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COVID-19 does not stop research at UNG

2020-08-12-Research 1 water lab
When UNG students were on campus to conduct their hands-on research, they followed safety precautions. For example, they wore masks and practiced social distancing. Ally Crookshanks, left, and Bridgett Scheiben work in the Environmental Leadership Center's Ecological Protection Lab on UNG's Dahlonega Campus. Both students are pursuing a degree in biology.

Dr. Sudhanshu Panda planned to conduct preliminary work on his research project this summer. The professor of geographic information systems and environmental science at the University of North Georgia (UNG) was scheduled to meet with his collaborator for one purpose. Together they would outfit livestock with transponder collars and radio frequency identification chips to monitor the animals' activity levels.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. His collaborator, Dr. Thomas Terrill at Fort Valley State University (FVSU), contracted the virus.

"His story an excellent reminder for everyone how disrupting life can be due to this virus and his advice is to take the virus seriously," Panda said

Terrill recovered and reconnected with Panda remotely to continue the research, which was funded by a 2020 UNG Presidential Incentive Award. Panda traveled in late July to a research station in Fort Valley, Georgia, to set up the instrumentation for the project and practiced the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This is one example of how research has continued for UNG faculty and staff during the pandemic.

Dr. Andy Novobilski, associate provost for research and engagement and chief research officer, explained UNG worked with faculty and staff to allow research to continue on campus. He said faculty members presented a plan to maintain social distancing and remain safe.

"Our faculty are working with students to maintain their mentoring relationships by using technology," Novobilski said. "When work is required in the lab, they develop a procedure to do it safely."

Jessica Patterson and Aminda Everett, both lecturers of biology at UNG, visited UNG's Dahlonega Campus to monitor their project, including the growth of tadpoles to toads, since students weren't allowed on campus. The two faculty members built mesocosms, or mini-environments in tubs of water with leaf litter from a creek bed, to grow and study the amphibians. It was one of five projects funded by the Faculty Undergraduate Summer Engagement program in summer 2020.

"To ensure the students got as much out of the project as possible, we did two rounds of the research project," Patterson said. "In the first round, Ami and I conducted the research while the students organized and input the data. We had Microsoft Teams meetings to talk about the project."

During the second round, the students were allowed on campus to get hands-on experience while practicing the safety guidelines. They along with all students who participated in FUSE projects presented their findings July 23 via Teams meeting.

Dr. Ramneet Kaur, lecturer of biology at UNG, saw her research project change venues. She and her students had been working in a lab to grow cancer cells and then test a natural product treatment plan on them. It was financed by a 2020 Presidential Incentive Award.

Since COVID-19 altered her and her student's ability to work in the lab, Kaur bought a license for Oncomine Research Premium Edition with her grant money.

"We will use bioinformatics approach to answer the same questions proposed in the grant using a different strategy," she said. "With bioinformatics approach, we do not need to work in the lab. All work will be done online."

Novobilski said transitioning research to an online process or implementing safety guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic is important to faculty, staff and students.

It is critical to maintain who we are as university, especially as a way to engage our students and encourage our faculty in their passion of research," he said. "Faculty conduct research because we have a love for discovery. It drives us to add to the body of knowledge.  Not only do we want to continue our work, we want to continue mentoring our students in their scholarship as well.

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