Newswise — Among Creighton University’s most pressing COVID-19 challenges is the need to maintain research projects at a time when social distancing measures are mandated, the campus is largely closed and lab animals and cultures must be preserved.

As a respected research institution currently juggling millions of dollars in federal research grants, the University is working with its faculty and staff, as well as with contracting federal agencies, to preserve its research function — especially those aspects relating to the COVID-19 virus itself.

Much of this juggling is being performed under the guidance of Laura Hansen, PhD, who in August 2019 was named associate dean for research in the Creighton University School of Medicine, a duty added to her roles as a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and director of the Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Carcinogenesis Program.

Finding ways to preserve research work, especially projects relating to the COVID-19 virus, is a priority, Hansen says.

“You know, a number of us PhD faculty see the clinical faculty working really long hours and putting their lives at risk and making the big sacrifices for our community,” she says. “We’re not part of that, but I think everybody in our community feels that if we can do anything to help with this problem then we'll do it.”

Among these COVID-19 endeavors is a plan devised by Michael Belshan and Holly Stessman, professors in the School of Medicine, to isolate and sequence viral genomes from clinical samples in Nebraska in order to better understand local transmission and evolution of the virus. Other researchers are manufacturing medical masks on 3D printers both at home and in the Reinert Alumni Library, while still others are investigating the possibility of making used masks available for re-use through sterilization procedures.

Belshan’s research on COVID-19 immunity is fundamental to the battle to contain the virus, Hansen says.

“Mike and Holly are talented scientists, and this is a very exciting endeavor,” she says. “The data they produce will be a tremendous help to physicians and public health experts and inform efforts to slow transmission of the virus and manage viral-specific treatments, when available.”

Research at Creighton, being an integral part of Creighton’s undergraduate experience, is also being affected for students. Julie Strauss-Soukup, PhD, is responsible for keeping much of it alive in her role as director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship.

“Since the Creighton campus is now closed to everyone except ‘essential personnel,’ most research work is being done off-campus,” Strauss-Soukup says.

She says students are reading articles in their fields that they previously lacked the time to approach, discussing those articles in weekly, student-led Zoom sessions, and designing new experiments that can be tested once labs become available again.

Senior research students are writing their final research papers, which can be done off campus, so that function continues largely unimpeded, she says.

Creighton administrators, all the way up to the provost and president’s offices, are trying to balance compliance with state COVID-19 mandates while preserving the University’s research functions, Hansen says. To this end, a list of “essential personnel” has been created, and these designees feed the lab animals and provide the materials necessary to preserve lab cultures. COVID-19 researchers are on the list, although they strictly observe social distancing guidelines while in campus buildings, sometimes to the extent of working during different parts of the day.

Researchers, who are often PhD students or post-doctoral students, have received a commitment from the University that they will continue to be paid even as the circumstances of their research work changes, Hansen said.

“This is very important because many of them are older students, and they often have families,” she says. “We made a commitment to their education, so the University has said they will continue to receive their stipend and their health insurance and everything.”

Keeping Creighton’s research function alive is a priority team effort, Hansen says, and it’s an effort that encompasses research projects being conducted campuswide, at the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Nursing, the Graduate School, the School of Dentistry and the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions.

“We are all doing our best to keep research going,” she says. “I feel pretty lucky and pretty blessed that we still have some access to campus and that our research personnel are still being supported. It’s different from how we did it before, but we’re doing our best to move research forward.”