Montana Public Radio

'Essential' Researchers Work To Keep Montana Science Labs Running

May 12, 2020

May 4, the University system in Montana started to slightly relax restrictions on research and lab work. But labs across the state continue to grapple with how to keep their experiments on course.

This is another story in our series looking at the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on science in Montana.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, researchers in scientific labs across the state are teleworking if possible, which slows their lab work, and social distancing when they get into the office.

"I have a mask right now. I just took it off so that it wouldn’t muffle my voice," says Emily Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at an evolutionary genomics lab at the University of Montana.

Moore took a break from her work looking at the genetic makeup of a one-of-it’s kind organ, the placenta, for a Zoom call.

Moore is considered an essential person in her lab, meaning she is one of a couple who are regularly allowed inside. She’s required to check if freezers are working, ongoing samples are safe and do other tasks. But Moore says it’s lonely not spending time with her peers.

"I can’t wait for this to be over. I’m ready."

Lab coats hang inside the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station lab.
Credit Sofia Stuart-rasi / Montana Public Radio

Other labs are cutting back on-site staffing too. At the Flathead Lake Biological Station, more than 30 people are ordinarily researching side-by-side. But now, only two are allowed inside at once.

Adam Baumann, a Freshwater Research Lab manager, is measuring pollutant levels in water. This work helps maintain Flathead Lake as one of the cleanest in the world.

"If you get bored doing it, you’re doing something wrong," he says.

Like other labs working across the state during the pandemic, Baumann has to manage how to keep research going with limited staff, which could delay collection of mportant data and create a backlog of work at the world-renowned center.

"Ya know, the uncertainty of all this is one of the most challenging pieces. Definitely keeps me up at night."

This story is supported by a grant from the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.