All of our student researchers completed a Lab Hazard Assessment (LHAT) course offered by UCSC’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S), which oversees all research activities conducted on campus. The LHAT course contained valuable information, such as how to properly wear personal protective equipment (PPE), identifying potential biological contamination risks, emergency preparedness procedures, and disposal guidelines for common items that could be found in a biological lab.
After the outbreak of the pandemic, we attended a workshop offered by EH&S titled “COVID-19 Workplace Safety” that covered topics ranging from social distancing guidelines established by the University of California, proper mask guidelines, and what to do in case of a COVID outbreak in our lab. Safety training offered by our research advisor, Dr. David Bernick, and our graduate student advisor, Ryan Modlin, consisted of how to properly use heavy lab equipment, such as the high-pressure autoclaves and ovens located on the second floor of Baskin Engineering.
At the beginning of the year, our team chose to continue work from last year’s UCSC iGEM team, Vitrum, but as the year moved forward and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, it became clear that we would need to reevaluate our project. Our lab space is unique in that it has a BSL-2 room used for key components of Vitrum research, but without access to that lab space, we needed to choose a project that didn’t require BSL-2 access. We pivoted our focus to Komaplastics, as it had the potential to be done in a BSL-1 lab in case we did manage to get lab access somewhere, and it required extensive dry-lab preparations.
Figure 1: Our team member Kyra demonstrating proper PPE usage, wearing goggles, a mask, nitrile gloves, and a labcoat!
After a certain point after losing hope, we were almost certain that our team would have to conduct all of our research remotely. Luckily, our research advisor, Dr. David Bernick, met with Baskin Engineering administrators and fought for our ability to access the lab. Our newfound lab access was conditional on the adoption of various safety techniques designed to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2: lab access was limited to 4 individuals at a time, masks had to be worn at all times, daily self-monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms was expected, and researchers were expected to maintain social distances of 6’ (~2m) away from others as feasible.
As we entered the lab in the Summer, we quickly fostered a culture of strict adherence to the safety guidelines we had established. Researchers were expected to remind each other of the guidelines in case of accidental breach and report non-compliance issues to our research advisors. To prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from asymptomatic carriers in our research group, researchers were regularly tested with COVID-19 qPCR tests offered by the UCSC Cowell Student Health Center in collaboration with the UCSC Molecular Diagnostics Lab.