Video provided by Stony Brook University
Studying the Virus that Shook the World
Stony Brook University was in the midst of a crisis when Richard Reeder, the university’s vice president for research, issued an announcement on March 20, 2020.
“In an effort to protect the health and safety of Stony Brook students, staff, and faculty, all laboratory-based research activities must be ramped down by 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 21st,” it read in part. “The only exceptions will be critical activities, including care of animals, maintenance of unique reagents, and monitoring of essential equipment and materials. Research that is directly related to COVID-19 may continue providing that health and safety guidelines are observed.”
It was no insignificant announcement. Stony Brook University is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, a select group of institutions of higher learning committed to research. It also maintains a top R1 ranking from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as one of the country’s top doctoral universities with very high research activity. Pausing, let alone stopping, research at the university was tantamount to cutting off a limb.
Stony Brook’s researchers were operating roughly 2,000 funded projects at the time of the announcement as well as an additional 400 to 500 unfunded projects. Since the shutdown, more than 200 research teams have been studying the coronavirus, investigating topics ranging from vaccine development and therapeutics to artificial intelligence and supercomputer modeling.
“I think what we saw is that a number of our researchers recognized an opportunity to do something that could benefit society,” Reeder said. “And they immediately pivoted, and started to work on certain topics that were related to COVID-19.”
In turn, the Office of Research immediately got to work to support these new efforts, developing a seed grant to fund 17 COVID-19-related studies in May 2020 in an effort to propel them to further federal funding. The winning projects included medical investigations of antiviral drugs and diagnostic artificial intelligence as well as non-medical studies on the effects of isolation and social distancing. Beyond these 17 grant winners, many projects that weren’t awarded seed money continued.
“We knew from past experience that it would be important to provide seed funding to researchers in order to be able to give them just enough funding to develop proof of principle or collect preliminary data, so that they could write really competitive proposals to federal sponsors like the National Institutes of Health,” Reeder said. “So in very short order, I think in just a matter of a week, we redirected some funds that we would have used for other seed funding, and we created a seed funding program. … It was remarkably fast.”
In June, Reeder issued another announcement — that research would resume through a multistage process under Stony Brook’s “Coming Back Safe and Strong” plan. Between June and August, research staff were slowly allowed back on campus in shifts, with social distancing, mask-wearing and other guidelines enforced through individually approved plans. Now, they have resumed their work to the best of their ability, in phase four of the plan, which allows up to 80 percent of research personnel back in the labs at any particular time.
“What we found is that all of the research groups are able to accommodate the members of their teams to come back to research at, more or less, a full level of activity,” Reeder said. “There is a final stage in restarting research, phase five, and the way that was defined is when there are no longer risks associated with COVID. At this point, we don’t anticipate that being a phase that we would move to until this whole epidemic is past us. … It could well push into 2022.”
Stony Brook researchers have made great strides and won accolades for their work combatting the coronavirus. Read about their work here.
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