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A COVID-19 Lockdown Solution for Research Scientists

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Researchers need help during COVID-19 isolation

Lockdowns due to COVID-19 presents many problems not just to businesses and the economy, but to scientific research facilities as well. Here’s one proposed solution that could keep those labs open.


How COVID-19 Affects Research

In a recent article published online in The Conversation, researchers report that the COVID-19 lockdown and social isolation have put many research projects at risk due to the logistical difficulties in maintaining collections of researched species such as insects, plants and fungi.

Just as healthcare workers are literally putting their lives on the line toward treating patients that require extensive and labor-intensive care, scientists find themselves equally at risk as they struggle to maintain their colonies of research organisms with the same levels of care and concern. This is not a notion to be scoffed. The value toward understanding the mysteries of nature through basic research is that it is the foundation of new treatments and cures, disease prevention, and feeding the world.

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According to the article, “…the hidden costs of living collections are often shouldered by collections managers and staff. No one sees the days or even months curators and technical workers spend cultivating a single unique organism or colony, the holidays spent setting up cages, the weekends changing food, providing water, and, yes, picking up waste. It takes a lot of labor and technical skill to keep collections alive and solvent…To maintain our collection of more than 900 individual strains, these fungi must be individually partnered with their plant hosts. Then the plants must be maintained in greenhouses for several months each year. With 250 to 300 isolates cultured every three months and watered daily, this is a serious time commitment.”

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Keeping Their Collections Alive

Thus far, researchers have had to resort to three measures toward keeping their collections alive: putting a collection into hibernation if possible; risking their health by remaining working in the lab as an essential employee to maintain the collection; and, bringing the collections into their homes.

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All three measures present their own difficulties requiring some judicious and difficult decision making that balances value, safety and legality: Not all organisms can be put into stasis; work is disrupted by complex and time-consuming safety measures to protect essential employees; and, not all organisms can legally be removed from the lab.

The third option of bringing the collections into the researchers’ homes is an interesting solution and personal sacrifice. But it can be done. As pointed out by the authors of the article, “The imposition of bringing a colony of insects home or jumping through risky hoops to visit collections living in the lab is well worth it for scientists like us. The effort necessary during this pandemic to literally keep science alive is justified by the value these collections provide to researchers and society.”

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A Proposed Lockdown Solution for Researchers

I would like to make the case that researchers have available to them the equivalent of trained, knowledgeable and experienced citizen scientists in a large population of gardeners and others with specialized interests in plant and insect biology. Who better to care for a collection of plants or insects than someone who has an in-depth interest in biology with experience in caring for other living organisms?!

If “…living collections are often shouldered by collections managers and staff…” why not seek the aid of a potential resource that could share the burden and preserve a valued research specimen or collection? I would be very surprised if a literal army of volunteers would not be more than happy to do their part toward preserving science during these trying times and willingly open the doors to their homes, hot houses and nurseries.

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If you are interested in using your science and gardening skills to help academic research labs, let us know in the comments section below and see if we can generate a show of interest to support this proposal of using citizen scientists to aid our researchers.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons: Cameron Stauder, CC BY-ND

Reference:Scientists are working to protect invaluable living collections during coronavirus lockdowns” by Matthew T. Kasson, Brian Lovett, and Rita Rio; The Conversation April 23, 2020.



Thanks for the comments. If we receive enough of them, I will send the info to The Conversation article authors to gauge their interest in the proposal.