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Harvard Drastically Scales Down Lab Research for Two Months Due to Outbreak

Research across campus has been interrupted as the University announces new restrictions in an attempt to further de-densify the community.
Research across campus has been interrupted as the University announces new restrictions in an attempt to further de-densify the community. By Thomas Maisonneuve
By James S. Bikales and Virginia L. Ma, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard administrators directed all research laboratories affiliated with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to wind down activities to only essential functions for up to two months, marking yet another major shift in University operations announced this week in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement came by email Thursday evening, co-written by FAS Dean Claudine Gay, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Francis J. Doyle III, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench, Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs, Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo, and Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey. The shift in lab operations follows Harvard’s decision to move all courses to remote instruction beginning March 23 and ask undergraduates not to return from spring break.

Principal investigators must develop a plan to “ramp-down” activities in their labs by March 18, with the expectation that operations will remain in a reduced state for six to eight weeks.

“To minimize community interactions, we ask that each lab identify at most 2-3 key individuals, in discussion with the department chair, to manage issues such as animal husbandry or essential experiments—those that if discontinued would generate significant financial and data loss,” the administrators wrote. “During this period we urge you to devote your time to productive alternatives, such as writing grant proposals, reviewing articles and papers, writing thesis chapters, conducting analyses, compiling data and/or synthesizing important research.”

Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Professor Richard T. Lee ’79 — a former Crimson editor — said he does not believe his lab will be able to conduct any experiments during the suspension period. The Lee Lab uses biotechnology to study heart failure and metabolic diseases and develop therapies to combat them.

“I’m sure that there are different kinds of research that can keep certain things going, but for us, the actual experiments require being in the lab and we won’t be able to do that,” Lee said.

Lee said he will ensure that the mice in his lab are cared for, and he and his researchers can continue with planning, reading, data analysis, and writing remotely.

“It’s certainly going to be a change in our daily activities, but it’s not going to be a shutdown of all of the things that we do,” Lee said.

In addition to the reduction in operations, the undergraduates in Lee’s lab will not be able to return to their research after spring break due to the University directive issued Tuesday. Emma V. Stimpfl ’21 — who works in Lee’s lab — said she was disappointed with the effects that Tuesday’s decision could have on her thesis research, which she planned to complete by the end of 2020.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen with my project,” Stimpfl said.

Asked for comment in response to concerns about thesis research, Harvard College spokesperson Rachael Dane referred to administrators’ email on lab operations reductions.

Stimpfl said Lee and her department advisors have been “super helpful” and “very flexible” with requirements.

Her department, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, sent an email to students taking the SCRB 91R: “Introduction to Research” course — a lab research class — that it would change class requirements to focus on writing over experiments.

“Students will be expected to provide a more in-depth and comprehensive review of background literature, expanding the introduction and discussion sections of their paper to compensate for missing time in the lab,” Amie L. Holmes, SCRB’s assistant director of undergraduate studies, wrote in the email to 91R students.

Priya Veeraraghavan, a Medical Sciences Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said while the suspension was disappointing, it also gives lab members time to reflect on their research and spend more time reading and performing analysis.

“Sometimes we get very much caught up in kind of the day-to-day experimental work, and we might neglect, and especially the early stage graduate students, reading a lot of literature or really thinking about the new or clever strategies for approaching the questions of their thesis,” Veeraraghavan said. “There’s more time to read and to do analysis without the pressure of like, working, you know, 12-hour days at the bench.”

While many labs are consolidating operations to essential personnel to continue their ongoing projects, others — particularly computational labs — are shifting focus entirely to prioritize coronavirus-related research.

Marc Lipsitch, the director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the center’s research is moving “twice as fast and twice as hard as usual” since the outbreak began. He said researchers have launched more than 20 new coronavirus-related projects since the outbreak began.

School of Public Health epidemiology professor Michael J. Mina — who also works at the CCDD — said the outbreak has presented faculty, postdocs, and graduate students with a unique opportunity to see the direct impact of their research on the world’s population.

“There are very few times when a researcher gets to apply their expertise in real time,” Mina said. “I think that we all feel very good about being able to use essentially our expertise and our knowledge and our own research that we’re now doing on a daily basis to really inform public health decisions in foreign policy locally and nationally and internationally.”

Correction: March 16, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the date by which Emma V. Stimpfl ’21 planned to complete her research. It was at the end of 2020, not the end of the semester.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at

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