Montana Public Radio

Scientists Are Bringing Their Research Home During COVID-19 Closures

May 14, 2020

Since COVID-19 shut down research deemed “non-essential” across the state, Some scientists are now bringing their work home with them.

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

University of Montana Undergraduate lab technician Madi Miller has transformed her apartment’s kitchen into a home lab. She’s showing it off via Zoom.

"I'll show you my refrigerator. This is where I keep my samples, just in there with food."

Next to seltzer cans and a tupperware of leftover curry, a cardboard box holds the ancient mud Miller analyzes. Miller works in the university’s paleoecology lab, where she studies lake-bottom sediments that hold historical records of fire activity. They provide clues about the future.

"For example, are we going to see more frequent fires," Miller explains.

Scientific labs are collaborative places where researchers work in close proximity and share materials and equipment. When the pandemic hit, scientists made changes to prevent the spread of the virus. Miller adjusted the way she uses her kitchen.

"When it switches over to lab work time it can't be used for making myself lunch."

Associate Professor Phil Higuera said he decided to keep his lab open remotely after talking with researchers in other states where the virus spread earlier.

"We identified the procedures that were most adaptable to doing in a home environment, both from the safety of the student, and anticipating troubleshooting or differences in equipment, or just random things like your cat jumping up on the table."

Still, some things like work with chemicals must be done in the lab. And some samples are just too large to fit in a home refrigerator. Researchers will have to pick those things up when they can return to the lab. So COVID-19 will slow the lab’s progress, though not as much as if research stopped altogether.

"Scientific research, it requires a lot of creativity to problem solve," Higuera says. "And so in a way, this is just another example of problem solving to figure out how to accomplish the research goals.

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