, which gives me the chance to do some really cool stuff (like watch spinal surgery!) and I get to play with incredibly expensive equipment that I wouldn’t get to use otherwise. I picked an interesting time in history to go from mechanical design to human participant studies, but we never really stopped doing research at the hospital level. That’s really been the big difference between stuff at the university level and hospital level.

That doesn’t mean things haven’t slowed down, for sure we’ve reduced the research load. That has been good for me because my class load this last year has been particularly high, but it also means that my own research has dragged to a crawl because the research we do in the clinical lab with my co-PI has priority. My main-PI really wants me to finish and publish the results from the study that I finished up back in October/November(ish) of last year, but that too has been somewhat slow going due to… well life stuff I mean look around and pick a reason.

The interesting thing about clinical research is that it’s basically the main function of a research hospital. We care for people like a normal hospital for sure, but we also have extensive research facilities, I would estimate that more than half of the buildings the hospital owns are used for research and we’re even getting a new (temporary) building to move into while they build us (well my co-PI’s department) a whole new building. It would be shared of course, but for the most part it means better facilities for us and my co-PI in particular.

Its an interesting contrast to the no human research at the university level, but that sort of makes sense because 1) most of the research done at the university isn’t human based and 2) the research done at the university, while important isn’t the main function of the school. It doesn’t pay the bills so to speak like the research done at the clinical level. There are other things in play for sure, like when the vaccines became available because we are a hospital we were one of the first to get them. I was vaccinated back in January, before most of the population for the simple fact that we do research with vulnerable populations (people who have spinal cord injury for example).

Of all the places I have to go over the course of the pandemic, the hospital feels the safest. We are spread out, wear masks, face shields, etc. We do temperature checks, hand sanitizer is everywhere (I’ve actually memorized the locations on my regular routes in the hospital), and have regular COVID testing available, and on the research side of things the number of people we come in direct contact with is small. The downside to this is if one of the group got COVID chances are the rest of us would as well, but we’re fairly insulated from the outside world and now we’ve all been vaccinated so it seems unlikely that we would catch it.

Things have changed for sure, but the fact is that most of what we do to prevent the spread of disease now during the pandemic we were already doing in the hospital, so besides the addition of always wearing a mask and slowing down research to minimize contact with people, we didn’t need to adapt much. Which is sort of the point of a hospital, the basic things you do to prevent the spread of disease we do on a regular basis. Don’t think masks do anything? Talk to a surgeon, or frankly anyone who works in a hospital. They are worn anytime you step into a sterile field for a reason.

Maybe that’s part of the reason things have been so hectic for me. Now that I think about it, most of my collogues haven’t been able to do any sort of research while I’ve got several research projects going on. It will be good when I finally get the chance to publish all this research, but right now it’s a somewhat new revelation on why I seem to be so much busier than the rest of my lab.

It feels like that won’t be the case for long, the university is pushing hard to make opening feel like the students choice and not something they are forcing. I suspect by the fall things will be basically back to pre-pandemic levels of activity. I’m not particularly thrilled with calling the pandemic over until it is for sure over, but I don’t get a choice in the matter. I’m sure we’re all tired from the pandemic, but people are still dying and suffering, that feels pretty significant to me. It doesn’t feel right to ignore it because we’re tired, I don’t know maybe that’s just me.

With that, I should get back to work, things to do you see.


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