Learning from Crisis: Ramping Up to Research


Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Dear MRI Community,

This correspondence in the series, Learning from Crisis: a Materials Perspective, addresses the planning and collective responsibility we have as we prepare for ramping up research at Penn State.  We have been learning from others in real time how to mitigate transmission, and now the time comes to implement our strategies to ramp up research. The next steps were defined from many hours and weeks of detailed planning, while respecting the sars-cov-2 and its virulent nature that can threaten our ambitions and plans. We do have the reality of returning with the practice of sterilization, social distancing, and wearing masks to support our endeavor. But I believe that as researchers we are aware of the potential threat of a second wave. We have the advantages of already having a structure and culture towards safety in our laboratories, and I also believe our collective concern for success will provide us with behaviors and practices that will bode well for our safety. However, there are social and travel behaviors beyond our laboratories that are also a threat we must be conscious of. Individually, we can adapt in a knowledgeable way and be concerned with how this impacts our colleagues and families and adjust our behavior to minimize transmission in an unwitting way.

So, we must have enhanced awareness and caution from the haunting images of suffering patients and medical workers alike, who in some regions are stretched to the limit. We should not forget what we have witnessed!  We have learned that infection can spread in various ways. We understand the threat of shedding prior to showing symptoms. We must remember this can come again. The scientists in us may also have looked at the mathematics of the equations underpinning the kinetics of the infections and noted the coupled differential equations that are not unfamiliar to our materials community. We note that even within the mathematics the behavior of our social distancing is a linear response and the virus operates in a highly non-linear manner in its “desire” to reproduce its genetic identity.

As we go back to the laboratory and field research without vaccinations, without testing, and without herd immunity, we plan go back gradually and safely. We know also from the data that we do this with higher infection and higher death rates than any other country. Many families have suffered, not just from the passing of love ones, but in the fear of job loss while balancing other social and family challenges. Central Pennsylvania, Centre County, and University Park at this time has been largely spared, but we know that other communities of our size have suffered when one in-person meeting enabled a rapid spreading of infection not apparent until weeks later. Remember, all pandemics start with a single infection, patient zero. We are now far from patient zero and so there is major concern in minimizing the risks. Our economy has been cracked open and exposed. The return to work is necessary, but we must get it right and balance the risks. Second waves and spikes are highly probable and if these are not handled properly the chance of an even more damaging medical-social-economic situation could emerge. There is a collective responsibility that every worker and citizen must accept. We need to understand that this is a problem that is more important than each of us as individuals, but it is our families, community, and country that we continue to collectively consider in our actions.

I can assure you that our university research leadership has considered well a plan that is almost finalized to ramp up research. This committee is chaired by Dr. Lora Weiss and includes a number of members of the University Research Council (including myself), as well as other key representatives from EHS, OSP, the commonwealth campuses, the College of Medicine, etc., to identify a plan that could be implemented across all of Penn State and its campuses. In MRI we have been meeting with my leadership team three days a week at 8:00 am since early March. That group planned our local and safe close-down, our operations under the essential research phase, and now plan our ramping up to research. There are many details that had to enable this process, in fact, the ramp up is not as simple as a reversal of the ramp down we successful conducted back in those last days of March.

Vincent van Gogh taught us “For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone and is a succession of little things that are brought together. And great things are not accidental but must certainly be willed.”

I want to take this moment to thank them for all their enormous efforts, my team includes Bob Cornwell, Chad Eichfeld, Sarah Eichfeld, Kevin Dressler, Mike Hickner, Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Joan Redwing, Jeff Shallenberger, and Josh Stapleton. Our gratitude to them and many others is immense. Their work and implementations will provide the most efficient and safest return to the lab. You will see many of these details and operational plans as we plan this gradual opening-up. In MSC this is also done in a way that involves Huck, OPP, and the all-important janitorial staff. There are plans for working with each of the user core facilities and the gradual opening-up of individual research laboratories. There is a website that you and your researchers will have to work through and tick off the duties to be prepared, and this will be in place for you to read and guide your groups to be compliant with the university’s guidelines and the specific operations within the Millennium Science Complex. Although there is more work for you to do, it will provide the guidelines in a way that will enhance our probability of a successful return and permit a flexibility that will allow us to ramp up and retreat as necessary. It requires a level of training, safety awareness, and a collective culture that we have never had to practice within our physical sciences before. Respecting these plans will enable us to succeed with an attitude of “one for all, and all for one.” When the university releases its plan and time table, we will be in a position to assist in the ramp up locally and aiding you to provide the plans and criteria to have your researcher go through different preparation and activities of approval. Reopening and its planning and approval is much more complicated than the closing procedures.

I believe our future will be successful, with our collective will and trust. Let us not have regrets when we think back on this period, but only a memory of pride in our success. Remember, it is easy to be good in normal times, but in times of crisis and uncertainty we can only be great. We can all aspire to this with a little more effort. As our plans unfold and develop, we will consider refining our practices. Our safety committees that always provide such valued service will now be asked to oversee successful laboratory function in regard to our guidelines and practices. I thank the laboratory lab safety managers of the MSC in advance for the duties that I know they will help to mold and refine as we understand our future opportunities and challenges with the virus. All the little things matter, we are all in this together, and your understanding and patience is imperative. Be ready to rise to our opportunity, there are still tough times in front of us, but if we do this right, we will reduce the magnitude of the challenge that we face.

Our website will be up and will have updates. We will also have a Zoom town hall to communicate the MSC plan in the coming days. Social distancing, wearing masks, and cleaning protocols are to continue into the future.


All the best,


Clive Randall
Director, Materials Research Institute