The recent global disruption of COVID-19 has changed nearly every aspect of daily life. This rapidly evolving situation has required all of us to work together to innovate solutions to these unforeseen circumstances. And while much of our lives can now function through remote and web-based interactions, the transition to online poses unique challenges for academia—particularly for research institutions like Carnegie Mellon University.

The move to remote research requires countless considerations. Depending on the specific question that researchers are trying to answer, research in the Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE), for example, can look completely different from one project to the next, and can involve many different methods, from computational modeling to biomechanical or chemical manipulation, literature review, and more. In order to ensure that scientific advancement doesn’t falter during this time when it has never been more vital, all of these facets must be taken into account.

“The biggest barrier to transitioning our research to online is that half of our research is experimental.” says Anne Skaja Robinson, head of chemical engineering. “This has been particularly difficult for our researchers who study biological processes. They have to have samples of biological material in order to do their work, and those samples require specific controlled conditions, which can often only be produced in the lab.”

In the case of chemical and biological research, experiments can take months and even years to develop. While some projects don’t require experimental work in the lab—projects that lean heavily on literature review, data analysis, and computational modeling—some in-lab experiments require months to run, and any disruption midstream necessitates restarting the experiment over from the beginning. In many instances, researchers have had to suspend their projects just one experiment away from publication, sacrificing months or even years until they can finally finish the process.

It’s in times like these that we see innovation really flourish.

Anne Skaja Robinson, Department Head, Chemical Engineering

“The whole department has really had to come together to make this transition happen,” says Robinson. “A number of faculty have really stepped up, including Professors John Kitchin and Zack Ulissi, who have used their computational expertise to help their fellow faculty get set up to implement computational approaches for remote research on previously ‘wet lab’ work. Everyone has really been pulling together to share best practices and help one another adapt.”

With new challenges also come new opportunities. For many undergraduate courses, undertaking new approaches is a big part of the learning process. Now with the outbreak of COVID-19, many new research questions have come to the forefront—questions that undergraduate researchers can help tackle. ChemE Professor Kris Dahl and Lab Instructor Matt Cline, for example, have pivoted the focus of their transport process laboratory class to embrace an undergraduate research approach, inviting students to ideate around the many challenges this outbreak presents in the context of chemical engineering tools. Potential projects include developing a hand sanitizer that doesn’t lead to dermatitis, a thermal indicator for service and delivery workers that can display body temperature in real time, and even a multi-step vaccine delivery patch that can administer tiered doses of a vaccine over the course of weeks with a single delivery step.

“When we encourage our undergraduate students to learn through research,” says Dahl, “we often try to anchor the research question to real-world scenarios, so they can understand not only what they’re trying to do, but why they’re trying to do it. COVID-19 is a constantly evolving situation playing out in real time, one where students’ classwork can potentially have real impact on the world around them. In this uncertain time, I think being able to have a tangible effect on the situation has given the students a sense of comfort and purpose.”

“It’s in times like these that we see innovation really flourish,” Robinson says. “From a research standpoint, this is an opportunity to be creative. Can we build new computational models to replace the experimental processes that currently need to be done in the lab? Can we create new communication tools to make international research collaboration easier for the future? When we think of this challenge as an opportunity rather than just a difficulty, we invite innovation to help us not just return to business as usual, but to create an even brighter future.”