By Jon Atherton
Home to over 16 Yale departments, all the University’s museums, the Yale School of Nursing, and an endless stream of visitors, in recent years the West Campus has had the feel of a bustling town of faculty, students and staff.
That was, until March 2020.
Alongside colleagues in New Haven, and throughout communities in Connecticut and the world, the Campus was facing up to the new reality posed by COVID-19 and an unfolding global pandemic.
To a community of scientists, many engaged in health-related research, the need to act was as clear as the data laid before them. West Campus would for the most part be heading home in order to play a full role in protecting residents and the community at large.
But ramping down an entire campus would present both ethical and practical challenges uncharted in the modern era.
“We all share a common mission – faculty, students and staff - and when our labs aren’t active, we all feel that,” explained Chris Incarvito, Associate Provost for Science Initiatives, of the mood within West Campus Administration’s Research Operations team.
“Instructing colleagues to stop active laboratory research is not what any of us signed up for. We had to ask staff to take steps that were the antithesis of what they expect to do each day.”
Support staff across the campus felt a sense of unease at having to ask faculty and students to pause their life’s work. Managing a way through this, and to minimize wastage, “Research Ops” went into extreme detail mode, examining the consequences of “the pause” in a methodical way to support labs pivoting to new COVID-related research, those finishing up existing work, and science to be postponed without the need for a total reboot later.
For every discreet programmatic decision, the implications for connected processes were poured over. Urgency to complete experiments drove a surge in demand for campus technology, requiring thoughtful decision making from Core directors. The team even stood up a makeshift package pickup for critical research supplies – verifying three or four different supply chain scenarios to understand which would work, and which would best serve researchers.
At the campus level, these operational questions have knock-on effects – what Incarvito describes as a “cogged” environment. But with COVID-19 on the horizon, wheels had begun turning weeks in advance on regular University-wide meetings of the Emergency Operations Team.
“Once we realized what was going on, we set to work with all of our campus partners and with the EOT on the logistics of a phased ramp down of activities, while also keeping vital services going for the work that needed to continue,” said Meghan Dahlmeyer, Lead Administrator at West Campus, whose work with Incarvito and a connected team supports a campus community of close to 2000 Yale people.
With many labs in the process of leaving campus, Dahlmeyer called on partners in dining, facilities, transport (“really every conceivable department of Yale’s TR&S”) and security to support and mirror the steady ramp down across West Campus’ 17 lab-filled buildings. Yet more measures were set in motion to secure critical infrastructure for continuing COVID-19-related research.
Administrators and faculty alike set to mitigate the inevitable disruption caused by the ramp down, focusing squarely on the need to keep people as healthy and reassured as possible.
“The speed in which our labs were assessed was really impressive, with colleagues quick to recognize the key aspects that would require the occasional return to laboratory,” recalls Andrew Goodman, Director of the Microbial Sciences Institute.
This would be no mean feat for research space designed explicitly for collaboration among scholars from all parts of Yale.
But for something on this unprecedented scale, Goodman applauds the University’s approach to maximizing safety, while also enabling his labs to donate PPE equipment. “Our labs switched to remote working in a day or two,” he continues, “and with the help of the Poorvu Center, faculty have adapted so well to teaching online. We’ve been working on ways to structure our time to make our research help as much as it can during this strange time.”
As graduate students began digging deeper into literature studies from home, scholars across the campus were taking a fresh look at their work and what they were trying to achieve. Using its library of chemicals, the Yale Center for Molecular Discovery made strides to find several existing drugs that inhibit viral entry of multiple coronaviruses, while the labs of the Yale Center for Genome Analysis continued to meet demand for DNA strands for Yale’s COVID-19 work, and set to sequencing the COVID-19 genome.
While many scholars remained “outside of their usual habitat”, Andre Levchenko, Director of the Yale Systems Biology Institute, recognized the resilience of colleagues in the face of such difficult circumstances.
“Our scientists have always been passionate about tackling the greatest problems in human health. We see this at Yale and at West Campus,” he explained. Among other projects, John MacMicking and Sidi Chen, two faculty members at the Institute, have been interrogating data to help identify antibodies that could help the fight against COVID-19.
“Not everyone will pivot to do this kind of research, but we see how everything is interrelated, within our bodies, between various organs, and in our social and cultural networks. It becomes obvious how important it is to look at this challenge from a systems view.”
Refocusing on the campus community, albeit remotely, has been a definitive and humanizing experience for a place used to physical connection. Countless projects – in many cases the culmination of a lifetime’s work – have been put into the new context of an emergency that will leave its mark on our culture.
“We set aside the essential drive of our research groups for the collective good, acknowledging that this is the most important thing we can do in this moment,” reflects Paul Messier, Chair of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.
The pandemic has created “a moment for deep humility” and a “time to realize why we are all in this business,” he said. “The most important thing we can do is to create more space around us. We needed to take that to heart, and our ambitions as researchers and scholars have shifted completely to looking after people.”
For the many heroic interventions that relate directly to the pandemic, countless more people –and those often overlooked – are keeping things working on campus. “We’re entirely dependent on our security and facilities staff to keep our labs safe,” says Messier.
“Thanks to them, we’ll be ready to train the next generation to understand and interpret how this emergency is interwoven in our history.”
Whether at the Collections Study Center, at Yale School of Nursing or the Center for Genome Analysis, West Campus relies on the same campus partners for its critical services.
This “all hands to the pump” mindset, brought into the sharpest focus in spring this year, defines West Campus for Meghan Dahlmeyer. “One thing that is clear is that we are one team. Whether working on site or remotely, everyone has come together to ask how they could help, and that goes to the core of who we are.”
Until we reconvene as a physical community, it’s a message of thanks that is echoed by Andre Levchenko and everyone at Yale’s West Campus: “We are alive and kicking, and our important work continues.”