COVID Stories: There would be no world-leading research without our Support Staff (Part 2)
Published on 2 July 2020
During lockdown, the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee was not closed.
Work continued albeit on a much smaller scale than usual, with the majority of the ongoing research focussed on coronavirus. Our support staff were absolutely critical in keeping the research complex functioning to allow this important work to happen. As we have entered phase 2 of the Scottish Government’s route map out of lockdown, we look back over the past few months and the challenges that our community in the School encountered and had to overcome.
Part 2: Support Services
Professor Inke Nathke, Interim Dean, School of Life Sciences
A research community working together to contribute to the worldwide effort to combat coronavirus.
In mid-March, there was a flurry of activity as the nation moved to a new way of working. In the School this involved moving the majority of our staff and students to working from home. Those who remained, undertaking research into covid-19 and maintaining essential services, also shifted to a new way of working. Our support staff were vital preparing and maintaining both these aspects.
Professor Inke Näthke, Interim Dean, School of Life Sciences said, “Our support staff have worked what seems like miracles to ensure we can keep our research complex safe and functional. They provided and continue to provide service on and off site to all of us. Many are on standby and rotas are in place to deliver what we need.”
The Central Technical Services (CTS) ceased operation in mid-March and other areas also reduced their capacity in line with decreased requirements and the lockdown. Before lockdown, standard operating procedures (SOPs) were implemented for groups working on COVID projects to process their own waste and prepare their own media. Other support was either provided on site or remotely by those individuals working from home.
Many areas of research that were deemed non-essential were shut down. Experiments were brought to a conclusion, samples stored, and equipment switched off. However, this could not happen in every case. The School is home to many pieces of complex and expensive equipment. In many cases, these are not designed to be dormant for extended periods of. Model organisms are commonly used by our scientists in their research. Cell lines can be frozen and stored but other organisms cannot. Drosophila and fungi, for example, required regular care. Even if samples were stored away, checks were needed, and liquid nitrogen required topping up. This all required maintenance carried out by people.
Alongside things inside the building, the building itself needs monitoring. University security have maintained a constant presence. They were the first face any of the staff or students permitted to enter the School encountered and they ensured that our buildings was secure for those working inside.
A task akin to ‘painting the Forth Bridge’
In the past, once the maintenance crew finished painting the entire length of the Forth Bridge, they would have to start again at the opposite end. During lockdown a similar task needed to be carried out in the school, namely tap flushing. Each tap within the research complex in the School requires flushing once a week. For a single member of staff this would take an entire week and then on the following Monday, they would have to return to the beginning. An interminable task. Thankfully, a team of support staff from the lab management team shared this task to keep the water supply safe for those working in the research complex.
Preparations for return to work on campus
Alongside the day to day activities required to keep everything ticking over, School staff worked (and continue to do so) with the wider University, in particular Estates and Buildings, to prepare the building for return to work. This was no easy task. Our research complex was designed and built to be open plan to encourage interaction, collaboration and interdisciplinary working. Social distancing was never considered and is diametrically opposed to that ethos.
How do we move around in the buildings? How will we work within laboratory spaces? A phased return is critical. New working procedures and risk assessments have been devised to take into account the situation. These documents are extensive. The School Safety Officers working with the University Health and Safety team have been essential for this. Their expertise and knowledge reassure and provide confidence to those returning to the School from this week.
For any research activity to proceed, it has to be matched by the support that is available (media, safety, ordering, waste management, and much, much more) and many of these services will run at reduced capacity for some time to come. The diverse range of roles covered by the support staff in Life Sciences is vital for the world-leading research to take place. Some of the members of this community have shared their experiences of the past few months with us.
Press Office, University of Dundeepress@dundee.ac.uk