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COVID-19 Pivots

Integrated Molecular Structure and Education Research Center (IMSERC) COVID-19 Pivots

 pictures of students in IMSERC

With the onset of the global SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic, the Integrated Molecular Structure and Education Research Center (IMSERC) was presented with a unique challenge to maintain its operations for essential and COVID-specific research during a state-wide stay-at-home order. To accomplish this, all instruments in IMSERC were enabled with remote access, quality control (QC) checks were modified to be able to monitor instruments remotely, and the Zoom platform was instituted as a standard, single point of communication for staff and IMSERC users. Only few items requiring physical intervention from staff, such as sample submissions as well as cryogen refills, were performed onsite. This was possible largely in-part due to IMSERC’s implementation and commitment to be an Open Access instrumentation facility, regardless of technical difficulty. As a result, IMSERC was able to shift its entire operations, instrument upkeep, and staff presence nearly entirely remote.

Upon resumption of all research at reduced capacity and, thus, having a larger user base in-person, IMSERC created rigorous safety protocols (based on CDC, IDPH, City of Evanston, and Northwestern guidance) to ensure user safety, inclusive of: (1) room capacity and room reservation requirements, (2) disinfection requirements of commonly used surfaces, items, and equipment, (3) one-way facility traffic flow with dedicated entrances and exits, removing common touch points, (4) handwashing requirements upon entering the facility, (5) alternating on-site staff schedules to limit common exposure of staff and students, and (6) of course, aligning with NU’s mask requirement at all times. During this time and currently, new user training on instruments was enabled to continue through a hybrid remote model. Any in-person interaction is limited to only the absolute necessary components and the rest of the training is performed via a combination of Zoom, videos, and a shared VNC connection to the instrument. This isolates the trainer and trainee into separate rooms or larger computer labs where social distancing can be easily maintained. For the most part 95%, of all IMSERC operations are performed in some “remote” manner as described.

COVID-19 presented a unique challenge for laboratory spaces that have actually allowed for IMSERC to greatly expand not only its capabilities but has provided additional and new areas for process improvement. Many of these learned and added features are likely to be continued upon returning to “normal operations” due to added efficiency and other items that work to provide a more rich and better user experience.


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